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Dean’s listening tour reveals many viewpoints within Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

About 160 students and postdoctoral researchers have participated so far in Dean Arun Majumdar’s ongoing listening tour focused on the role of energy company engagement in research funding.

Since he was announced as inaugural dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability in May, Arun Majumdar has met with about 160 students and postdoctoral fellows along with faculty and other stakeholders to better understand their views on the role of the energy industry in funding research, among other topics.

Majumdar announced this listening tour following concerns expressed by students and faculty about the school’s willingness to engage with energy companies. In a May 25 letter to the community, Majumdar said that according to the principles of academic freedom, faculty are welcome to seek their own sources of funding for individual projects.

Majumdar’s listening tour focuses on broad engagement with energy companies, and specifically industrial affiliates programs, which aggregate membership fees to support faculty research. Some of those affiliates programs have energy companies as members.

Throughout the tour, Majumdar has heard from those who are opposed to engagement with fossil fuel companies, as well as those whose research is funded through affiliates programs. 

“When I became dean I said that I wanted to hear from each of you as we work to develop shared values,” Majumdar said. “There are those who are very vocal about their opinions, but I am also hearing through letters and smaller conversations from those who hold other views. I’m so grateful to everyone who has shared their deeply held convictions.”

Multiple viewpoints

Soon after Majumdar was announced as dean, students, faculty, and others signed an open letter saying the funding from fossil fuel companies “represents an inherent conflict of interest, is incompatible with the University’s core academic and social values, and supports industry greenwashing.” 

Since that open letter circulated, Majumdar has also received emails from faculty and students expressing concern that abandoning funding from the energy industry could slow the transition to a net-zero carbon future. In one letter, community members wrote that the move could be “harmful to the many active research programs that are providing significant advances in the amelioration of climate change.” 

In another letter sent to Majumdar, the signers wrote in support of the research they carry out through affiliates programs funding: “​​We share a deep concern for the future of our planet and the prosperity of its people. For example, many people involved in subsurface modeling are focused on carbon capture and sequestration, which has been touted as a key pillar of the recent Inflation Reduction Act passed by the Biden Administration.”

Those in favor of severing ties to fossil fuel companies have also protested at the on-campus school launch celebration and at the recent Global Energy Forum, written op-eds, and shared their concerns in the Stanford Daily

Signers of one opinion piece in the Stanford Daily wrote, “While we cannot change the School’s historical ties to the industry, our future reputation depends on the choices and decisions we make today, including decisions about phasing out partnerships with companies that do not meet the School’s own minimum criteria.”

In addition to conversations around how funding may impact research agendas and climate goals, meetings held with the dean thus far have included feedback on the importance of incorporating environmental justice methodologies and hiring faculty who represent diverse sustainability needs. 

Students and postdoctoral researchers also voiced interest in strengthening connections with alumni and policymakers, having more transparency in the admissions process, engaging with local and global communities, and elevating underrepresented voices in the school planning process. Attendees also brainstormed ideas for community-building, retention of students, sustainable travel and events, availability of food at night, and incentives for social interaction across the school.

“I want to thank everyone who has met with me individually or in small groups, or who has emailed me personally,” Majumdar said. “My opinions have been shaped over time by experiences in my personal and professional life. I expect these conversations will continue to evolve my perspectives and those of the people who participate.”

Now, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne is creating a committee to consider these and other perspectives in the context of future engagement or disengagement with energy companies. The group will be charged with assessing current funding from fossil fuel companies, reviewing the approach of other universities, and providing pros and cons of the current approach of accepting these funds and of alternative approaches. 

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