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Record $20 million matching gift will fund early-career faculty fellowships in perpetuity

By Public Affairs

(UC Berkeley video by Michael Lin)

UC Berkeley has received a $20 million matching gift from the Hellman Fellows Fund to create The Society of Hellman Fellows, which will double the number of fellowships awarded to early-career faculty each year through the Hellman Fellows Program.

Established at UC Berkeley in 1995 by the late F. Warren and Patricia (Chris) Hellman, the Hellman Fellows Program has become an important source of support for Berkeley faculty, creating a bridge to tenure for junior faculty who show exceptional academic promise at the start of their careers. Since its inception 23 years ago, 384 young faculty from multiple fields have been awarded Hellman Fellowships at Berkeley, and 94 percent of former fellows have gone on to earn tenure, according to numbers from 1995 to 2014.

The children of Chris and Warren Hellman (left to right): Marco “Mick” Hellman ’83; Judith Hellman ’84; Frances Hellman, dean of the Division of Mathematical & Physical Sciences at UC Berkeley; and Patricia Hellman Gibbs. (Photo by Michael Riley)

The children of Chris and Warren Hellman (left to right): Marco “Mick” Hellman ’83; Judith Hellman ’84; Frances Hellman, dean of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at UC Berkeley; and Patricia Hellman Gibbs. (Photo by Michael Riley)

“The Hellman Fellows Program was created to identify promising young assistant professors who, with that extra help in this critical moment of their career, are able to produce the research that then gets them tenure,” says Frances Hellman, dean of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Berkeley who, with her three siblings—Patricia Hellman Gibbs, Marco Hellman, and Judith Hellman—made the gift to honor their parents’ legacy.

Representing the largest single gift from the Hellman Fellows Fund, the $20 million challenge grant provides Berkeley with a major boost in endowed funds to support the program in perpetuity. Once fully endowed, the Society of Hellman Fellows will award 32 fellowships a year to exceptional junior faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); arts and humanities; the social sciences; and Berkeley’s 10 professional schools. Designed for assistant professors who have exhausted start-up funds (generally after year two), the fellowships provide an invaluable lifeline to academic success and range from $30,000 to $60,000 — depending on proposed research costs.

“The first few years are challenging for young faculty because external grants are competitive and hard to come by,” says Chancellor Carol Christ. “The Hellman Fellowships provide critical resources to these exceptional scholars, and the university and its students benefit from their success. The impact of the Hellman family’s generosity cannot be overstated. Today, faculty they supported two decades ago are changing the world with their discoveries.”

Notable former Hellman Fellows include Ehud Isacoff, director of UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the new Berkeley Brain Initiative. He was among the first cohort to receive a fellowship in 1995. Today, he is considered a world leader in the burgeoning field of neurotechnology and is a principal investigator on a $27.6 million federal grant to illuminate new directions in implantable brain-computer interfaces that may one day treat neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, blindness and paralysis.

“Breaking into funding was very hard at the start,” says Isacoff, who was recently elected a fellow to the National Academy of Sciences. “The Hellman Fellowship enabled me to survive long enough to make it.”

The fellowship is also a critical source of funding for early-career faculty in the humanities and social sciences, where funding is typically scarce.

“The Hellman Fellowship is one of the few sources of funding for the humanities at a time in which humanity itself faces unprecedented challenges,” says Angela Marino, associate professor in the Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies who received a fellowship in 2016. “It’s putting water into the desert, and things will bloom from that.”

Warren and Chris Hellman

Warren and Chris Hellman

Warren and Chris Hellman were inspired to launch the Hellman Fellows Program by their daughter Frances, then a faculty member at UC San Diego who had experienced her own challenges as a junior academic establishing her research career. Since its inception, the Hellman Fellows Program has provided a total of $45 million in support to nearly 1,450 junior faculty across all 10 UC campuses.

Warren Hellman was a storied financier and co-founder of the multibillion-dollar private equity investment firm Hellman & Friedman, and he is known by many for launching San Francisco’s beloved free weekend music festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Chris Hellman, a former ballet dancer, is also remembered for her 30 years of service to the San Francisco Ballet and was named the ballet’s first chair emeritus. Warren and Chris were devoted to philanthropy, and Berkeley was an important piece of their giving. Warren, a former Cal water polo player who graduated in 1955, was a trustee of the UC Berkeley Foundation and co-chaired the university’s landmark Campaign for the New Century, which raised $1.44 billion — a record at the time. And in 2010, he was one of three primary donors whose gifts made possible the transfer of the 10,000-piece Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life to the Bancroft Library. Although Chris and Warren were involved with many organizations through their philanthropy, the Hellman Fellows Program was a primary point of pride, says Frances.

“It was truly one of my parents’ greatest joys,” she says. “They appreciated the intelligence, rigor, creativity and enthusiasm each fellow brought to their area of study, and they loved to hear about the projects.”