Acclaimed UC Irvine geneticist Francisco J. Ayala, widely known for his work straddling the divide between religion and evolution, will donate $10 million to the School of Biological Sciences. The gift, the largest ever by a UCI faculty member, will be funded with profits from flourishing vineyards Ayala bought decades ago.
“When you can do good things, you should do them,” said the University Professor and Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences, who came to UCI nearly a quarter of a century ago. “This is a way of showing my gratitude to this university, which has been so good to me, where I have been able to do my research and teach wonderful students, and where I have been honored in so many ways. In a larger context, it’s a way of expressing my gratitude to this country. I came to the United States as a student, with no intention to stay, and yet here I am.”
An ordained Dominican priest and, originally, a self-taught geneticist, Ayala, 77, arrived in the U.S. in 1961 from a “backward” Spain caught in Francisco Franco’s grip to study science. Since then, he has achieved international prominence as a geneticist whose work has advanced the search for cures for malaria and other devastating diseases. A vocal opponent of “intelligent design” and those who deny the existence of evolution, he has been awarded the National Medal of Science and the Templeton Prize.
Ayala has written more than 1,000 articles and 40 books; his recent Am I a Monkey? explores major evolutionary themes, including how science and religion can coexist. A lover of pinot noir and opera, onetime horse breeder and voracious reader, the “Renaissance man of evolutionary biology” – as he was described by The New York Times – began buying land in Central California in the 1980s and turned it into vineyards supplying grapes to the state’s major winemakers.
The announcement of the gift comes at a welcome time for UCI, which – like other University of California campuses – is grappling with large budget cuts. Last year, Ayala donated the proceeds of the $1.5 million Templeton Prize, awarded for his contributions to the science-spirituality debate, to fund the work of graduate students in biological sciences.
“Words fail to express our gratitude to Professor Ayala for his generosity over the years. To add a gift of this magnitude to his already remarkable legacy is much more than we could have imagined,” said Chancellor Michael Drake. “This gift provides help right when we need it, right where we need it, targeted strategically to produce the greatest impact for our campus.”
Biological sciences dean Al Bennett, who will be the first to hold a $2 million endowed dean’s chair, said: “It’s just incredible. I feel very blessed.” He added that because of Ayala’s earlier Templeton donation, the school had a record number of top-notch graduate applicants this year and was able to enroll the cream of the crop.
Ayala said he was delighted that Bennett would be the first beneficiary and noted that the university’s excellence – rather than fiscal need – prompted the gift. The rest of the funding will create four new research chairs in Ayala’s name.
“The purpose is to recruit the best possible people. UCI is a very young university, but it’s very good, and we’re getting better and better,” he said. “Ours is one of the finest departments of ecology and evolution in the world. And whoever is dean, this will give him or her funds that are unrestricted for extra projects. So that’s icing on the cake.”
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