Gift That Keeps Giving to University, Planet
By Tracy Seipel
Half of $10 million investment supports solar panel initiative; energy cost savings will be reinvested into campus sustainability plan.
When Jeff and Tina Bird finished a hard-hat tour of the Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation last summer, not only were they impressed, they were inspired.
The new STEM campus “seems transformational for the university,” says Jeff Bird. “Both of our careers are in STEM, that’s our background. And we have a passion for the activities that are going to be taking place in the building, including science education and the Maker Lab.”
Early discussions following their visit with principal gifts officer Heather Pastorini led the couple to donate $5 million to help Santa Clara University complete the Innovation Zone, which will be named after them.
But the parents of three young adults, including John Bird ’19, had more on their minds. At 270,000 square feet, and stocked with $300 million of the latest equipment and resources, SCDI is one of the largest STEM campuses in the nation. With big buildings come big jumps in electricity, so with an additional $5 million gift from the Birds, Santa Clara has developed a novel plan that aligns with the Birds' own environmental values while continuing the University’s sustainability and energy initiatives.
“It’s an amazing gift that accelerates our sustainability efforts in so many ways,” says Lindsey Kalkbrenner, SCU’s director of the Center for Sustainability. Together with Utilities Department director Toby Smith, she helped to outline the couple’s idea for the Bird Solar Initiative Plan, which will fund photovoltaic systems in multiple campus locations over the next few years, generating an anticipated 1.7 megawatts of renewable energy each year when completed. The panels will more than double SCU’s current on-site solar generation capacity.
What appeals most to the husband-wife entrepreneurial team is the project's triple play: it substantially increases SCU’s capability to generate its own renewable energy during the day, lowers the University’s operating costs, and returns the annual savings to be reinvested back into Santa Clara’s Sustainability Strategic Plan.
“It’s a gift that keeps giving to the University,” is how Jeff puts it. “Climate change is a high priority for us, and solar panels have become a no-brainer way to work on that and to make progress with that,” says the veteran life sciences venture capital investor.
Key for Kalkbrenner is how much the project boosts Santa Clara’s ability to deliver on its climate action goals and ongoing commitment to further reduce fossil fuel consumption through a combination of efficiency upgrades, metering, conservation programs, and increased reliance on renewable energy.
“Everyone involved with this project has been so incredibly enthusiastic about it, which has raised our enthusiasm even more,” says Tina, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist. “It’s something that I think can really help Santa Clara to stand out, and at the same time, it achieves our vision of developing a more humane, just and sustainable world.”
The Birds' drive to help Santa Clara achieve its sustainability goals already has inspired others. Dorian Daley J.D. ’86 and Michael Krautkramer, parents of Devon Daley ’16, have funded climate action projects with the University since 2018, pledging $250,000 over five years to advance SCU's climate action initiatives.
After learning about the Birds' large-scale solar project, the couple recently contributed an additional gift of $1 million to the effort.
Students benefit from the Jesuit university's campus-wide commitment to sustainability, with more than 1,300 classes incorporating the topic, and nearly 20 percent of SCU faculty conducting sustainability-related research.
Reinforcing that philosophy, Santa Clara this week is hosting its bi-annual tUrn programming event, a University-wide climate action and awareness week that features events and speakers addressing the world’s climate crisis.
“That’s a family value that we care a lot about; the Jesuit tradition is really appealing to us,” says Tina. “To be of service to others and try to make the world a better place.”
Over the decades, the couple–both are Stanford University alumni and both have M.D.s—have made a difference in their respective fields of medicine and healthcare innovation, and contributed generously to their alma mater and its new hospital, among other projects.
But they also want to help to heal the planet, and along with their involvement with non-profits including the Environmental Defense Fund, Santa Clara University seemed like a good place to do that—especially after their collaboration in other efforts at SCU, from math education to the Lead Scholars Program.
“We think it’s a way to make a broad impact with what we really think is a very doable, very tangible benefit from an environmental point of view,” says Jeff. “And the greener that Santa Clara is able to operate, the greener our immediate environment.”