A Dean Who Raised the School’s Profile
and Broadened Its Reach Steps Down
Part of that outreach effort included a major conference in 2005 hosted by F&ES in Aspen, Colo., on one of the greatest practical and intellectual challenges of our time—climate change. That conference (and one that would follow in 2007) was organized by another Speth initiative, the Yale F&ES Project on Climate Change, part of the Office of Strategic Initiatives that was created to enhance the school’s role in public discourse. The conference attracted leaders and thinkers from across the country. And last year, the school established an online environmental magazine, Yale Environment 360, which has expanded the reach of the school, with significant collaborations with India and China.
Mary Evelyn Tucker, an organizer of the 2007 conference, which examined the values and worldviews underlying society’s relationship with the natural world, said Speth “recognizes that environmental issues need to include ethical concerns, so he’s expanded the faculty to include people like us.” The “us” refers to Tucker and her husband, John Grim, co-founders and co-directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology. Both hold joint appointments at F&ES and the Yale Divinity School.
In Speth’s most recent book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing From Crisis to Sustainability, Kellert and Tucker are both mentioned as proponents of the deep cultural changes needed to reverse the degradation of the planet. Named by The Washington Post as a best nonfiction book for 2008, The Bridge at the Edge of the World is surprisingly tough on the environmental movement for someone Time magazine once labeled “the ultimate insider.”
Speth writes that the kind of environmentalism he helped create—one of government regulation guided by science—is insufficient to address the harm being inflicted on the planet by global capitalism and its growth fetish.
Early in the book, he writes: “My conclusion, after much searching and considerable reluctance, is that most environmental deterioration is a result of systemic failures of the capitalism that we have today and that long-term solutions must seek transformative change in the key features of this contemporary capitalism.”
Speth said he considers his books his main personal contribution to the world beyond Yale during his deanship. Yet he gave Yale some credit for them. Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment grew out of an undergraduate course that he taught, and The Bridge at the Edge of the World expanded on his contribution to the DeVane Lectures, which are a special series open to the public and the Yale community.
“I wasn’t even sure I was going to write a book when I came here. The ideas came later,” Speth said. “What the school did for me was to give me a little time and a little distance so that I could reflect on my earlier years—where environmentalism had left us both nationally and internationally—so that was a great gift.”
The recognition that environmentalism must embrace disciplines outside nature and engage in societal change may best characterize Speth’s deanship. “The overarching theme here—the takeaway message—is the uniqueness of Gus’ leadership of the school,” said V. Alaric “Al” Sample ’80, D.F. ’89, president of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and a past president of the F&ES Alumni Association Executive Council.
He said Gus offers “the broad global vision and the long-term perspective that you typically do not find in a school led by academics. You look at most academics and they’re narrowly focused. They have to be to succeed. To do what Gus has done, you have to be almost the inverse. You’ve got to be a lumper, not a splitter.”
He added: “Gus has taken seriously the notion that we need to lead by example, so if F&ES was going to be truly global, it had to have more international connections and prove, with Kroon Hall, that it practiced what it preached about sustainability.”
In October 2007, after Speth was named Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean, Sample wrote Levin praising Speth’s work and urged its continuation. “Part of Gus’ legacy is that he significantly raised the public awareness of the seriousness of climate change, the global nature of the problem and the need for immediate, decisive action,” he wrote.
Mark Ashton ’85, Ph.D. ’90, Morris K. Jesup Professor of Silviculture, likened the school’s growth during Speth’s time to a “root system. The scope has gotten broader and broader.” He also said that Speth’s focus on climate change “really put the school in the limelight,” helping to attract money and students. And he observed that Speth’s efforts in addressing the climate change issue, in some sense, recalls the school’s forester founders, Gifford Pinchot and Henry Graves, who also were alarmed by the destruction of natural resources on a huge scale.
“The original focus of the school was similar—on timber famine and water shortages,” Ashton said. “I would say [Speth] has brought us right back to those resource issues that the nation and the world are facing [with climate change destruction].”
Ashton, whose own specialty is comparative forest reproduction, said the school has benefited from its broader focus, though there is some sentiment that the natural sciences have not received the attention they should. “The school continues. The only thing that changes is the dean,” Ashton said. “But my suspicion is that the imprint of Gus’ tenure will stay for a long time. The faculty will try to cement what we have and not broaden further.”
Gordon Geballe recalled that one of the “brouhahas” of Speth’s administration was the attempt to get people to say environment, instead of forestry, when referring to the school in shorthand, fueling concerns among some faculty, students and alumni that the school was jettisoning its proud heritage.
“I think everybody’s happy in the aggregate,” Geballe said. “A strong leader is not somebody who tries to be liked by everybody, but a person who sees what the institution—not only our school, but Yale as a whole—needs to go through. It’s remarkable how much has gotten done.”
Geballe said Speth signaled his approach to the deanship when, early in his administration, he took six graduate students and six undergraduates to a major environmental conference in South Africa. He wanted to introduce them to global players, spread the F&ES name and inspire them with what he called “Jazz”—grassroots, decenralized and improvisational voluntary initiatives that seek solutions to problems confronting civil society.
“There is one big thing I have to say: The truly great thing about the school is the students. They inspire me. And what they do when they are here and, even more, what they do after they leave is really so important and so hopeful,” Speth said recently.
He noted that the school’s graduates now hold influential positions in business, government, nongovernmental organizations and academia. “There’s no institution in the world that has produced more environmental leaders than ours, and I’m sure that will continue in the future.”
Maria Ivanova ’99, who earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate at Yale and now is on the faculty of the College of William & Mary, said the dean’s feelings of respect and admiration for the students are mutual.
Ivanova said she witnessed the transformation of F&ES into a truly global school and that the first word that springs to mind when she thinks of Speth is “leadership.”
“Most schools act as if recruiting foreign students makes them international,” she said, “but that’s not the case at Yale or with Gus. He brought in faculty. He brought in Wangari Maathai, before she was a Nobel Peace Prize winner. They engaged with us as students, and now they engage with us as colleagues.”
Ivanova recently returned from Nairobi and said her students “couldn’t believe I was on a first-name basis with Wangari—and it’s because of Gus Speth.”
She recalled that in 2005 she went to Nairobi with Geballe to present the results of an evaluation that they had done of the United Nations Environment Programme. “That kind of vision and leadership and engagement is really because of Gus Speth. It has opened doors that none of us really knew were there. It has enabled us to become leaders in our own right.”
Ivanova added that she is pleased to now be in a position to send students of her own to F&ES.
“Another thing that has stuck with me for a long time is Gus saying that his generation was a generation of talkers,” she said. “What he has tried to do is build us up as a generation of doers. I only hope we can live up to his expectations.”