Caltech Awards Millikan Medal to Donald Bren

The Caltech Board of Trustees has awarded the Institute’s highest honor, the Robert A. Millikan Medal, to Donald Bren, chairman of the Irvine Company and a life member of the Caltech Board of Trustees.

The Millikan Medal was created to honor the life and ideals of Robert Andrews Millikan, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, cofounder of the modern California Institute of Technology, and chairman of the Institute’s Executive Council for 23 years. In his lifetime, Millikan was arguably the most famous scientist in the United States.

The Board of Trustees awards the Millikan Medal to individuals who reflect Millikan’s standard of excellence and serve the Institute that he founded with particular distinction and dedication. The medal has been given to only a select few individuals over the past three decades, including Robert A. Day, Si Ramo (PhD ’36), Arnold Beckman (PhD ’28) and Earle Jorgensen, Bren’s stepfather, who also served as a Caltech Trustee for over 40 years.

Bren—who has been on the Board of Trustees for 33 years and a life member since 2004, and the single largest supporter of endowed professorial chairs at Caltech—was awarded the medal by resolution of the Board on July 28.

The medal was conferred upon him during a dinner Friday, October 28, at the Caltech Board of Trustees’ annual retreat in Newport Beach.

“The Millikan Medal is awarded to the individuals who have served Caltech with particular distinction and dedication,” said David Lee (PhD ’74), chair of Caltech’s Board of Trustees, during that event. “As such, Donald will be joining the very distinguished and select company of the Millikan Medal recipients.”

“Millikan saw an opportunity to combine different ways of elucidating and influencing the world to create a new approach to discovery, progress, and transformation,” said Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “It is in this context that we honor Donald Bren this evening, with the awarding of the Millikan Medal. For Donald has not only transformed the urban landscape of California. He has transformed the intellectual landscape of the California Institute of Technology.”

In their resolution conferring the medal upon Bren, the Board noted Bren’s decades of service to the Institute, including his efforts to facilitate the expansion of Caltech’s biology-focused programs and the construction of the Broad Center for the Biological Sciences and his service and guidance for over a decade as vice chair and chair of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, in which capacity he encouraged the Board and the administration to think strategically about the campus and the development of its property, guiding the Institute’s development of the campus Master Plan.

The Board also recognized Bren’s efforts to protect the sensitive astronomical instruments of the Palomar Observatory from the effects of light pollution generated in San Diego County and his “exceptional management expertise, business acumen, and keen attention to detail,” with which he benefitted Caltech by assessing the Institute’s fiscal condition, business operations, and budgetary practices.

Bren, the Board resolution further noted, “articulated a profound vision for investing in big ideas at Caltech—ideas and initiatives that challenge intellectual boundaries while keeping the Institute resilient through the targeted use of physical and intellectual capital,” and has “deployed his extraordinarily generous philanthropic gifts to the California Institute of Technology in a manner that has indelibly enriched the Institute’s education and research mission.”

In accepting the medal, Bren said, “As each year goes by, I watch with tremendous satisfaction as this wonderful institution continues to grow, in stature and in reputation, in large measure because of its educational excellence and the quality of its research, which is rooted in the excellence of its faculty. Thank you for this opportunity to participate over the last 33 years in the growth, in the stature of the finest scientific institution in the world: Caltech.”

Born in Los Angeles, Bren earned a business administration and economics degree from the University of Washington. He served for three years as a U.S. Marine Corps officer. In 1963, Bren joined the Mission Viejo Company as president and began the master planning and development of the 11,000-acre community of Mission Viejo, California. In 1967, Bren sold his interest in the Mission Viejo Company to focus on statewide building, including the Irvine Ranch. In 1977, he joined a group of investors to purchase the Irvine Company. In 1983, Bren was elected chairman of the board, and he became principal shareholder in 1996.

Written by Kathy Svitil