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Message from Arun Majumdar: Looking forward

Dear Doerr School Community,

It is truly exciting for all of us to launch the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability to address the defining challenge of the 21st century, with the ambition of creating a future where humanity and our planet can thrive together. We are incredibly fortunate to have the support of John and Ann Doerr, as well as many other donors, to help us launch the school with such an extraordinary set of resources.

Since the beginning, we have been committed to creating and shaping a school of sustainability our own way. It started with the Sustainability Design team that highlighted the defining issues of the 21st century, followed by the Organizational Structural Committee that proposed the creation of a School, and more recently, the Blueprint Advisory Committee and the transition team led by Kam Moler and Steve Graham, who have worked exceptionally hard to put us at the doorstep of a historic moment – the launch of the Doerr School. This is not baton-passing, but momentum-building over the last few years. I am truly honored, humbled, and excited to launch the Doerr School alongside this amazing set of leaders, with whom I will continue to work after I officially take over June 15th.

We have significant work ahead of us: establishing the school’s departments, curricula, and leadership team; hiring faculty and making joint appointments; recruiting students and postdoctoral fellows; launching the Accelerator; establishing the new Institute for Sustainable Societies; and much more. I look forward to working with—and learning from—faculty, staff, and students every step of the way. I’ve held open forums that I hope many of you were able to attend, and I’ll hold many more over the summer and once students return in the fall. It will take all of us collaborating to develop the strongest possible school. 

We are at a historical moment and the world is watching. People are placing their trust in us and rooting for us to succeed. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to get this right.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard from many of you about whether the school will accept funding from oil and gas companies. I appreciate your engagement and passion on this important issue.

I want to clarify that the School does not have plans to seek funding from oil and gas companies for its general operations. I also want to note that, as a corollary of academic freedom, individual faculty members have the right to create and foster research engagement with any company as long as they are in accordance with our campus policies.

In the context of the School, the issue of corporate funding arises principally for Industry Affiliates programs and other pooled resources that are aimed at tackling particular problems. Examples include the Bits and Watts Initiative for digitalization of the electric grid or StorageX for next-generation storage solutions. 

With that clarification, let us all first agree on some basics.

The complexity, magnitude, and urgency of climate change and sustainability are such that no single institution can, by itself, tackle it. Partnerships are essential. In launching the Doerr School, it is clear that we will need to collaborate with other organizations. We also have the responsibility to examine and ensure that our partnerships align with our values, vision, and ambition. We are, therefore, confronted by the ethical question of how we identify external organizations and how we should partner with them in research and educational collaborations. At the heart of the issue are key questions: What are our values? What are our goals and ambitions?

Let me attempt to answer these questions by clarifying where I stand today. I have shared these thoughts with many students and faculty, including those on the search committee. These are not rigidly etched in my mind. I welcome your thoughts, and with all humility, I will be most willing to modify my own. The goal is to create a shared set of values. 

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.

Among fossil fuel companies, some may:

a) Deny the existence of climate change;

b) Undermine and/or misrepresent the understanding of the science of climate change;

c) Make public climate commitments while undermining sensible government policies that would otherwise facilitate significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; and/or

d) Misuse their partnership with Stanford to undermine such policies or goals of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. 

As far as I am concerned, these behaviors are against my values. I believe that we at the Doerr School should not institutionally engage with such companies.  

However, I also believe it would be unwise to paint the whole industry with a single brush; every industry has companies with a wide range of ethical standards. For each company, we should be asking several  questions:

1) Are its climate commitments aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement?

2) Is it devoting sufficient human and financial resources to meet its commitments?

3) Is it supporting and promoting government policy that would create the business imperative for a transition to a clean economy? 

In some cases, a fossil fuel company may need to produce oil and gas to avoid significant disruptions to human welfare, the economy and national security in the short term. One should then ask: 

4) Does it still intend to meet its climate commitments in the long term?

In short, if there are companies that are making measurably meaningful efforts to be part of the solution, I feel it would be prudent to be open to engaging such companies, while remaining vigilant that their values align with ours. To most effectively and urgently combat climate change, we need to have an “all hands on deck” approach. Companies committed to fighting climate change that have transnational scale, industrial know-how and financial resources should be welcome allies in this fight. They can enable innovations and breakthroughs in academia, which are invariably at the laboratory-scale, to be rapidly scaled up for global impact. 

Engagement need not be exclusively via funding. It could be through licensing intellectual property and stewardship of clean technologies through the scaling process. It could be through education on the latest scientific understanding on climate change, to accelerate corporate decarbonization.  

When we engage with such companies, I believe it ought to be done in accordance with our campus policies regarding academic freedom and transparency of funding sources for peer-reviewed publications. And we need to continuously examine and ensure that our partners’ values and behavior remain consistent with our own shared values.

As humans, some of our values change over time, shaped by the experiences and constraints we encounter in life, many of them unexpected. Mine certainly have, shaped by my experiences in family life and professionally in academia, government, and business. And I suspect yours have and will too in the future. In that spirit, I believe the businesses trying to make a meaningful effort to change ought to be allowed some room and time to change their course and align their values, goals, and actions to address climate change.

This is where I stand today. I am looking forward to hearing from each of you and creating a set of shared values and goals by the end of the Autumn quarter of 2022. We have much work ahead of us on this and the many other important topics our school must address.

Arun Majumdar