More than Ones and Zeros: A Campus STEM Gift to Tackle "Society’s Most Urgent Challenges"

Santa Clara University (SCU) recently announced a $100 million gift from alumnus and Silicon Valley real estate developer John A. Sobrato and his wife, Susan, for a new center dedicated to STEM education. On the surface, it seems like a typical—albeit extremely generous—gift supporting a hot area in philanthropy. We seem to profile at least one big STEM-related gift a week.

Instinct dictates that we view these gifts as standalone developments. But when viewed at a higher altitude, many of these gifts suggest—intentionally or otherwise—the emergence of a what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls a philanthropy-fueled "education-to-work-to-life-long-skill-building pipeline."

But before I expound on Friedman's thesis, let's first dig into the details of the gift.

The largest gift in the university's 166-year history will support the construction of the Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation, a "campus within a campus" that, when completed, will "accelerate the university's vision and goals for STEM education."

The Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation will create opportunities for students to engage in innovative, high-impact, team-based projects. The Sobrato Campus will promote cross-disciplinary undergraduate teaching, research, and initiatives in areas such as neuroscience, bioengineering, sustainability, and environmental science.

The Sobratos, who signed the Giving Pledge in 2012, have been prominent philanthropists in Silicon Valley for decades, and they've been particularly generous to John's alma mater. They donated $20 million to build the University’s Harrington Learning Commons, Sobrato Technology Center, and Orradre Library, completed in 2008. 

Elsewhere in Silicon Valley, capital gifts from the Sobrato family have included $20 million to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, $10 million to Bellarmine College Preparatory high school, and $5 million each to Valley Medical Center and National Hispanic University. A $1.25 million gift in 2012 helped build the Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School. 

The Sobrato Family Foundation also developed a program for teachers to address the needs of Spanish-speaking/English-learning students called Sobrato Early Academic Language.

Given the couple's extensive philanthropic track record, coupled with the massive scale of their $100 million give to SCU—the largest in the family’s history—the gift corroborates a theory recently floated in the aftermath of the Hellen Diller Foundation's $500 million donation to the University of California, San Francisco:

That's how these massive campus gifts nearly always go; they are preceded by years of smaller gifts. Which is why, when we see a donor giving a school an eight-figure gift, we often speculate that an even bigger donation may eventually lie down the line.

All of which brings me back to Friedman's thesis. There's a growing interest in developing a counter-narrative to Donald Trump's brusque nationalism and economic isolationism. Friedman proposes an alternative paradigm predicated on healthy communities "where local businesses, philanthropies, the public school system and universities, and local government come together to support a permanent education-to-work-to-life-long-skill building pipeline."

If this sounds familiar, it's because Friedman's thinking dovetails nicely with our analysis regarding Zillow's recent $5 million gift to the University of Washington's computer science department:

Universities play a lead role in developing human capital, and there's a real win-win in relationships between corporate foundations and campuses. Schools that understand just how much practical value their different programs can deliver to local employers or key sectors writ large will have the confidence to make major asks. 

The worker, and not necessarily the job, is the central focus of this multi-player ecosystem, and many recent STEM-related gifts would be far less impressive if they merely sought to generate an infinite pipeline of coding automatons. But in the long run, that approach is myopic. Technologies change. Jobs come and go. Whether or not Trump slaps Draconian tariffs on imports or abandons NAFTA, workers need transferrable hard and soft skills that transcend market fluctuations. 

The Sobratos understand this. To that end, their gift supports John's alma mater's vision of STEM education that emphasizes an "entrepreneurial mindset, ethical reasoning, and collaborative approaches to tackling society’s most urgent challenges." This is more than ones and zeros, and I think Friedman would approve.