Dean Arun Majumdar provides an update on his listening tour
Throughout the summer and fall quarters, Dean Arun Majumdar listened to student concerns about fossil fuel funding of research, among other topics. These diverse conversations have informed next steps the school is taking to foster community and open dialogue in addition to steps being taken by the university.
In May 2022, soon after the announcement of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability with Arun Majumdar as inaugural dean, students and others on campus voiced concerns about the role of fossil fuel companies in funding of research on campus, particularly within the new school. They were concerned about the role some fossil fuel companies have played in denying climate change, and worried that the companies would try to improve their image by promoting their involvement in green technologies – also known as greenwashing.
In response, Majumdar wrote to the community about his interest in hearing from all voices in the school about the issue of fossil fuel funding of research, among other topics.
Majumdar spent the summer and fall quarters meeting with more than 160 students and postdoctoral fellows from across the school about their concerns, and also about their hopes for the new school. Since that time, Stanford has launched a committee tasked with examining the university’s approach to funding research through money from fossil fuel companies.
Here, Majumdar reflects on what he heard from students, and next steps both the school and the university are taking.
Can you summarize who you spoke with during your tour and what you learned about student concerns?
I conducted this listening tour across all departments and programs within the school, with individuals, and with some of the groups that were voicing concerns about engaging with fossil fuel companies. I felt it was only fair that l hear the full range of opinions within the school, rather than just those being expressed most vocally.
My first meeting was with a small group of students who are members of the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability. I felt that because they were able to express their opinions in private with me, it is only fair that I meet other student groups in smaller private meetings. Otherwise, we run the risk that some of the opinions and voices could be drowned out. So I met with many different students across the school, mostly in department groups, but also with individuals and interest groups.
What I heard from students is that although everyone agrees that we need to address climate change with fierce urgency, there are different opinions as to how we should go about it and who we should engage with. Some students, as we know, were very vocal about wanting the school to completely disassociate themselves from fossil fuel companies. Students expressed concerns about how financial connections with fossil fuel companies could impact the direction of research and the role fossil fuels play in contributing to climate change.
At the same time, other students felt it was important to develop clean energy technologies to address the climate challenge, work with the fossil fuel companies to scale these technologies, and help them transition. These students felt they were under attack because of their sources of funding. They find themselves in a hostile environment and they aren’t comfortable talking about their research or discussing their thoughts about working with fossil fuel companies, even though their research is in many cases focused on technologies for the clean energy transition.
First, I respect both opinions. Second, no student in the school should feel that they aren’t able to openly discuss their research. Finally, in addition to addressing climate change with urgency, all students agree that there should be transparency in what type of research is being conducted with fossil fuel funding.
It sounds like students themselves were interested in hearing a variety of perspectives.
In our meetings, students told me that they wanted opportunities to talk to each other and learn from each other. That was true both among students who opposed fossil fuel funding, and those whose research was funded by fossil fuel companies.
In response to these requests, we’re now starting to convene small group conversations among students from different perspectives. Scott Fendorf, who is senior associate dean for integrative initiatives in the school, is leading that effort. We are also exploring ways students can engage with each other and with leadership in the coming years. Students should watch for these opportunities starting this quarter. We are also hosting faculty forums to bridge the many areas of scholarship our faculty engage in. Those videos are available on our website.
How do your efforts within the school relate to the work of the university committee?
Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne formed a committee to evaluate the pros and cons of the university’s current and alternative approaches to engaging with fossil fuel companies. That committee is chaired by Paul Brest, former dean of Stanford Law School, and Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. The committee’s effort is examining the issue from a university perspective.
Within the school, I have focused on understanding the concerns of our students, and we are developing mechanisms to create a civil discourse with one another, even though they may have different perspectives. There will undoubtedly be disagreement, but it is important for everyone to listen to different perspectives and understand where people are coming from. It is that disagreement, discussion, ongoing dialogue, and our shared work as a community that will continue to make us better. This is part of our core values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I am hoping all students within this school and across the university will engage with me in this effort to better understand one another on this, and other issues as they arise.
Students brought up a number of other issues beyond fossil fuels. What stood out for you?
Our students are passionate about ways in which sustainability intersects with other disciplines, schools, and programs on campus. I was really inspired by the range of collaborations they suggested. They are also very aware of their own sustainability footprint. Students had a variety of suggestions for how the school could help them live more sustainably, including through making biking more convenient, providing more sustainable food options, reducing food waste, and improving energy efficiency on campus. In response, we have started partnering with the Office of Sustainability on creating more sustainable events and providing sustainable food options, in addition to making sure the swag we give out is sourced sustainably.
I also found that students are committed to integrating environmental justice and DEI into the fabric of the school. They had suggestions for programs and courses that could elevate marginalized voices and incorporate global values into our work and our education. I have named Rodolfo Dirzo as associate dean for environmental justice and Paula Welander as associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion to ensure these perspectives are represented throughout our work. I started my Dean’s Lecture Series this fall with two environmental justice events. You can read more about those events here and here. We have also launched an environmental justice faculty search. In addition, we are also expanding our DEI office, with additional programs to embed DEI within the activities of the school.
Another topic that emerged from the discussions was that most of our restaurants and cafes on campus close down before 9 p.m. and there are no food places open until midnight. If the new SDSS building could have some cafes that are open late, it would be very helpful for our students who work late.
We are following up with individual students and student groups on suggestions that came up during our many conversations. I want to thank students for their interest, their honesty, and their ongoing commitment to dialogue.