Can the University of Utah find answers to climate change? It just got $20 million to try
Philanthropists Marie and Clay Wilkes, founder of Galileo Financial Technologies, donate $20 million to establish interdisciplinary Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy at the University of Utah
It all started last fall at a football game when University of Utah President Taylor Randall struck up a conversation with Salt Lake City-based Galileo Financial Technologies founder Clay Wilkes.
Galileo had been acquired by the online personal finance company SoFi for $1.2 billion, after Wilkes had emerged from an earlier “retirement” to start the company, suggesting he wasn’t the type to immerse himself in a life of leisure.
Randall asked him, “What are you going to do now?”
Wilkes told him that he and his wife, Marie, have a profound interest in climate change.
Randall replied, “Wow, what a great coincidence.”
Those early conversations led to the Wilkeses’ Red Crow Foundation giving the university a $20 million gift to launch the interdisciplinary Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy. The foundation is named for Marie’s third great-grandfather, a Blackfeet Nation chief.
The center, to be led by world-renowned climate scientist William Anderegg, will promote research, study effective public policies and propose entrepreneurial business solutions to curb and combat the threats that climate change poses to human and environmental health.
During the formal announcement Wednesday at the Natural History Museum of Utah, Randall said the Wilkeses’ gift was one of the most exciting he’s ever been involved with during his career at the University of Utah.
“We have an entrepreneur that brings a unique take on what we need to do with the climate. He is passionate. In his soul he believes that this is the most pressing issue of our day. If we want to take pride in leaving a legacy for the next generation, we’re going to have to address the issues that we see,” Randall said.
Randall said he wants the University of Utah to be a top 10 public university with unsurpassed societal impact. “Can you think of a topic with more opportunity than climate change to have societal impact? We want to affect 3.3 million Utahns.”
Wilkes said there is no more important issue than climate change.
“It’s things like the inversion that comes every winter. It’s the smoke-filled valleys that we’ve had over the last three or four years. It’s things like the Great Salt Lake. Are we going to leave an atmosphere full of arsenic? We might,” he said.
He laid out his expectations that the Wilkes Center become a world-class center.
“You can’t do that by saying, ‘We do climate.’ You actually have to do climate,” he said.
Randall has demonstrated his commitment to climate, planning for the university to achieve a carbon neutral status by 2040. Previously, the goal was 2050, Wilkes said.
Wilkes said he also expects the university to exert its influence around climate change and solutions in the political and higher education spheres.
“I want you to be to universities what Google and Apple is to the tech world,” he said.
College of Science Dean Peter Trapa described the gift as “transformative.”
The college has broad areas of expertise with respect to fire, air and water. The Wilkeses’ gift will enable that to continue to flourish while also expanding into climate impacts and climate solutions both in Utah and internally.
“We’re going to continue to look at Utah-based problems,” such as the Uinta Basin’s winter ozone levels.
“There’s a lot of interesting science behind that. As that community grapples with the energy future, I think there’s going to be a lot of intersection that the Wilkes Center will potentially have something to say about,” he said.
Randall said the “fun” initial conversations around a climate science and policy center evolved into “deep thought and care” of how the Wilkeses’ gift could meaningfully impact “one of those large questions of our time.”
“I think we realized that we needed to take a very unique, Utah-centric approach to this and part of that was to be nimble and entrepreneurial and innovative,” he said.
Climate is among the top issues “that are absolutely critical to humanity,” Wilkes said.
“As I consider the difference I can make for my grandchildren and so many other generations that follow, there is no more important cause,” he said.
The Wilkeses have demonstrated their commitment to addressing the challenges posed by climate change in other ways.
They power their home with green energy. Galileo’s Salt Lake headquarters is powered by green energy. While he was CEO of Galileo, the Wilkeses offered to pay half of each employees’ home power bill if they embraced green energy. They also offered them $5,000 toward the purchase of an electric car.
In the West, the impacts of global warming are evident in dying forests, drought and air pollution. The levels of the Great Salt Lake continue to drop, exposing the lake bed and foisting potentially dangerous dust into the air.
Anderegg, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Utah, said Utah is “ground zero” for a lot of climate impacts, so establishing a climate science and policy center at the state’s flagship university makes good sense.
Add to that Utah’s “problem-solving mentality,” said Anderegg, who grew up in southwestern Colorado and was educated at Stanford and Princeton universities.
“Our landscape makes us at the edge of dealing with climate change, but there’s also a mentality or a culture of solving problems. I think it can really be a model to the rest of the world if we do it well,” Anderegg said.
Anderegg said he respects Clay Wilkes’ vision that Utah has “a lot of unique elements that can put us at the front lines of the solutions to climate change.”
He’s also “incredibly down to earth, grounded and very nice and fun to work with. I feel very fortunate that he’s decided to support the center, and we all get to have the pleasure of working with him on this,” he said.
Randall said he is excited that the center will provide more hands-on research opportunities and experiences for students, which is one of his priorities.
After an initial ramp-up of activity the first year, the university expects more than 1,000 students and faculty members will participate in center events and programs annually.
Approximately 40 faculty and 300 students will receive financial support each year through scholarships, competitions, fellowships and research support.
Randall said the gift enables the university to hire “a new set of faculty that will bring a whole new skill set and a whole new set of national prestige to this issue.”
The gift will also enable the university to create “new environmentally focused degrees” in the College of Science. So I would hope we see hundreds of students getting to work on very applied and practical problems.”
The Wilkes Center will host an annual Wilkes Summit, drawing international experts to address a themed set of issues around climate change. The summits will also feature the annual awarding of the Wilkes Prize, including a prestigious financial award, to an innovator who has tackled a major challenge in climate change and devised a meaningful solution. More details about the prize will be announced this fall, Randall said.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, in a statement, praised the creation of the Wilkes Center.
“Our state stands to benefit directly from the important work the Wilkes Center will be conducting — not only from the standpoint of Utah’s people and environment, but from the national and global leadership in science-based policy and business innovation the University of Utah can demonstrate,” Cox said.
Anderegg said launching the Wilkes Center is “exciting and daunting, maybe equal measures of both. The main reason is that it’s an enormous opportunity, and it’s one that we want to drive the greatest amount of impact and good for the world in that opportunity. We want to do everything that we can to be as strategic as we can because it’s incredible that we get to launch a new effort like this.”