(From left) Colleen Haas, Elise Haas and Bob Haas on the UC Berkeley campus. (Photo/Keegan Houser)
(From left) Colleen Haas, Elise Haas and Bob Haas on the UC Berkeley campus. (Photo/Keegan Houser)

Haas family gifts UC Berkeley $24 million

The Haas family has always had a soft spot for UC Berkeley.

Family scion Levi Strauss, the German Jewish immigrant who founded one of the world’s most popular clothing brands, donated to the university’s first scholarship program in 1897. He also funded the installation of lighting in the library so students could study after dark.

More than a century later, Strauss’ great-great-great-nephew, Bob Haas, with his wife, Colleen, announced new donations to UC Berkeley totaling $24 million.

Of that sum, $14 million will permanently endow the Haas Scholars Program, which recruits Berkeley students from diverse backgrounds to focus on a specialized, yearlong senior research project.

Another $10 million has been granted in matching funds for the Haas Family Fiat Lux Scholarship, constituting one of the largest scholarship gifts in Cal history. “Fiat lux” means “let there be light.”

Once fully matched at $20 million, the scholarships “will allow the university to welcome exceptional new first-generation students who might have otherwise not been able to attend Berkeley,” Cruz Grimaldo, director of Berkeley’s Financial Aid and Scholarships Office, said in a statement.

Bob Haas, 78, says he is especially gratified the gifts will help underserved communities.

“One of the great things about Berkeley is that it really serves the broadest range of people in California,” he said. “I’m talking about low-income, first generation to attend college, students of color, students with disabilities, formerly incarcerated students, students who were emancipated from foster care — all of them have support groups of one sort or another at Berkeley. The conditions are there for faster success.”

Haas, a descendant of pioneering Bay Area Jewish families, grew up steeped in his family’s long history of philanthropy and Jewish community involvement.

His grandfather, Walter Haas, and father, Walter Haas Jr., both graduated from UC Berkeley. Both served as Levi Strauss CEO and chairman. Bob Haas held those posts himself from 1989 until his retirement in 2014.

Bob Haas’ parents founded the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, which donated nearly $24 million to the capital campaign of UC Berkeley’s business school, later renamed the Haas School of Business. The fund also gave to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, the Jewish Home (now San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living) and Congregation Emanu-El, a synagogue Levi Strauss also supported.

For Haas, the Jewish value of tzedakah is expressed in giving back to the community. “It’s one of those things I learned at the dining room table,” the Atherton resident recalled. “My father rarely talked about business at the table. He would talk about the people in the [Levi Strauss] company. He often would talk about people in the lowest ranks of the organization and the joy he got from helping them out in a personally distressing situation.”

Haas, a Cal alum, said the experience not only provided a world-class education, but it also “put me in touch with a wide range of people that went beyond the circle of friends I’d grown up with. It certainly influenced my civic thinking.”

Colleen Haas graduated from Stanford Law School and was temporarily suspended in the early 1970s for participating in a demonstration against the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. She later worked for the civil rights law firm Garry, Dreyfus, McTernan, and Brotsky.

Haas says they enjoy supporting scholarships, such as those funded by their latest gift, because they derive great satisfaction hearing from the beneficiaries first hand.

“It’s really inspiring to hear the challenges these students have overcome,” he said, “and to see the looks of joy not just on their faces [but also] their parents’ faces, and then to receive notes from people who have been in the Haas Scholars program, telling us what has happened to their lives.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.