When Arun Majumdar was announced inaugural dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability in May, he brought to the role extensive experience in academia, government, industry, and national labs, not to mention his own research in renewable energy technologies.

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Kurt Hickman

The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability draws on a deep understanding of Earth, climate, and society to create solutions at a global scale, in collaboration with partners worldwide. Together, we strive to create a future where humans and nature thrive in concert and in perpetuity.

But he also brought personal experiences that shape how he thinks about environmental justice and the importance of providing clean, renewable energy to people worldwide.

Growing up in New Delhi, India, Majumdar said his mother cooked indoors over a coal stove. “And yes, it was very polluting,” he said. Getting a gas stove was a big deal for the family, as was a refrigerator.

“That’s still the reality today in many parts of the world,” Majumdar said.

Those experiences inform how Majumdar thinks about bringing multiple voices and perspectives into the sustainability conversation. “I think getting the diversity of different cultures and living conditions is really important because you don’t know what you’ve missed. You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said.

That sentiment has informed some of Majumdar’s early decisions as dean – a role that becomes official today, Sept. 1, when the school formally opens. In addition to leadership dedicated to faculty affairs and education, Majumdar has appointed associate deans dedicated to what he calls Integrative Initiatives, which include a focus on environmental justice; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and student and faculty initiatives.

“I am hopeful the integrative initiatives will foster an intentional culture, woven with inclusive and well-developed community values,” said Majumdar, who is also the Jay Precourt Professor, professor of mechanical engineering and of photon science, a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution where he co-chairs the George Shultz Energy and Climate Task Force.

Breadth of experience

Beyond his personal experiences, Majumdar brings an extensive history driving clean energy technologies. He is a former division director for environmental energy technologies at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), acting under secretary of energy, vice president for energy at Google, and co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, among many other leadership roles.

Arun Majumdar, the Jay Precourt Professor, professor of mechanical engineering, and senior fellow and former co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, is the inaugural dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. (Image credit: Edward Caldwell)

“Arun’s impressive accomplishments in three different sectors – academia, government, and industry ­– make him a superb choice to lead the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, with its focus on both deep scholarship and on bringing solutions to the world,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “He has a keen understanding of the challenges we face and a far-reaching vision for their implications. Under his leadership, I believe the school can be a model for how other universities can contribute to the defining challenge of our generation.”

It was this breadth of professional experience and academic excellence, along with Majumdar’s capacity for listening to others, that led Stanford Provost Persis Drell to appoint Majumdar as dean.

“Arun is highly regarded – at Stanford and beyond – for his deep expertise in sustainable energy solutions,” Drell said. “The new school is already benefiting from his connections with potential partners as he develops plans for an accelerator to scale new solutions to help those affected by our changing climate. Arun is an outstanding leader and I deeply appreciate his ongoing efforts to engage with the community in developing a vision for the school’s future.”

Kathryn “Kam” Moler, who served as transition dean as the school was forming and is vice provost and dean of research, said, “Everything in Arun’s background has prepared him for this role.”

“His own experiences growing up in India, his scientific breadth and excellence – including his role as the founding director of ARPA-E – his successful co-leadership of the Precourt Institute for Energy, and his international connections with governments, universities, companies, and non-profits all make him incredibly qualified,” Moler said.

New type of school

Majumdar said that the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability isn’t just a new school, it represents a new approach for how an academic institution can tackle challenges associated with climate and sustainability.

It includes academic departments spanning all areas of scholarship that are needed to advance the long-term sustainability of the planet; institutes that bridge disciplines and bring multiple viewpoints to bear on urgent challenges; and an accelerator that drives new policy and technology solutions through a worldwide network of partners to develop solutions at a global scale.

“No other school with a focus on climate or sustainability includes all of those pieces,” Majumdar said. “This is part of how we are reimagining the role academia can play in addressing sustainability. This response required imaginative and bold changes within the university.”

Although the school itself is new, scholarship focusing on the Earth and its processes has a long history at Stanford. That legacy began when geologist John Casper Branner was hired as Stanford’s first professor and chair of the Department of Geology in 1891. In 1913, Branner became the university’s second president. The department evolved through several name changes, and eventually became its own school, most recently named the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth).

Stanford Earth and its people and programs are all now incorporated into the new Doerr School of Sustainability. Also joining the school are the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (joint with the School of Engineering), the facilities of Hopkins Marine Station, and many faculty from across the university. The school also expects to hire as many as 60 additional faculty over the next 10 years.

“Addressing climate change and sustainability requires a deep understanding of Earth, climate, and society,” Majumdar said. “It is a topic where science, engineering, business, law, social sciences, global health, and humanities are intricately connected. Our response to the challenge demands a whole campus effort towards a common goal.”

Capacity to listen

Steven Chu, now professor of physics and of molecular and cellular biology at Stanford, was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory when he appointed Majumdar to his role as division director. “I wanted to create a sort of Bell Labs environment,” said Chu. He had worked previously at AT&T Bell Laboratories, which had a flat structure and fostered significant intellectual debate.

“It was the quality of what you said rather than your position that determined how much influence you had,” Chu said. He selected Majumdar in part for his ability to give and receive honest feedback from colleagues as well as his scientific excellence.

“He’s very thoughtful, and he listens,” Chu said. “He doesn’t try to be someone who pretends to know everything or try to show he is the smartest person in the room.”

Later, as secretary of energy, Chu recruited Majumdar again, this time to be the founding director of ARPA-E, which was founded to stimulate innovation and develop clean, affordable, and reliable energy. At ARPA-E, Majumdar developed programs to fund high-risk, high-reward research involving government labs, private industry, and universities that might not otherwise be pursued.

Majumdar has taken that experience and applied it to plans for the Sustainability Accelerator, which is also intended to develop teams working to develop sustainability solutions on a global scale. Like ARPA-E, the accelerator will fund teams and also bring in experts and mentors from across industries to provide expert guidance and assistance.

“Arun really dedicates himself to his responsibilities as a leader,” said Sally Benson, who was co-director of Precourt along with Majumdar. She pointed to his role in bringing the Global Energy Forum to Stanford. “He used his full Rolodex, which might be among the most impressive Rolodexes in energy, and created a knock-it-out-of-the-park event,” she said.

As one of his initial efforts at Precourt, Majumdar also created the Bits and Watts Initiative focused on creating a modern electric grid. It was intended to accelerate the time from discovery to scale-up and deployment by working not only with scientists and engineers but with economists, the law school, the business school, and others. Bitts and Watts became the model for subsequent interdisciplinary initiatives within Precourt.

Creating a new school

Beyond Majumdar’s personal strengths, Moler said he is surrounding himself with people who can supplement his experiences and support his vision.

“He has put fantastic next-level leadership into place that complements his own strengths,” Moler said. “He also knows that hiring and supporting and partnering with good people is the most important attribute of a leader.”

To that end, Majumdar recently announced a leadership team that includes senior expertise from across the units that are merging to form the new school. In addition, he recently announced new department chairs from among those faculty who have been working to develop the school over the past several years.

“I will be relying on their collective wisdom, experience, passion, and enthusiasm in the months and years ahead,” Majumdar said.

Majumdar has also been holding a listening tour with faculty, students, and staff, including large Open Forums, individual meetings, and meetings with groups and departments. In a message to the school, he said he hoped to provide opportunities for everyone in the community to be heard, including on the topic of engaging with fossil fuel companies via research affiliate programs.

In the message, he wrote, “In the months ahead, I would ask you to listen not only to people who agree with you, but also respectfully hear from those who may disagree with you. In the spirit of diversity and inclusion, I am asking you to be inclusive, to be open to diverse viewpoints, and to be intellectually flexible to create a set of shared values.” Majumdar said the listening tour will extend into the fall.

As the school programs come together, faculty, students, and staff on campus will notice some changes. The university continues to have seven schools, with the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability replacing the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. Courses listed within the school use the code SUSTAIN within Explore Courses. In addition, new degree programs will be announced over the coming years. Students hoping to join the new school can investigate the undergraduate and graduate programs.

The school itself is primarily housed within the Mitchell Earth Sciences Building, Green Earth Sciences Building, and the Yang and Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building (Y2E2). Over time, the programs will be part of a new sustainability commons anchored by two new buildings along with Y2E2 and Green.

This new space will be open to everyone on campus interested in sustainability and in bringing their varied experiences and viewpoints to bear on critical issues facing the planet.