As Stanford emerges from the pandemic, the university continues to advance initiatives in such areas as the new climate and sustainability school and undergraduate education, members of the Board of Trustees heard at their meetings this week.

The Board of Trustees received briefings on such university initiatives as the new school for climate and sustainability and undergraduate education enhancements, as well as pandemic progress and campus activities. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

In particular, board chair Jeff Raikes said there was “enormous enthusiasm” among trustees for the vision of the new climate and sustainability school.

“The innovative and collaborative structure, the opportunity to accelerate our contributions to these critical fields, the opportunity to advance environmental justice and the prospect of providing exciting new educational opportunities for our students all received very positive feedback from members of the board,” he said.

At the board meetings, the trustees also received updated pandemic news, a rundown of campus activities and a briefing on enhancements to undergraduate education and life.

During a briefing on Tuesday, Raikes also commented briefly on a meeting he attended with President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and members of 36 Sports Strong, which is a group of alumni advocating for a reinstatement of the 11 athletic teams cut for financial reasons.

“It was a meeting to ensure that that the group’s perspectives were heard,” Raikes said, calling the discussions “productive.”

Returning to ‘normal’

Raikes said continued success in testing, vaccines and other aspects of the COVID-19 response has meant the university can plan for what is hoped will be a “more normal” fall quarter. However, some modifications in protocols may still be needed to enable a transition to in-person teaching and research.

“I want to emphasize that the board continues to be grateful for the efforts of everyone in the Stanford community – our front-line workers, our faculty, the health care staff in Stanford Medicine, our students and postdocs, all the staff who are supporting the university remotely,” Raikes said.

Despite the continuing challenges posed by the pandemic, progress has been made on the new school focused on climate and sustainability. Over the past year, the faculty Blueprint Advisory Committee (BAC) has been developing recommendations that will meet the vision laid out by Tessier-Lavigne last year.

At that time, Tessier-Lavigne said that climate change and creating a sustainable future were among the most urgent issues of our time. He called on Stanford to amplify its education and research contributions by aligning people and resources more effectively.

Tessier-Lavigne asked Vice Provost and Dean of Research Kathryn “Kam” Moler to lead the effort. She in turn asked Stephan Graham, dean of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, to help. Moler and Graham presented the BAC’s recommendations for the new school to the trustees.

In his opening remarks before their presentation, Tessier-Lavigne called the new school “a bold step – but it’s the right one to position Stanford to play a lead role in solving the challenges facing humanity and our planet.”

The BAC’s recommendations focus on four areas:

  • Broad research themes: Achieving the school’s vision will require expertise across energy technologies, studies of Earth’s processes and natural systems, behavioral and economic drivers of climate solutions, urban settings and an understanding of how climate change affects human health and access to food and clean water, among other areas. These will be encompassed in departments and in thematic initiatives that draw on expertise from all schools and include external partners.
  • Educational programs: The school will include disciplinary and interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate degree programs focused on sustainability. One anticipated program is an undergraduate sustainability management degree in partnership with the Graduate School of Business. It will also include skills and content-based certificates and professional education.
  • Sustainability Accelerator: A new Sustainability Accelerator will fund research teams developing policy and technology solutions and will support those teams in working with external partners to co-create, implement and scale solutions.
  • A sustainable academic neighborhood: The neighborhood will contain research and convening space as well as shared equipment, classrooms and room for collaboration all anchored by the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building (Y2E2). It will become home to a community of faculty, staff and students who pursue their interests in sustainability regardless of disciplinary home. It will also be a demonstration of Stanford as a living lab for sustainability solutions.

Next steps include finalizing the structure of the school with named departments and thematic initiatives, creating a search committee for a dean to lead the school and hiring a director to begin building the Sustainability Accelerator.

In addition, a curriculum committee will meet over the summer to further develop degree programs. Moler and Graham anticipate students entering 2021 will be able to take prerequisite classes for some of the new majors, and professional education programs may launch that same academic year. They are also creating a process to name the new school.

Undergraduate enhancements

Raikes said trustees were also enthusiastic about planned enhancements to undergraduate education, including the expansion of financial aid, a new first-year curriculum and the creation of residential neighborhoods.

“We heard a presentation that brought many of those threads together to describe a comprehensive vision for our students,” Raikes said, adding, “Many of the trustees wanted to go back to college.”

The presentation by Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs, and Sarah Church, vice provost for undergraduate education, for instance, highlighted the more than tripling of financial aid at Stanford since 2006.

“For the past 15 years, we’ve deepened our commitment to improving access for students from low- and middle-income families through a series of significant aid enhancements,” Raikes said. “Continuing to provide that strong financial aid remains a high priority in the view of the trustees.”

Introducing COLLEGE, neighborhoods

Raikes said Brubaker-Cole and Church also described a new first-year requirement called COLLEGE, which stands for Civic, Liberal and Global Education. Starting next year, first-year students will take COLLEGE courses to help them to think deeply about liberal education, citizenship and global perspectives and to establish a shared foundation and common language.

The two also described the next steps Stanford is taking to level the “learning field” for all students, Raikes said. Those steps are designed to ensure that students can reach their potential regardless of their backgrounds, skills and preparation for college. Raikes emphasized the importance of such programs by describing his own experiences growing up on a farm in rural Nebraska. He considered himself unprepared for Stanford.

Raikes said trustees also learned that residential life at Stanford will evolve. He described the new residential neighborhoods that will be created under the ResX initiative.

The neighborhoods are designed to provide a social and intellectual home for students throughout their time on campus, beginning with their first year on campus. They also are intended to build equity and inclusion into the heart of residential life.

“The underlying goal of this effort is to foster a deeper sense of belonging, to create an ecosystem where our students can more easily build lasting support networks of friends and mentors,” he said.

The neighborhoods ensure that whatever path students take through the first-year residences, theme houses, upper-class dorms, row houses, co-ops or Greek houses, they can follow their interests while retaining a sense of community.

Raikes acknowledged that distance between facilities may pose challenges for some of the envisioned neighborhoods but said that gathering areas – including dining halls – will act as magnets in encouraging community.

Virtual field trip

Raikes said board members also took a virtual field trip led by Dan Schwartz, dean of the Graduate School of Education, and designed through the Transforming Learning Accelerator (TLA). TLA delivers effective and equitable solutions to learning challenges. The exercise was designed to help trustees understand innovations in digital learning.

The field trip project, spearheaded by Ryan Petterson, director of field education at the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, “dropped” board members into an unknown location. Once there, trustees worked together in small groups to discover where they were and identify pertinent issues. The location turned out to be Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.

The exercise helped trustees engage in problem solving and learn about projects pursued through TLA. Those projects focus on delivering K-12 education during the pandemic and beyond, building online spaces to deliver learning experiences to college students globally and creating solutions for learners with disabilities.

“Although we are excited to be able to meet again in person, this virtual trip helped us see ways Stanford is creating rich online opportunities for all learners,” he said.

IDEAL updates

Trustees were also updated on the progress of the university’s IDEAL and racial justice initiatives, which seek progress on diversity, equity and inclusion at Stanford.

The trustees heard from Provost Persis Drell about such initiatives as expanded data dashboards for the university community, the appointment of the first group of IDEAL Provostial Fellows and the hiring of faculty members who specialize in the study of race and ethnicity.

“This is immensely important work,” Raikes said. “Making progress on equity and inclusion is of deep interest to the board. There is a lot more to do, but progress is being made.”