Fort Myers couple Jon and Beverly Thompson have made a $10 million gift to the University of Florida to help people better understand and adapt to Earth’s rapidly changing environment and ecosystems. Their gift is the cornerstone of a $35.7 million university initiative to promote research-based information and responses to worldwide issues such as rising oceans, eroding coastlines, saltwater intrusion into freshwater supplies, “sunny day” flooding in seaside cities, disappearing wetlands and lingering droughts. “From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale,” the United Nations reports.
The Thompsons’ gift will be used to enhance outreach, discovery and information-sharing on a national and international level. The hope is to translate complex — and sometimes contentious — topics into digestible data that can educate the public, prepare communities and influence policymakers. It is the first phase of the university’s multidisciplinary Earth Systems Initiative.
“The research carried out at the University of Florida is critical to our understanding of Earth’s systems,” said Jon Thompson. “We believe it is essential that our university step forward to continue research on problems such as biodiversity and environmental conservation.”
The university’s depth and world-class research — along with the state’s rich ecosystem and the peninsula’s perilous position as an environment-change bellwether — position UF as an international thought-leader in Earth systems studies and problem-solving, UF President Kent Fuchs said.
“Our changing environment is one of humankind’s most urgent issues,” Fuchs said. “We need to figure out how to adjust and flourish in a new reality, not just for those of us here now, but for the generations that will follow us. We’re thankful for people like Jon and Beverly for putting UF on a path to address this critical concern.”
The initiative’s early priorities will be legislative outreach, information sharing with media and communities, curriculum enhancement for children in kindergarten through high school and engagement with the general public. In addition, the university seeks to create an Earth systems center to serve as a resource for Floridians, UF students and faculty, policymakers, scientists and educational institutions throughout the state, nation and world.
This collaborative center would serve as a key part of the university’s and the Florida Museum of Natural History’s public outreach efforts. In the spirit of good stewardship both of the planet’s resources and university finances, the center would be structurally integrated with the museum.
“Florida is ground zero when it comes to climate change and its impact on our environment,” said Doug Jones, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History. “If we’re going to address this problem, we need to do a better job understanding its ramifications and explaining to people what we can do about it now. The Thompsons’ gift will support a new platform that helps us all be good stewards of the environment.”
The Thompsons’ investment in UF’s Earth sciences programs will further set the university apart as one of the world’s preeminent leaders addressing 21st century issues. The United Nations calls climate change “one of the major challenges of our time.”
“Jon and Beverly understand that confronting environmental issues requires an interdisciplinary approach that considers our planet as a complex system,” said David Richardson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Communicating the underlying science to the public is a challenge, but their vision will dramatically enhance UF’s impact in earth system research and outreach.“
Jon Thompson earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geological sciences at UF in 1961 and 1962. He retired as president of ExxonMobil Exploration Co. and vice president of ExxonMobil Corp. in 2004 after more than 41 years of service. He serves on the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Geology Advisory Board, and was named a UF distinguished alumnus in 2005.
Beverly Thompson graduated from UF with a master’s degree in education in 1962. She is a member of the UF Foundation’s Donor Relations Advisory Council and the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Leadership Council. In 2017, the couple received the University of Florida Foundation’s Lifetime Philanthropists Award. The Thompsons are members of the President’s Campaign Cabinet.
“Years from now, Gators are going to look back at this time and realize that the University of Florida has risen to rank among the world’s best institutions of higher learning because of Jon and Beverly Thompson,” said Al Warrington, one of the Thompsons’ oldest friends and the UF business college’s namesake. “We are a greater university today because of their generosity and care, and we’ll be an even greater university tomorrow because of the seeds they’re planting now.”
The University of Florida has a long history of established programs in international education, research and service, and is one of only 17 public, land-grant universities in the prestigious Association of American Universities. It is ranked No. 9 in the most recent U.S. News and World Report’s list of public universities.