A Dean Who Raised the School’s Profile and Broadened Its Reach Steps Down

A Dean Who Raised the School’s Profile
and Broadened Its Reach Steps Down

When James “Gus” Speth came back to Yale in 1999 to take over as dean at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he already could claim to have won what might be considered a triple crown for Earth advocacy.

In 1969 as a Yale law student, he helped launch the Natural Resources Defense Council and then acted as its chief attorney while it grew into one of the nation’s leading environmental groups.

In 1982, after serving as head of President Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, he founded the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., now regarded as a premier environmental think tank.

Then for most of the 1990s, he led the United Nations Development Programme, which had a $2 billion budget and offices in 132 countries at the end of his tenure.

With such a distinguished career behind him—spanning the modern environmental movement—it was fair to wonder what Speth, who graduated from Yale College in 1964, could do to top himself.

It turns out that he had ambitions for F&ES that were as large as those that he’d had for the other institutions he had nurtured. In fact, he set the bar for measuring his deanship early.

“I will tell you what I am going to do, and I will do it,” he wrote in a memo to faculty on August 13, 1999, a month after his arrival. His goal, he said, was “to build the greatest school of environmental science, management and policy in the world.”

By November, he was telling the Yale Club of New York City that he wanted “to build not only the best school of the environment, but the world’s first global school of the environment.”

Speth backed up these audacious pledges with more concrete goals that he declared in many forums, in varying degrees of refinement. In an address prepared for the school’s 100th anniversary celebration in October 2000, he condensed the goals to six:

  • Complete the school’s transition to a “broad-gauged” institution, with expertise in policy, management and science.   
  • Enlarge the faculty.   
  • Forge closer ties with Yale College.   
  • Expand scholarship support, especially for foreign students.   
  • Build new facilities.   
  • Push the school into the forefront of public discourse.  

Now, as his deanship winds to a close, the plaudits for Speth’s accomplishments show that he delivered on everything he promised.

“The school has seen remarkable growth in faculty, student applications and the availability of scholarship assistance over the past 10 years,” said President Richard Levin in praising Speth’s “superb leadership.”

Levin also said that Speth has been “a passionate advocate for a greener Yale and has played a key role in increasing national and international awareness of climate issues.”

In response, Speth amended Levin’s assessment with slightly more detail and a protest of modesty.

“The things that have happened here at the school—which I feel very good about—are things a lot of people were responsible for,” Speth said. “They happened while I was dean, but they weren’t things I did by myself. So credit should be very widely shared.”

But, yes, he believes that one of his proudest achievements has been that “we dramatically strengthened the faculty and research going on here at the school.” He added that the resident faculty has grown to 44 full-time equivalent positions from 29 since 2000, with the recent additions of Karen Hébert, an environmental anthropologist whose specialty is globalization and environmental change, and an economics position that was expected to be filled this spring. In addition, Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovern-mental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 2002 and a former Dorothy S. McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation at F&ES, was recently appointed director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, a new interdisciplinary research and policy initiative.

He pronounced himself pleased that “we’ve been able to increase the number of applicants to the school” (by about 50 percent, to 557 this year from 351 in 2000), and pleased too with “the new work in building an undergraduate environmental studies program” (now a full major).

And he said he felt “very good about, and appreciative of, the fund-raising we’ve been able to do. We’ve raised a lot of money, thanks to the generosity of a lot of people. And that has allowed us to expand the faculty, increase student scholarships and build this wonderful building.” The building he was referring to is Kroon Hall, the new F&ES home on Science Hill (see cover story, page 4).

After his term ends in June, Dean Speth plans to move to a home that he and his wife, Cameron, built in Strafford, Vt., and embark on the next stage of his career, teaching at Vermont Law School.

Kroon Hall is the most visible evidence, literally, of Speth’s met goals. Besides giving F&ES a central facility, Kroon set a standard for buildings constructed using sustainable principles. “He was determined to have it finished before he left,” said Frances Beinecke ’74, who, as a member of the school’s Leadership Council, witnessed what she said is his “deep commitment to global issues.”

Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former Yale Corporation director, is one of many prominent environmentalists and faculty members who reflected on Speth’s tenure as dean.

She said that as “stunning” as Kroon Hall is, it is but one example of how Speth raised the profile of the environment and the school, both inside and outside Yale.

“He never holds back on what the times demand,” Beinecke said. “Gus is a mover and shaker. That’s what he does, and he’s very effective at it. He’s just opened up what was a hidden gem at Yale and made it a centerpiece of what Yale has to offer.”

The school, she said, is now “at the center of the conversation of what the direction of the planet is going to be.” She cited Speth’s recruitment, among others, of Pachauri and Wangari Maathai of Kenya to spend whole semesters in New Haven as McCluskey Fellows. Both subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize—Pachauri as chair of the IPCC, and Maathai for her women-driven Green Belt Movement.

Pachauri and Maathai are the very embodiment of Speth’s success at attaining his global goal. But there are other measures, like the increase in master’s-degree applications from international students. This year there were 144, compared to 104 in 2000.

Gordon Geballe, associate dean for student and alumni affairs since 1983, said a shared internationalist vision is partly what led Levin to recruit Speth as dean. Global prominence doesn’t come cheap, though, nor does a new school building that aspires to achieve a platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating. So it may be, Geballe said, that Speth will be best remembered for being an extraordinarily successful fund-raiser.


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