School focused on climate and sustainability will amplify Stanford’s impact

In his address to the Academic Council, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced a school focused on climate and sustainability that will help the university address the urgent challenges facing the planet.

Stanford is designing a school focused on climate and sustainability that will draw on the considerable expertise that exists across academic units, aligning those efforts around research, education and impact, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced in a presentation to the Academic Council.

To address urgent challenges facing the planet, Stanford is designing a school focused on climate and sustainability that will draw on the considerable expertise that exists across academic units. (Image credit: M. Scott Gould)

“Among the most urgent issues of our time are climate change and the challenge of creating a sustainable future for people and our planet,” said Tessier-Lavigne. “At Stanford we have tremendous strengths in climate and sustainability studies working across the schools and institutes, but there is an opportunity to amplify our contributions in education, research and impact further by aligning people and resources more effectively in a school. I want to thank everybody whose hard work has resulted in this exciting conclusion.”

The idea for the school arose out of a faculty-led process, first as part of a Long-Range Vision design team focused on climate and sustainability and later through a committee tasked with proposing organizational structures to support the design team’s sweeping vision.

Stanford Vice Provost and Dean of Research Kathryn Moler will lead an inclusive process designing the school’s structure. She has engaged Stephan Graham, dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, as co-chair, and together they will consult with key internal and external stakeholders to develop a school organization that amplifies faculty and student contributions to address the most urgent climate and sustainability challenges. Moler and Graham plan to provide monthly reports to the community on progress, which they expect to be completed by fall.

“This is an exciting opportunity to engage everyone addressing climate and sustainability at Stanford in a newly expanded, integrated and impact-focused community, with new opportunities to enhance the impact of their work on the issues they deeply care about,” Moler said. “I thank the teams that have worked over the past year to articulate an aspirational vision, and who identified the building blocks of the school – both new ideas and existing Stanford assets, both people and research groups – that can support this vision.”

The school will leverage Stanford’s excellence in climate and sustainability research areas including foundational science, low-carbon sustainable energy, human behavior, economics, food security, environmental law and policy, global health and more. It will include faculty in core departments addressing cross-cutting themes and run degree-granting programs for undergraduate and graduate students.

The school is also proposed to include a sustainability neighborhood that would provide place-based education and infuse sustainability in the education of all students across campus, and an accelerator, which would drive new sustainability solutions through external partnerships with government, industry and nongovernmental organizations and co-develop scalable solutions for the world. Other elements that could play a role include programs that have driven Stanford as a living lab for solutions such as reducing energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste.

“In taking this bold organizational step, we will be stewarding the continuing evolution of Stanford’s role in understanding the Earth and applying those understandings, through research and education, toward the needs of society, as we have done for the last 130 years,” Graham said. “We are in an era of rapid environmental and societal change, and the challenges we face this century are formidable. Stanford must be a visionary leader in understanding environmental change, and in collaboration with diverse partners, translating that knowledge into action toward our goal of a sustainable, healthy planet and healthy people.”

In his presentation, Tessier-Lavigne said the university was focused on addressing near-term challenges posed by COVID-19, but at the same time using this period to put in place the structures that will enable the university’s long-term success once the current crisis has passed.

Building on success

Over the past decades, faculty and research teams spanning Stanford’s schools and institutes have made great strides in addressing sustainability and climate issues – probing the underlying challenges facing our planet, developing low-carbon sustainable technologies and working with policymakers, nongovernmental organizations and other partners to implement solutions. But the scale, complexity and urgency of challenges ahead require that the university be strategically aligned to allow faculty and students from across the disciplines to realize their maximum collective potential.

“Living sustainably on our planet requires more than advocacy, we need deep scholarship,” said Sally Benson, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy. “The paradigm that’s led us to the world we have today is based on growth that’s not sustainable. Across the board we need to rethink and reinvent how we use and preserve our precious planetary resources. We need to transition to an economy where more value is created by restoring and preserving Earth’s resources than by activities that degrade and deplete them. This school will provide a home to support the scholarship needed to realize this vision.”

Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, added, “Stanford has an incredible legacy of high-impact leadership on climate and sustainability. The school will powerfully amplify Stanford’s legacy and leadership role in tackling the defining issues of our era.”

Even as the university looks to the future of climate and sustainability research, faculty and students are focused on important immediate efforts. Many across the university are contributing to significant research and policy work relating to climate change, ocean solutions and clean energy, and a recently announced call for proposals is seeking new groundbreaking ideas for sustainability solutions.

An inclusive process

A Long-Range Vision design team led by Lynn Hildemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Scott Fendorf, professor of Earth system science, proposed a series of important initiatives to further amplify the university’s impact, including programs on zero emissions energy systems, adaptability and resilience to climate change, informed environmental decision-making and the health of the oceans. In the course of the team’s work, however, they surfaced a strong desire among many faculty to rethink how Stanford’s efforts in the broad areas of climate and sustainability are organized for maximum impact.

This prompted Tessier-Lavigne to task a committee led by Arun Majumdar, professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, and Noah Diffenbaugh, professor of Earth system science, with proposing academic structures that would maximize the impact of Stanford’s sustainability-related research. That committee, made up of faculty from all seven schools, the four policy institutes and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, carried out a campus survey, held five open forums, met with faculty, staff, students and other stakeholders from across the university, and interviewed past and current campus leaders.

Professor Kathryn Ann Moler

Stanford Vice Provost and Dean of Research Kathryn Moler will lead the process designing the school’s structure. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

A consistent message from those conversations was an enthusiasm for the idea that Stanford’s ambition and commitment to climate and sustainability must be as large as the challenge, according to Diffenbaugh. “We heard that sustainability should be a top priority in research, education and impact,” he said. “We also heard that the structure should be inclusive and that sustainability needs to be infused in all aspects of the university.”

Majumdar added, “The feedback made it clear that we need a coherent educational program, the ability to hire the best faculty and allow them to succeed in their research regardless of whether it is fundamental or applied, and we have to have an organization that connects to the outside world and enables faculty and students to co-develop solutions with partners.”

The group led by Majumdar and Diffenbaugh proposed two possible new organizational structures: a school focused on climate and sustainability, or a college of climate and sustainability that would span existing schools, institutes and other units. (Read the committee’s executive summary, Stanford ID required.) Both options address faculty excitement about better aligning resources focused on these issues, and proposed including the educational neighborhood, sustainability accelerator and campus elements that have made Stanford a living laboratory.

The school option would bring together multiple strands of Stanford’s existing expertise in climate and sustainability research and education currently taking place across the university. This option is consistent with Stanford’s organizational structure, which is centered in schools, though the committee warned that it requires care to ensure that it does not create silos across the university. The college option would seek to integrate these activities horizontally across all Stanford schools, institutes and other units, but it would create a new organizational structure that might take years to fully implement.

The executive cabinet was unanimous in their enthusiasm for moving forward with the school, which is a familiar structure that could be implemented in a timeline consistent with the urgency of the challenge. Moler’s process will also seek to integrate some benefits of the college option in the school.

“Helping to design this school with internal and external partners is an incredible opportunity to shape the way the university addresses critical issues that affect us every day, including our health, food security, energy availability or even our ability to enjoy natural places like forest lands and coral reefs,” Moler said. “I would like the entire Stanford community to share my excitement and to feel welcome to participate.”

Media Contacts

Amy Adams, University Communications: (650) 497-5908, [email protected]