But critics, in a leaflet circulated among members of the university’s governing body, Regent House, demanded a vote because the bequest comes with strings attached that were a “threat to meritocracy”.
The Stephen W Hawking Professorship of Cosmology is designed to ensure that the holder earns twice as much as other professors at the University.
A third of the funding would be the core endowment for the professorship, while the rest would fund a “salary supplement” of up to £67,000 a year. It would also require that the professor’s salary be “equal to or greater than the average salary and benefits” paid to academics of similar rank in the same department.
They also argue that it would set a precedent for other donors, allowing them to demand “special arrangements” in return for their money.
The leaflet called on Regent House not to “enrich someone at the top of the academic ladder when the vast majority of others have not had a decent pay rise in years”.
It has also been noted that some cosmologist would be reluctant to apply for the post while Professor Hawking is still alive.
Until his retirement in 2009, Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton. He remains at the university as director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, and is associated with the California Institute of Technology and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario.
One of his books, A Brief History of Time, was on the Sunday Times best-sellers list for 237 weeks. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, from Barack Obama five years ago, and has been depicted on The Simpsons, Star Trek and elsewhere in popular culture.
Hawking suffers from motor neuron disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and uses a wheelchair and a speech generator.
The San Diego foundation offering the money was set up by the late Dennis Avery, a personal friend of Professor Hawking since their days together at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
His family fortune was made in peel-off labels and his foundation has total assets of $40 million.
Avery, a lawyer, was the assistant dean of California Western School of Law. His estate, Galleta Meadows in Borrego Springs, California, features 35 bronze statues of prehistoric and indigenous animals.
The university must decide by 1 March whether to accept the endowment. A vote, the first at Regent House to be taken electronically, will be held between 14 and 23 February.