David Atkinson '60 and his wife Patricia are giving Cornell $80 million to create the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, the University announced Thursday evening to a Statler Auditorium crowd of hundreds.
Atkinson’s donation — the largest individual gift ever given to a university for sustainability research — will make “what started as an experiment into a permanent center on campus,” according to the center’s associate director Prof. Drew Harvell, ecology and evolutionary biology.
The new center will be “a permanent, major research center focusing on challenges in the global energy, environmental and economic development arenas,” according to a University press release. The center replaces a pilot program created in 2007 by a $3 million donation from Atkinson.
Atkinson said his donation came in part due to “very favorable assessments” from “outside eminent scholars” who evaluated the Center for a Sustainable Future earlier this year. “If we don’t address agriculture sustainability, we’re operating at an enormous disadvantage,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson retired from his role as general partner at the Philadelphia-based investment-counseling firm Miller, Anderson & Sherrerd in 1992, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Program director Prof. Frank DiSalvo, chemistry, said the donation “means enormous things.”
DiSalvo said the donation provides “pivotal support” for the center, ensuring that “outside partners know we’ll be here” in the future.
The center already involves 218 researchers, 11 Cornell colleges and schools and 56 departments, according to its website. The center spent $1.611 million on sustainability-related programs, with $593,600 going to an Academic Venture Fund, its 2009 budget report says.
Harvell explained how this Academic Venture Fund functions as a small grants program for research, saying, “we’re delighted we’re going to be able to continue with it” after the donation.
DiSalvo said the center, which “engages all sectors of society,” has already produced some successes, such as a program that helps developing countries convert their biowaste into biofuels and biochar. Because this biochar “can be used to improve the fertility of soil,” DiSalvo said, the center’s work would “help insulate developing countries from the oil shocks that are coming in the future.”
Thursday’s announcement began with a panel discussion of sustainability issues from prominent experts in the private and public sector. In introducing this panel, President David Skorton said “our ability to live sustainably on our planet will determine the fate of humanity for centuries to come.”
Skorton touted the three sustainability issues the center deals with — economic, environmental and ecological sustainability — as “issues that ultimately affect us all.”
In a statement released Thursday evening, Skorton called the donation a “historic gift” that would form a “permanent base for the University’s unfolding capabilities in sustainability.”
“It is going to be really exciting to see what new possibilities there could be for undergrads,” Harvell said, even though “our initial mandate was just to support research.”
The audience of trustees, faculty, alumni and others were enthusiastic about the potential benefits of the program.
The donation provides permanent funding to create “a landmark research center” and gives funding needed for interdisciplinary research, University Trustee Jeff Berg ’74 said.
Cornell Trustee and panel member Armando Olivera ’88 agreed, saying the donation enables Cornell “to get more engaged in one of the biggest issues facing our society … How do we stop doing irreparable harm to the environment?”
The Cornell a cappella groups Last Call and After Eight performed a song at the Statler symposium that they had prepared in tribute to Atkinson.
“Thank you to Pat & David/and join us on this big refrain, there is a center on the hill/whose work they will sustain. It’s not just any center—/this one has a high, high call. Let’s give a cheer for these folks here/so join us one and all.”
Atkinson served as a member of the CALS Advisory Council and co-chaired the group’s Environmental Sustainability and Development Task Force from 2003 to 2009. According to the Wall Street Journal, he was named President Councilor, the highest honor given by the University.
Jeff Stein contributed reporting to this story.