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Dean Arun Majumdar reflects on the school’s first year

One year after the launch of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, Dean Arun Majumdar reflects on the school’s milestones and his hopes for the future.

Dr. Arun Majumdar
Arun Majumdar

The summer of 2023 has been the hottest summer in recorded history, featuring deadly heat waves, disastrous wildfires, and destructive storms including Hurricane Hilary, the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years.

Here, Arun Majumdar, dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, answers questions about how Stanford scientists are confronting the climate crisis, and progress in the first year of the school. 

Please share some of the highlights of the past year and some plans that you have for the upcoming school year?

Majumdar: The school had a terrific launch last year which was very meaningful to me. We put a lot of time into building on the momentum that was created over the last five or six years through the planning process, and then we launched the school on Sept. 1. In the opening remarks, I said that what keeps me awake at night are some of the events that are going on in the world – the heat waves, the droughts. Those are among the big issues that we’ve got to do something about. 

I have two daughters who are both in the area of sustainability. I got into this field myself because of my graduate students, 25 years ago, who said, “This is going to be important. We think you should pay attention to this.” That got me involved initially – so in many ways, as a culmination, the launch of a school was very, very meaningful. 

We spent a lot of time this year establishing the leadership of faculty, staff, and students in the school. We put together an interesting structure for the leadership, where we have elevated the issue of environmental justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion, because we think that to address the complex problems of the world and sustainability, you need the diversity of experience in opinions and viewpoints, and we need many voices to be included.

We launched the Dean’s Lecture Series over the last year, and the first topic was environmental justice, on which we had a lecture and several panels. We also launched a new department – the Oceans Department with a PhD program – and we started a social sciences division. We have also had tremendous success in hiring faculty, recruiting talent, and we launched several new faculty searches that are going on right now. 

This past year we saw a tremendous increase in the numbers of undergraduates taking sustainability courses. We are offering a new core undergraduate curriculum to all undergraduates across the whole campus. We are launching that right now, and we are going to double down on that next year. 

We put together a program for sustainability entrepreneurs in partnership with the GSB called the Ecopreneurship program. We also put together an Advisory Council, and we’ve had our first Advisory Council meeting, from which we’ve gotten some tremendous feedback. 

In addition we launched our first major goal in the Sustainability Accelerator – which we call a flagship destination. This is greenhouse gas removal from the atmosphere at the gigaton per year scale. We’ll be adding more flagship destinations, based on input from the entire Stanford community. 

So there are lots of things that have happened, and looking back it feels good, but at the same time these are baby steps compared to what is actually needed to address the complexity, magnitude, and urgency.  

What are the Doerr School of Sustainability’s most promising collaborations that could help address climate change?

Majumdar: So, if you really look at the subject of sustainability, one has to take an all-campus approach, because sustainability is not neatly divided into a topic in business school or engineering or humanities and sciences and law. It’s all of the above. 

The approach we’re taking at Stanford with our school is a partnership. And one of the most important things that has happened over the past year, which was achieved through the launch of the school, is joint appointments of faculty between different schools. I have a joint appointment with Engineering, and many of the people in the school are now joint appointees. 

We’re thinking of a partnership now between the Law School, the Graduate School of Business, and the Doerr School of Sustainability on climate policy and finance. This is going on as we speak, which is heartening to see. And our Oceans Department has faculty from all over campus. So that’s been a huge success internally as well. 

We have also been putting together a whole team for External Affairs because we have so much interest from the outside and we need to be able to match the demand. Over the last three quarters, the school has hosted more than 50 deputy heads of state, CEOs, and other senior leaders who have interest in what we’re doing. 

We also launched a partnership with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. This is an important relationship because many faculty in our new Oceans Department are based at Hopkins Marine Station, which is located near Monterey. 

The school is also launching a program next year that will offer Stanford undergraduates the opportunity to do a summer internship somewhere in the world in the area of sustainability. Along with career counseling and the placement office, we are working on behalf of the students to make sure we place them in an internship. Of course, we’re going to start small and then build on it and learn from our experiments, but this is going to be for all Stanford. 

In what ways have you witnessed teaching and research evolve at Stanford as the urgency and evidence of the climate crisis has increased? 

Majumdar: I don’t think we have to remind people of the urgency of climate change – it’s in the news on a weekly basis somewhere in the world. The challenge is that we tend to capture things that are happening in the United States, but there’s so much more going on in the world. We report heat waves and what’s going on in the Florida Keys where the water is at 101 degrees Fahrenheit. But there are other things going on in other parts of the world, and we don’t get to hear all of that. 

If you look at academia broadly, we tend to specialize in our fields of research and education. Someone may be an expert in energy, another person is an expert in water, someone else is an expert in food. But what happens in energy affects water, and what happens in water affects food. We do need the specialization, but if we only specialize, what’s lost is the interplay between those areas, so you don’t get the whole picture. 

As a result, we are developing curricula which addresses not only the urgency, but also the implication of how you address sustainability challenges and make decisions based on knowledge, where there’s interplay. If you make a decision in energy you have to integrate not only technology, policy, equity, and business, all together, but at the same time. So that approach to education is a very holistic approach. Of course we want to have solutions with urgency, but we also want to make sure that our solutions don’t have severe unintended consequences somewhere else. 

What are you most hopeful about with respect to advances at Stanford and worldwide which most efficiently and effectively address the global climate crisis?

Majumdar: I mentioned greenhouse gas removal, which is a major focus of our accelerator. We feel achieving this goal is really important, because if we don’t, we’re not going to be able to address climate change. We need to do this in addition to decarbonization – it’s not an either or, it’s both and. 

In addition, I think it’s very important to address climate adaptation. Despite our best efforts to reduce emissions and remove atmospheric greenhouse gases, there’s a risk of exceeding 2 C warming over pre-industrial levels, which will introduce all types of extreme events. Adaptation involves: How will we manage heat and humidity waves that we will encounter in the future? Food productivity goes down with higher temperatures, so how do we have food security? How do we have drought-resistant plants for our food? 

For Stanford students and community members, how can we as individuals and members of our local and global communities help address the climate crisis?

Majumdar: So this is the first question we asked in our Sustain 101A class. How would you reduce a personal carbon footprint to the global average? In the United States, ours are three times more than the global average. There are some personal measures you can take, but you have to do some collective measures because the infrastructure that we have gives us no choice in using or not using the infrastructure. 

Stanford is a great example, not only of personal measures taken, but also collective measures on the Stanford campus. I was really delighted to see some of the student projects in this class focused on how to make Stanford carbon neutral and how to make our living on campus much more sustainable. The students stepped up and worked with LBRE [Stanford Land, Buildings & Real Estate] to develop measures and projects. That was so much fun to see, and it is heartening to see that kind of effort put together. 

I really have full faith in action, both personal action and collective actions. We are still one microcosm of larger society. So our individual actions need to then flow out and get to other parts of society to really take action.

What are your greatest hopes and dreams for the future at the school and for Stanford students?

Majumdar: First of all, the only way we can address the challenges is to create knowledge and translate that knowledge into solutions. But these solutions have to be at large scale. If you are focused on decarbonization or negative emissions, this is at the gigaton per year scale, and that scale is not something we often consider when we do things at a university in a lab. 

There is no question that we have to come up with solutions. And we’ve done this before in other fields, so I’m very optimistic that with creativity, knowledge, and ingenuity, in partnership with communities, businesses, and governments, we have a shot at solving this serious problem. 

I would say that while we do that, it’s very important that Stanford students and faculty reimagine how we engage with society writ large. And this is not just American society, with whom we have to engage for sure, but this is global. Every country, every region, is starting from a different initial condition and different neighboring boundary conditions. Their solutions are going to be different from ours in the United States, and we have to understand how the world works. 

This is why I’m so excited about this internship program, because I want our students to spend the summer somewhere in the world – and that’s not only for their own education in the lab, or in the classroom, but it’s the education about the culture, and making friendships in the rest of the world – so that they really understand how to adapt solutions for local needs.

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