Hellman Family Endows Fellows Society

Warren and Chris Hellman, benefactors of the Hellman Fellows Program
Warren and Chris Hellman, benefactors of the Hellman Fellows Program. (Martha Stewart)
This article originally appeared at ucdavis.edu.

The Hellman Fellows Program, which has been so generous to early-career faculty at UC Davis and its sister campuses, today (June 23) announced a $125 million gift to the UC system to establish a new, permanent way of funding the fellowships.

The donation has been divided into endowments ($6 million for UC Davis) under which the campuses will manage and fund their own fellowships. Each campus will establish a Society of Hellman Fellows for this purpose, according to a joint news release from the Hellman Fellows Program and UC.

The new gift doubles what the program contributed to fellowships across UC since San Francisco philanthropists Chris and Warren Hellman founded the program 25 years ago. Both are deceased now; she was a ballet dancer and advocate of the arts; he was a UC Berkeley alumnus, investment banker and banjo player perhaps best known as the force behind San Francisco’s beloved Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

The program distributed money annually to the campuses, for each to award fellowships in any field of study. UC Davis became a beneficiary 12 years ago, and in that time received more than $3 million in support of 148 fellows, generally 10 to 12 annually.

The donors had two simple requests of each recipient: Have lunch with Warren Hellman and submit a one-half-page summary of their research and biography. Since Hellman’s death in 2011, the fellows have had lunch with the program officer from the Hellman family foundation, according to Lynn Daum, executive analyst in UC Davis Academic Affairs.

‘We are honored stewards’

Academic Affairs administered the Hellman Fellows Program and will administer the new Society of Hellman Fellows. Philip Kass, vice provost of Academic Affairs, said: “We are honored to be stewards of the Hellman family’s endowment, which will keep this program going in perpetuity at UC Davis.”

Shaun Keister, vice chancellor for Development and Alumni Relations, said the Hellman family’s generosity elevates research across UC Davis. “Through these fellowships, early-career faculty in the arts and humanities, social sciences and STEM have greater freedom to create, investigate and advance knowledge in their fields,” he said.

By creating endowments at each UC location, the Hellman Fellows Program gives flexibility to each campus in how the awards are directed and managed, building on the program’s tradition of local control while honoring the intent of the founders.

In addition, UC Davis and the other campuses will have the flexibility to solicit additional or matching gifts so that each UC can add to the number of Hellman fellowships over time.

Fellows ‘continue to inspire’

“My parents ... used to say that creating the Hellman Fellows Program was one of the best things our family ever did,” said Frances Hellman, president of the Hellman Fellows Fund. “Having had the opportunity to support over 1,900 faculty over the years, I enthusiastically agree.”

She said Hellman Fellows’ discoveries, their commitment to their work, and their great potential “continue to inspire us year after year.”

“We are thrilled to be carrying on our father’s legacy by ensuring that the Hellman Fellows Program can exist in perpetuity throughout the University of California system,” said Hellman, a member of the UC Berkeley physics faculty since 2005.

It was Frances Hellman who inspired the program, when she was an early-career faculty member at UC San Diego. The program made its first awards to a handful of faculty on the San Diego and Berkeley campuses, and grew organically over the years to include all 10 UC campuses and four private institutions.

‘Incredible public spirit’

UC President Janet Napolitano described the Hellman Fellows Program as having “incredible public spirit” and said the new endowments will support “yet another generation of outstanding scholars and scientists whose careers, achievements and breakthrough research will benefit California and the world.”

“We will be forever grateful to the Hellman family for this enduring, impactful program.”

The gift could not have come at a better time, Napolitano said, in light of dwindling federal funding and a critical need for UC research, especially during the coronavirus era.

Federal funding for academic research has been flat or declining for the past decade, and for the fourth straight year the Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to science research. Funding for academic research is especially critical now to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and related economic and social concerns.

At least 125 former Hellman Fellows are involved in groundbreaking COVID-19-related research. Former award recipients include engineers working to convert sleep apnea machines into ventilators, epidemiologists studying the origins and spread of the disease, statisticians designing optimal surveillance approaches to help curtail the spread of the virus, and scientists examining societal changes in violence due to the progression of the coronavirus.