More than 200 faculty from across Stanford spent six hours on a recent weekend discussing 20 proposals relating to the new school focused on climate and sustainability, with the result that even after conversations about pros and cons a majority of faculty supported each of the proposals.

The proposals included which disciplines should be included in the new school, whether hiring and promotion decisions in the new school should recognize activities that accelerate impact, whether Stanford should emerge with seven versus eight schools, and whether the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy should be included in the school, among other questions.

The event was one step in the process of creating a new school focused on climate and sustainability, announced by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne as a way of aligning Stanford’s strengths to address the urgent challenges facing the planet. That decision arose out of Long-Range Vision proposals that provided a sweeping vision for how the university could amplify contributions to research, education and impact in climate and sustainability.

“I’m so grateful for the time faculty spent carefully considering these proposals,” said Kathryn “Kam” Moler, vice provost and dean of research, who is co-leading the effort to create the school with Stephan Graham, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences. “It was a lot to ask on a weekend during a pandemic and the thoughtful guidance we received is incredibly important in helping us create a world-class new school that will enable a future in which humans and nature thrive together.” Moler added that although it was hard for faculty with other commitments to participate on a weekend, she is providing additional ways for all faculty to contribute.

The event employed Deliberative Polling, a technique developed by James Fishkin, professor of communication and Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy (CDD), as a way of gathering informed opinions from a representative sample of people. Before the event, participants received briefing materials on the new school, and responded to a survey indicating their level of support for the proposals. After participating in small group discussions and two panel discussions with experts from different perspectives who answered questions, they filled out the same survey a second time.

“Populations around the world, in 110 cases, have been consulted about policy choices through Deliberative Polling, but this is the first time it has been employed with the faculty of a university,” Fishkin said. “Many of the dialogues were energetic and the issues contested. But most of the proposals came out with very strong support after all the counter-arguments were considered and all the questions from the small groups were answered.”

Fishkin and Alice Siu, associate director of the CCD, issued a report detailing the findings from the two surveys. They divided responses for each question into those from affected faculty – people who are in departments related to climate and sustainability – and unaffected faculty and looked at the differences in opinions before and after deliberation. Fishkin said even if opinions didn’t change between the two timepoints the second answer is a considered judgment informed by discussion.

Survey results represent faculty agreement with proposals on a scale of 0–10, where 10 indicates strong support. Proposals that scored the highest on the second survey included questions about whether the school should include faculty members whose research focuses on climate science (9.5) and energy (9.2), and whether the school should include shared resources that are available to the entire Stanford community (9.1). The survey also found strong support for Stanford administration accommodating those faculty who choose to join the new school (8.5), and for faculty who join the new school being involved in finalizing the structure (8.4).

Although all proposals had scores over 6.5, some generated significant debate in the small group discussions. The most active conversations were about the following proposals: (Quotes are anonymized and lightly edited from transcripts of online small group conversations. More anonymized quotes on all proposals are available in the report.

Stanford should emerge from the transition with seven schools: H&S, Law, GSB, Engineering, Medicine, Education and the new school.

“I think a new school is the way to go because we do need a culture change in a variety of dimensions at Stanford. Climate change, sustainability, food security, and a whole series of issues related to sustainability as well as protection of the Earth and other things the school of Earth does are absolutely central, but we need a new way to think about that and not be totally stuck in the old ways. So I’m an advocate of a new school.”

“I just wanted to say I do support and like the idea of having seven schools. I can definitely see a home for some of the fundamental topics within the new school and I think if you look to places like Woods Hole or Scripps Institute of Oceanography, you’ll find those fundamental topics like geophysics or geochemistry within their Institute of oceanography.”

“I think it doesn’t seem on the surface to make a lot of sense to have eight schools with a lot of overlap between Sustainability and Earth.”

The new school should include in its organizational structure the Woods Institute for the Environment. (And a similar statement regarding the Precourt Institute for Energy.)

“Woods and Precourt have this history of success in promoting interdisciplinarity in sustainability. And so it seems like a key foundation for the school and definitely something to incorporate in the school. That’s 20 years of success in this area.”

“I personally would love to see Woods have very close ties of some kind with the School of Sustainability. And I feel that Woods and Precourt as well bring dimensions to the school that you don’t get from academic departments or from typical faculty members focused on their research.”

“So, one of the questions around Woods is whether it should exist outside the school and bridge all the schools together around issues of environmental sustainability or whether it should sit inside the school. I think the idea of it sitting inside the school but really being a kind of transmembrane boundary that pulls the other schools in is a really great vehicle.”

Faculty members in the new school should be free to seek and accept funding to conduct research on topics that might aid the energy industry to transition to a carbon-free world.

“I actually think that one should work with a fossil fuel company. In other words, taking the money from the fossil fuel company to aid the transition is a major part of the energy landscape and a major part of the economy. Many of these companies in fact do recognize that it is important for them to transition out. It is important to work with them to facilitate this kind of transition.”

“I think that as long as people are working within the framework of what’s acceptable in terms of conflicts of interests the faculty ought to have the freedom to decide what they want to research and from whom they want to take money, but it needs to be monitored. I don’t think you can eliminate it and ask people not to use sources of funds that could be very helpful for their research and for society.”

“I’ve been serving on the committee for research, which follows the research policy handbook. There are two key policies, one of which is openness in research and another is academic freedom, and currently those both allow faculty to seek sponsored research funds from any resource. So if we were to limit this it would be something that would require careful rewording of the research policy handbook that governs all faculty on campus.”

The new school’s formal criteria for faculty hiring and promotion should value activities to accelerate impact along with research and teaching. (And a related question about the Faculty Senate and provost appointing a committee to consider the issue.)

“You need some reasonable mechanism to evaluate that and I just want to emphasize that I don’t think it’s either-or like publications or Twitter followers. It’s that you have a set of ways that people can impact the field and that should include scholarly impact, but it should also include impact on policy impact on you know education of young people, those kinds of things.”

“If the mission of the school is to have impact outside research, then obviously we should reward that impact because that would incentivize people to invest in having impact, but if the mission of the school is to do fundamental research then we shouldn’t.”

“I just wanted to add that if we’re going to include engagement activities in the tenure process then we should probably do so across all schools. There’s no reason for it to be just in the new school or in one specific school. If we’re going to change anything about the tenure process it should be uniform.”

In addition to proposals about the school, faculty in the survey showed support for the Deliberative Polling process itself and the online tool used to moderate small groups, developed by Ashish Goel, professor of management science and engineering.

Moler and Graham said the results of the final survey will guide the school structure they present to the Faculty Senate on March 11, and to the Board of Trustees in April.

For example, faculty concerns about maintaining the university-wide roles of the Woods and Precourt institutes will influence the proposed relationship between those institutes and the new school. Similarly, the conversation about considering impact in hiring and promotion decisions will guide the way the new school emphasizes impact in the world – one reason for creating the school. Faculty did rate highly a proposal encouraging the Faculty Senate and Provost to create a committee to consider the implications of considering engagement activities in tenure decisions.

“We are paying careful attention to feedback we received through the survey results, and from transcripts of small group conversations that help us understand the meaning behind the results,” said Graham. “Beyond the survey, the conversations really show us how engaged faculty are, and their desire for a broad school that encompasses all aspects of planetary stewardship, from science to engineering to policy and environmental justice and more.”

In addition to the Deliberative Polling event, Moler and Graham have held town halls with faculty and staff, and they are planning town halls and a Deliberative Polling event with students in the coming weeks. They expect the new school to launch after a dean is appointed and to begin offering some classes in 2021-22.