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Open letter from Dean Arun Majumdar

Majumdar discusses academic freedom and the resources that support research: "partnerships are based on trust."

Dear Stanford community,

I am writing to thank the six students of diverse professional backgrounds and opinions who came together to find common ground and published a letter with recommendations on how to address engagement with fossil fuel companies. They should be congratulated for their collaborative efforts and their recommendations deserve our attention, respect, and a response.

Dean Arun Majumdar

After a year in this role and having engaged with people within Stanford and from around the world, I am even more convinced that the approach, the ambition, early execution, and the timing of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability (SDSS) has captured their imagination. We have taken first steps and we have a long journey ahead, which is outlined in our report published on our first anniversary.

On the issue of engaging with fossil fuel companies, we as a community have made some progress. I conducted and reported on a listening tour of various student groups within SDSS. A university-wide Committee on Funding for Energy Research and Education (CFERE) was formed and is being led by Professors Debra Satz and Paul Brest to evaluate various options of engagement with energy companies. A milestone on this committee’s work was a gathering and dialogue on this complex issue on May 31, 2023. Following this civil discourse, the students found common ground to make a set of recommendations for CFERE and all of us to consider.

Most of the students’ recommendations overlap with CFERE’s purview and the committee deserves the independence to arrive at their own evaluations. As the dean of SDSS, it is in my purview to address one of their recommendations. In partnership with the vice provost and dean of research, I will ensure that all our industrial affiliate programs in SDSS comply with the university guidelines. We will also ensure that the information about all affiliate programs is not only available, but easy to access and understand.

The university has some general rules of engagement. For instance, there are limits when federal authorities flag external organizations as posing security threats, or when researchers are affected by conflicts of interest or commitment. Within those rules, a core institutional value is that of academic freedom. It is foundational and offers protection to our academic community with regard to the freedom of inquiry, thought, expression, and assembly, free from institutional orthodoxy and any form of coercion. It allows faculty to pursue research they feel is worthy of their scholarship and engage with organizations that they deem worthwhile.

Academic freedom answers the questions “can one pursue a research topic?” or “can one engage with an external partner?” and the institutional answer is: Yes you can, as long as they are within the rules of engagement. What academic freedom does not answer is: “should one pursue a research topic?” or “should one engage with an external partner?” Within the bounds of academic freedom, it is left to individual discretion.

From my experience as a researcher, I would humbly offer that research partnerships are much more than simply receiving funding and publishing research in the open literature. Partnerships are a team sport. It is about the exchange of ideas, identifying important gaps in our understanding, and the promise of taking research results from academia and creating value for society at scale. It involves our students and their careers. Fundamentally, such partnerships are based on trust.

As dean of SDSS, I will continue to uphold academic freedom. I will also continue to guide resources to support both knowledge-driven and solutions-driven research. Furthermore, the decisions to support projects in the Sustainability Accelerator and the first stage of funding will be achieved independent of corporate investments. I also call on my fellow faculty members to examine their personal choices of how they wish to exercise their academic freedom and with whom they build partnerships of trust in their journey to address climate change and build a sustainable future for all.

Arun Majumdar
Dean, Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

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