A new school for climate and sustainability continues to take shape at Stanford, with a structure designed to achieve ambitious goals, according to presentations given before the Faculty Senate on Thursday.

speakers at Faculty Senate meeting March 11, 2021

Delivering presentations to the Faculty Senate on Thursday were (top row, left to right) Athletic Director Bernard Muir; Jeff Koseff, faculty athletic representative to the NCAA; Deputy Athletic Director Patrick Dunkley; (bottom row, left to right) Ryan Adesnik, vice president for government affairs; Kathryn “Kam” Moler, vice provost and dean of research; and Stephan Graham, dean of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Also at the meeting, the senate heard a report on the challenges facing college athletics programs including those posed by COVID-19, increasing litigation and difficult economic realities.

The next steps for the new school are the formation of a search committee to appoint a dean, finalizing the department structures, designing degree programs, recruiting a director for a new Sustainability Accelerator and making hires critical for launching the school.

Kathryn “Kam” Moler, vice provost and dean of research, and Stephan Graham, dean of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, presented an update on planning for the new school, which was announced in May by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne to help the university address the urgent challenges facing the planet.

Throughout the fall and winter, a 30-member faculty Blueprint Advisory Committee (BAC), which includes faculty from all seven schools and five policy institutes, has been meeting to design the new school’s structure, education programs, themed initiatives and engagement activities. Moler and Graham presented the group’s recommendations for Faculty Senate feedback.

Although specific departments will be finalized during the faculty opt-in process, Graham said the topics proposed to be included in the new school include Earth and Planetary Sciences, Human Society and Interactions, Energy Technology, Sustainable Urban Development, The Natural Environment, Food and Water Security, Human Behavior and Public Policy, Human Health and the Environment, and Climate Change.

School superpowers envisioned

Moler said in order for the school to effectively address urgent challenges it needs to have the superpowers of a school to hire and promote faculty, grant degrees and build and own curricula, as well as the superpowers of an institute to foster interdisciplinary communities and partner with external stakeholders.

To achieve those twin goals, the BAC designed the school to have departments that hire faculty and grant degrees, along with themed initiatives that run across all departments. The themed initiatives will focus on topical areas like Environmental Justice or the Circular Economy, and will draw on the expertise of faculty from across the entire university and stakeholders external to Stanford.

Nicole Ardoin, associate professor of education and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, presented new educational programs. She said the school expects to offer a Sustainability Management degree in partnership with the Graduate School of Business and will offer professional certificates. It will also grant disciplinary graduate and undergraduate degrees, as well as interdisciplinary degree programs, to be designed once the departments are finalized.

“As a university, there is no doubt that education is and must be core to achieving the ambitious vision for this new school in terms of research, collaboration, impact and training of current and future generations of scholars and leaders,” Ardoin said.

The next step is to create a curriculum committee that will help finalize plans for curricula and degree programs, she said.

Sustainability Accelerator

The school will also include a Sustainability Accelerator focused on external engagements that translate policy and technology solutions. The Accelerator will include convening space, equipment and expert staff, and will provide specialized training and funding for projects ready for external partners to assist with translation and scaling.

Following the presentation, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne expressed support for the recommendations Graham, Moler and Ardoin presented.

“The problem of building a sustainable future for our planet and coming generations is one of the great and very urgent challenges of the 21st century,” he said.

In speaking of the Blueprint Advisory Committee, he said, “They are building a very compelling case that we can go further and faster if we have the courage to do something bold and reorganize ourselves.”

During the discussion, senators asked about the curriculum the new school will offer, including plans for accommodating all students – not just those invested in sustainability – into the school’s courses and activities and whether students would be required to take sustainability coursework.

“There are a lot of things that would be awesome to require, but there’s a big downside to having too many requirements,” Moler said. “It would be awesome to have some classes that are so fantastic that 98 percent of students opt in to taking them.”

Moler also weighed in on whether Stanford is leading in its plan for the new school, saying that solving the challenges we face will require many schools focusing on sustainability. “I would be thrilled if many, many universities developed such schools and if some of our graduates could become the pipeline that make it possible for other universities to have those schools,” she said.

Challenging athletic environment

The relationship between student-athletes and schools has been irreversibly changed because of the lasting challenges posed by COVID-19, increasing litigation and the difficult economic realities of college athletics, according to a panel presentation also made before the Faculty Senate on Thursday.

Participating in the panel discussion on “Contemporary Issues Facing College Sports” were Jeff Koseff, the William Alden Campbell and Martha Campbell Professor in the School of Engineering and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment; Bernard Muir, athletic director; Patrick Dunkley, deputy athletic director; and Ryan Adesnik, vice president for government affairs.

The four outlined such daunting national challenges as whether student-athletes are employees who should be paid to play, whether they have a right to financially benefit from the use of their names and likenesses, whether the economic model for college athletics is sustainable and how Stanford might be affected by legislation under consideration in Congress.

Koseff, who serves as Stanford’s faculty athletic representative to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), said that the past year has been “exceptionally challenging” for college sports nationally, including at Stanford, because of the suspension of competition – including such mainstays as March Madness – due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A year later, the landscape of college sports has changed dramatically with a whole set of new issues and challenges, including the future and sustainability of the NCAA itself,” he said.

Koseff noted that student activism has helped spur state legislatures and Congress to consider new laws that would fundamentally change how the NCAA manages its relationships with students, how amateurism is defined and whether or not students can be compensated.

“How this ends up is very uncertain,” he said.

In addition, Koseff noted that the Pac-12, the athletic conference in which the Cardinal competes, has suffered reduced income from television contracts and has had to deal with such challenging issues as whether to allow competition amidst COVID-19, particularly in football, and how to ensure the physical and mental health of students in the face of the pandemic.

During the past year, Koseff said the “harsh realities of the economics of college athletics” have become critical. At Stanford, for instance, those realities forced the university to announce that it would discontinue 11 sports – a decision that has been met with profound disappointment among current and former athletes, community members and alumni, Koseff said.

“Stanford athletics has been remarkably successful over the past 25 years,” he noted. “Our teams have won more national championships than any other university and our athletes have graduated at very high rates. The question at hand is ‘How can we maintain this success in the face of a rapidly changing collegiate athletic landscape?’”

Flawed economic model

Helping answer those questions was Muir, who explained the flaws in the economic model of collegiate sports that helped lead to Stanford’s decision to pare down the number of sports it offers. The past year, he said, exposed those flaws. Stanford’s decision, he said, was driven by an inability to be self-sustaining, balanced with a commitment to excellence in every sport offered.

Even after 11 sports are cut – something he called “extremely, extremely painful” – Muir reminded senators that Stanford will still offer more than the average number of teams at colleges and universities nationwide. Had that decision not been made, he said, Stanford Athletics would have experienced an $18 million deficit by 2024. The department began experiencing a deficit, he said, in 2019. The cut in sports teams helps close the gap, but Muir said the university will still need to engage in significant fundraising to avoid an unsustainable deficit. The cut, he said, gives the university a “fighting chance” to “future proof” Stanford’s financial model for athletics.

Muir described an increasing “arms race” in collegiate athletics and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. That gap occurs between conferences and even within them. As more revenue has flowed into sports programs, more money has been spent for everything from facilities to coaches’ salaries. That “arms race” was once restricted to high-profile sports like football or basketball. Now it occurs across all Division 1 sports, he said. Elite athletes have high expectations of sports programs in terms of, for instance, wellness support services.

The revenue gaps among college and university sports programs will likely continue to widen, he predicted, as a result of increasing litigation around such issues as employment status, financial benefits, and name, image and likeness control. Students and their advocates are demanding a larger piece of the revenue pie, and they are likely soon to have increasing rights to control use of their likeness, image and name. That could mean, for instance, that they will have the right to endorse products or sell their autographs – activities now prohibited by the NCAA.

Muir said he advocates the pursuit of national spending control policies to stem an increase in the number of have-nots, increase equity and avoid the elimination of sports – including Olympic sports – that do not generate revenue. He said Stanford is currently focused on its own challenges, but hopes to assume national leadership in mapping out the future of college athletics.

Dunkley, who focused his remarks on litigation issues, said he anticipates that the National Labor Relations Board will likely see continuing complaints from student-athletes about their employment status. The issue of what financial benefits student-athletes should be able to accrue has also become pertinent. A case likely to come before the U.S. Supreme Court this summer challenges current NCAA limits on what benefits – including, for instance, full tuition – that students can be offered. Dunkley also noted a third “bucket” of legal issues involving NCAA prohibitions on students’ ability to monetize their names, images and likeness and whether such prohibitions violate antitrust laws.

According to Adesnik, several legislative proposals that could profoundly affect the relationship between student-athletes and schools are working their way through Congress, including one supported by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who played football as a Stanford student-athlete. Booker has brought forward a College Athlete Bill of Rights. Although not yet introduced, Booker’s proposal would dramatically change the collegiate model in favor of pay for play. Still, Adesnik said that many of the health, safety and wellness aspects in Booker’s proposal match the general principles that Stanford and other Pac-12 schools have in place and have historically supported.

The university, Adesnik said, is partnering with other schools and higher education organizations to encourage action in Congress before a Florida law goes into effect this July. That law, Adesnik said, would allow student-athletes more control over their name, image and likeness. Stanford and others, Adesnik said, favor a national, uniform approach to legislation affecting college athletics rather than a patchwork of state law that might be contradictory and create an uneven playing field.

COVID update

During her report, Provost Persis Drell said that a change in the management of vaccinations in California has caused a shortfall in supplies throughout the state, including in Santa Clara County. As a result, many vaccination appointments have been cancelled in the coming week.

But the good news, Drell said, is that positive cases continue to decline at Stanford since a peak in early January, when students returned to campus. The number of students isolating or quarantining in student housing has also declined since the January peak. Students have been generally compliant with testing requirements, and faculty, staff and postdocs working onsite each week are testing at “impressively high rates,” she said. The weekly totals of tests administered has reached a steady state over the past month of just under 20,000 tests per week.

Still, the positive student cases have generated some 850 notifications to staff, student workers and contractors that they were in a building during the same time as positive individuals. Those notifications, which the provost acknowledged have caused alarm, are the result of state legislation that took effect in January.