Dean’s Message: A Risk Worth Taking

As many of you know from personal experience, taking a new position often involves a real risk. You can’t be sure whether you’ll be able to accomplish the things you think are important or even whether you’ll like the work.

Now, as my two terms as dean are up and I’m headed out the door for Vermont (see below), I can say with pleasure that coming to F&ES was definitely a risk worth taking! I feel very good about what we’ve been able to do together here over the past decade, and especially about the 2,057 students who graduated during these years and the things they have accomplished and will accomplish decades into the future. What a joy these years have been!

So, my purpose in this final column is simply to say thank you for the chance to work with you and for what you have made possible. Thank you staff and faculty, alumni and students, advisors and donors and especially Cameron—all of you.

And the forward momentum hasn’t stopped. In just the last few months, we have, among many other things:

  • actively pursued searches for several new faculty members;
  • moved into the magnificent Kroon Hall;
  • launched a pathbreaking lecture series on attractive visions for the world of 2050 and how to realize them;
  • acquired the talents of our friend and Nobel Laureate Raj Pachauri as the first director of the new Yale Climate and Energy Institute; and
  • most important for our future, found a great new dean, Peter Crane, to lead the school for the next round.

On the subject of our new dean, I know that he can count on you, your friendship and generosity, just as I have.

Finally, I want to take this occasion to commend and thank David DeFusco, the tireless and creative editor of this magazine. It’s been his baby from the beginning, and he has raised her well.

Come July, Cameron and I will be moving to Vermont. After 10 wonderful years at Yale, an opportunity for which I shall be forever grateful, I’m extremely happy to report that I’ll be joining the faculty of the Vermont Law School after a bit of a break. VLS is a great place, and Cameron and I and certainly Weezie, the nearly perfect yellow Lab, are looking forward to our new home in Strafford.

As former Dean John Gordon said to me a decade ago, “Old deans never die; they just lose their faculties.” We will lose a lot leaving this fine place, but hopefully it will be a risk worth taking.

As the Dean Saw It

Editor’s Note: Below are brief excerpts culled from all of the Dean’s Messages published in the magazine since the inaugural April 2002 issue.

April 2002 Did 9/11 Really Change Everything?

Most of all, there is the prospect that September 11 may have brought about the beginning of certain cultural changes that we will do well to note and nurture. Ground zero has been the epicenter for more than destruction and great personal loss. Compassion and generosity also flowered there. A great many Americans have lowered personal barriers, reached out to friends and to strangers, and found something deeper to consider and to share. People have looked again at their values and priorities. Some are not as interested in material things or in “getting back to normal.” Some are avoiding flying, not out of fear, but because they want to stay close to home and family.

Fall 2003 Green Republicans—Quo Vadis?

There is a number that future generations will focus on the way we follow quarterly economic reports: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, measured in parts per million, or ppm.

Spring 2004 Urgent Action Needed to Address Global Environmental Threats

Looking back over the past two decades, it cannot be said that my generation did nothing in response to Global 2000 and similar alerts. Progress has been made on some fronts. There are outstanding success stories, but rarely are they on a scale commensurate with the problems. For the most part, we have analyzed, debated, discussed and negotiated these issues endlessly. My generation is a generation, I fear, of great talkers, overly fond of conferences. On action, however, we have fallen far short … With more than two decades of dilatoriness behind us, it is now an understatement to say that we are running out of time. For such crucial issues as deforestation, climate change and loss of biodiversity, we have already run out of time: appropriate responses are long overdue.

Fall 2004 Unshackling Business

When Ronald Reagan famously said that “government isn’t the solution to our problems; government is the problem,” many in business cheered. But what if business is shackled by forces far more powerful than government and needs government to free it to do the job it increasingly knows must be done? Business leaders know they are trapped by the imperatives of market competition, consumer preferences, investor behavior and other factors. These imperatives often preclude attractive options. When the gap between the required answer and the right answer gets too wide, government action becomes essential.

We now have such a gap with regard to the challenges of the global environment. If governments do not get their act together soon on global warming, the extraordinary economic machine we have created is going to wreak such havoc on the Earth’s systems, both natural and social, that today’s disruptions by terrorists will look like child’s play. The result will not be good for business or the rest of us. Business needs government action now.

Fall 2005 The Heart of the Matter

In 1970, we were from Mars; today, we must be from Venus. Then, we broke things down to the component parts and laid out rational plans of attack. Now we know the most important resource is human motivation—hope, caring, our feelings about nature and our fellow humans. Today we need the preachers, the philosophers, the psychologists and the poets! In one poem, W.S. Merwin said: “On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree.” And in another: “I want to tell you what the forests were like / I will have to speak a forgotten language.”

“After the final no,” Wallace Stevens wrote, “there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.” Despite the daunting projections of environmental decline, we affirm that we will win this struggle for the future. Yes.

And here we come full circle, for there is something vital from 1970 that we need to rekindle and rebuild, rather than move beyond, and that is the extraordinary spirit of that moment and the widespread popular demand for far-reaching change. One can hear that demand plainly in the words that citizens of Santa Barbara sent to the U.S. Congress in 1970 shortly after the devastating oil spill there: “We, therefore, resolve to act. We propose a revolution in conduct toward the environment. … Today is the first day of the rest of our life on this planet. We will begin anew.”

It can seem that we are now a long way from the prosaic subject of environmental management, but we are actually at the heart of the matter.

Spring 2006 By the Numbers

The generosity and commitment of the school’s supporters have made tremendous improvements possible. ... The gifts noted here have led to a new home for our school (the Kroon Building, to be completed in 2008, will be Yale’s flagship green building…), a half-dozen new professorships, our growing work with undergraduates and a major increase in scholarship and internship aid for our students. Counting this year, we have now raised close to $100 million with the help of farsighted friends, and that has made all the difference.

Fall 2006

But now imagine that … [y]our world has just learned that it is going to be demolished to make room for an intergalactic hyperspatial express route. When your people complained to the Hyperspace Planning Council about this planned destruction, you were told that the proposed expressway plan had been duly posted in the local planning department in Alpha Centauri, and that the time for public comment had long since expired! (With apologies to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

As a result of these unfortunate developments, your people—all 6.5 billion of you—have now decided to colonize the pristine Earth. Your new assignment as environmental steward is to settle Earth in a way that allows all of you to enjoy a decent standard of living while having the smallest possible impact on Earth’s environment.

In contemplating this difficult assignment, two things occur to you right away. First, if you are going to sustain Earth’s environment, you had better understand how Earth works: how Earth’s abundant species interact among themselves and with the landscape; how Earth’s great natural cycles of water, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and others work together to sustain life; where the areas of greatest species richness and diversity and also the zones of greatest fragility are located. If you hope to disturb Earth minimally, then you have first to understand it. So there is, first and foremost, a huge project in science to be undertaken – the science of environmental sustainability.

Second, you see right away that all the nation-states fleeing your planet together must agree at the outset on a set of principles to guide your settlement of Earth, to do so in such a way that the planet will provide a lasting home for you and your people.

Spring 2007 Protecting Creation a Moral Duty

In January of this year I participated in a fascinating meeting of top U.S. scientists and leading evangelicals, about 15 of each. Being neither, it was not clear what I was doing there! But I’m glad I was, because it was an extraordinary and very hopeful experience. … The real focus was the environment, and the goal was to see if the two groups, spanning devout Christians to confirmed atheists, could unite to protect the Creation, a word we all agreed to use. … This diverse group truly came together, and we were able to capture that agreement in a powerful statement. And the two groups did not merely agree, they found that they liked, enjoyed and respected each other.

Fall 2007 Green By Design

One of my great pleasures as dean has been … steady strengthening of the school’s capacities in the emerging field of sustainable design. From the green chemist’s design of new molecules to replace the toxic ones of yesterday, to the design of new transportation and water systems for great cities, F&ES is increasingly in the business of designing the future we want to see. That requires creativity and inventiveness, backed by hard science and engineering and by an awareness of economic constraints. The good news is that the school is building enormous faculty strength – top people who can bring all these considerations together. I hope our school will gain increasing recognition as a major center for designing a sustainable future.

Spring 2008 Time for Civic Unreasonableness

Finally, I would argue that the failure to rise to the climate-change challenge is part of a larger failure to treat as priorities a number of major environmental threats and that we are all complicit in that failure. It is worth remembering what it has taken to build the current momentum for climate action: after a quarter century of neglect, societies now risk ruining the planet. And while the threat of disastrous climate disruption does seem to be motivational at last, many other environmental risks continue to be largely ignored. Our values are too materialistic, too anthropocentric and too contempocentric, with the result that we have hardly begun what Thomas Berry has said must be our Great Work—“moving the human project from its devastating exploitation to a benign presence.” George Bernard Shaw famously remarked that all progress depends on being unreasonable. It’s time for a large amount of civic unreasonableness. It is time for the environmental community—indeed, all of us—to step back from the day-to-day and develop a deeper critique of what is going on.

Fall 2008 The Fitful Birth of Kroon Hall

Now, most of the big decisions and, I trust, all of the big struggles are behind us. Kroon is rising. It is fun to see it take shape, and it will be a joy to be in it. Soon we will be able to enjoy the gift that the remarkable generosity of Mary Jane and Rick Kroon, Ed Bass, Carl Knobloch, Gil Ordway, Jonathan Rose, Coley Burke, Adrienne and John Mars, Joan and Dick Tweedy, William Waxter and many others, has made possible. We have learned a lot from this process, from working with some of the most talented and committed people in the world, like the inspired architects at Hopkins and Centerbrook and the green-building gurus at Atelier Ten. It’s been quite a ride. Yale has learned a lot. The whole process has brought the university forward. It has been a blessing and will be for a long time.

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