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.

Under Speth, the school’s overall endowment grew from $112 million to $400 million at the end of 2007, according to the annual financial memo that he sends Levin. The new wealth allowed the school’s total expenditures to triple, to slightly more than $38 million, which has been important for attracting international students who often don’t qualify for regular financial aid. The average scholarship award has more than doubled, to about $17,000. Even with the pounding that endowments have taken during the current economic crisis, F&ES has remained on solid financial footing.

Geballe and Development Director Eugenie Gentry both attributed Speth’s fund-raising ability partly to members of his own Yale College Class of 1964. “These are people who came back to campus, listened to Gus and said, ‘This is the right thing to do,’” Gentry said. “Gus has a moral vision and people respond to it.”

Speth, she said, resembled a “cyclone” or “whirling dervish” in the way he spins off ideas and tries to inspire. Geballe, reaching for similar descriptors, likened Speth to a “provocateur” and “pied piper” in his drive to move the school forward.

Geballe said the three deans that he has served with were all strong managers in their own way, but each had different missions dictated by the times. In the 1980s, he said, John Gordon reinvigorated the school’s research mission and increased the number of applicants, and Gordon’s successor, Jared Cohon, who left early to become president of Carnegie Mellon University, concentrated on broadening its scope and boosting its presence within Yale.

In some sense, “Gus just took all of that and moved it forward,” Geballe said. But the pace of progress has speeded up on many fronts. Besides Kroon Hall, the fund-raising bonanza and the world-famous visiting fellows, environmental studies is now a full major for Yale undergraduates; more women (six) are in tenure-track positions; and several new study centers and programs have been established.

Among them, the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale, the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale reflect the school’s expansion into areas outside natural science and Speth’s view of what the environment as a discipline entails.

“It bridges ecology and economics and, more generally, between those disciplines that seek to understand nature and those that seek to understand human societies and their economic activity,” he said.

The Center for Industrial Ecology also fits that definition. It was created before Speth’s arrival, but Marian Chertow, Ph.D. ’00, who directs the Industrial Environmental Management Program, said it has “blossomed” during the years of Speth’s tenure.

“There is one big thing I have to say: The truly great thing about the school is the students. They inspire me.” Dean Speth

Speth, she said, also supported the creation of a Journal of Industrial Ecology and the International Society for Industrial Ecology, for which Yale is the secretariat. She described Speth as “tenacious.” “He sets a goal and tries everything to meet it,” she said. “Sometimes you need a leader like that to show you what is possible.”

One of Speth’s largest goals, outside the school proper, and one of his most noted accomplishments was instilling environmental values in the university itself. Beinecke said the breadth of Speth’s impact ranged from high-profile projects such as Kroon Hall to the university’s adoption in October 2005 of a rigorous greenhouse gas emissions reduction target—a signal achievement of his deanship. “Gus is not a lone voice there anymore. Levin is a powerful voice,” she said.

Yale is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. That decision was informed by F&ES student research that showed that Yale’s emissions exceeded those of 32 countries. “They were little countries, but that’s a dramatic sort of statement and it got attention,” said Speth. “Of course the [emissions] decision in the end was President Levin’s. I give him tremendous credit.”

Speth, said Geballe, is “pretty good at getting other people to step up to the plate. Even though Gus wouldn’t claim sole responsibility for the university greening itself, the fact is the president is now a green president and environmental best practices are a priority of his administration.”

Indeed, as if to prove Geballe’s point, Levin led a delegation of F&ES faculty in March to the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change in Copenhagen, where he chaired the plenary session.

Geballe said the dean’s impact sometimes passed unnoticed, as when he persuaded Levin to fund a committee chaired by Thomas Graedel, Clifton R. Musser Professor of Industrial Ecology, that led to the creation of a university Office of Sustainability and the hiring of its director, Julie Newman.

“If you had to pick the most surprising thing of all,” Geballe said, “Kroon Hall has inspired the construction people—the people who do the heating and building at Yale—to consider this (sustainability) stuff. That’s something we didn’t fully expect.”

Stephen Kellert, Ph.D. ’71, Tweedy Ordway Professor of Social Ecology, said that the school “was already a strong, prominent institution before Gus came, but Gus has been extraordinary,” and judged him especially effective at raising the school’s standing in policy circles outside the university and improving its public outreach. “That wasn’t something that was particularly strong at the school—and it is much more so now,” Kellert said.

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.”

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