How Top Universities Are Tackling the Climate Crisis

Stanford University's blockbuster announcement signals the rapid ascendance of sustainability and climate change studies as a major academic focus.

May 19, 2022 · Updated on May 19, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
How Top Universities Are Tackling the Climate Crisis
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  • Stanford recently announced a $1.1 billion donation to create a school of sustainability.
  • It joins other universities forming similar schools and institutes over the past five years.
  • Some universities are infusing sustainability and climate change courses across disciplines.
  • Student demand for such courses continues to grow.

Stanford University is making a billion-dollar investment in sustainability and climate change. It joins the ranks of other prominent universities that recently have dedicated resources to this burgeoning academic field.

The world needs it, one might argue, and students certainly demand it.

Billion-Dollar Gift to Stanford Establishes New Sustainability School

A $1.1 billion donation from a Silicon Valley venture capitalist has helped launch the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, the first new school at Stanford in 70 years. Additional donors have contributed to its endowment, bringing the total initial investment to $1.69 billion.

This megagift from John Doerr and his wife, Ann, is the second-largest donation ever to higher education, falling short of Michael Bloomberg's 2018 gift of $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University.

Stanford's new school will cultivate "deep knowledge and high-impact solutions to pressing planetary challenges," the university claimed in a release. Areas of focus include climate change, Earth and planetary sciences, energy technology, sustainable cities, the natural environment, food and water security, human society and behavior, and human health and the environment.

Given this academic breadth, the school will draw on disciplines from across the university, including faculty from Stanford's existing School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences, known informally as "Stanford Earth," who will transition to the new sustainability school. Over the coming decade, Stanford plans to add another 60 faculty members with expertise in energy, climate science, and sustainable development and environmental justice.

"These gifts will help Stanford bring its full effort to bear on solving the most complex problems in climate and sustainability, and on training the next generation of students who are eager and driven to address these challenges," said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne.

Responding to Student Demand for Sustainability Programs

And students are indeed eager.

A 2020 Cambridge Assessment International Education survey of 11,000 U.S. students aged 13 to 19 revealed they believe climate change is the biggest problem facing the world today. Almost all — 97% — indicated a desire to learn about such global issues in school.

Similarly, in a 2020 survey from Students Organizing for Sustainability International of about 7,000 college students, including some in the U.S., 92% said they agree that "sustainable development is something which all universities and colleges should actively incorporate and promote." At the same time, 40% reported having "low or no" coursework in sustainable development offered at their universities.

Demand currently exceeds supply, and colleges are mobilizing resources to keep pace. Over the last five years, several top universities have created schools and expanded their curricular focus on sustainability and climate change. Some were aided by philanthropy, while others are the result of institutional investments.

Columbia University launched the "nation's first climate school" in 2021, its first new school in 25 years. The Columbia Climate School offers programs and research on sustainability, the environment, social justice, and geosciences, including a master of arts in climate and society.

"We are moving to take on in a scholarly way — as only a great university can — an area of tremendous public attention and increasing concern, as enduring as anything else we might conceive of," Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger wrote in a university announcement.

As with Stanford's school, Columbia's is interdisciplinary, drawing from all corners of the university with plans to offer joint degrees in concert with fields such as law, journalism, and the arts. But unlike Stanford, Columbia didn't benefit from a billion-dollar donation.

In fact, the student-run Columbia Spectator newspaper noted that "a number of faculty have raised questions around the viability of focusing on appeals to big donors for flashy academic goals," given that Columbia's Earth Institute, out of which this new school grew, has "struggled to attract enough donors to meet its goals."

"There weren't any donors interested," said Steven Cohen, the institute's former executive director and chief operating officer.

Elevating climate studies from an institute to a full-fledged school "may be marketable to big donors," the Spectator speculates.

Other New Schools and Institutes Dedicated to Sustainability

Teaching and research on sustainability and climate science is hardly a new phenomenon. Columbia's Earth Institute dates back to 1995. Arizona State University says it established the nation's first school of sustainability in 2006.

But since the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change — or perhaps in part because of it — the field has experienced significant growth and achieved a more prominent status at major universities.

The University of Michigan opened its School for Environment and Sustainability in 2017, continuing its centurylong commitment to the evolving discipline of environmental science.

In 2020, the Climate Social Science Network, comprising 75 researchers from 15 countries, was formed at Brown University and housed at its Institute for Environment and Society. The group pledges to "produce and coordinate groundbreaking research on political conflict around climate change."

That same year, Princeton University announced a "transformative gift" (it didn't specify the amount) from the High Meadows Foundation to support research and educational initiatives at its Environmental Institute, which was renamed for the foundation. The university has pursued environmental issues for half a century, and these funds will expand its efforts around climate change, energy, biodiversity, and food and water.

And last year, Cornell University announced the formation of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, whose academic offerings include environmental and sustainability policy. The school's namesake made a "major gift" (the amount wasn't disclosed, similar to Princeton's announcement) to endow the new school.

"I am particularly honored to support the creation of an institution dedicated to improvement in areas of sustainability, climate change, and social responsibility," Brooks said in a university release.

Infusing Sustainability and Climate Change Courses Across the Curriculum

Not all efforts feature new schools or programs. Some universities are instead adding courses related to sustainability and climate change across a range of disciplines.

At the University of Southern California (USC), the Sustainability Across the Curriculum initiative, announced in 2021, aims to "educate the university's 20,000 undergraduate students in how sustainability intersects with their major field of study."

"Every discipline will be affected," said Andrew McConnell Stott, vice provost for academic programs and dean of the USC Graduate School, in a university release. "Students in art, engineering, dance, law, you name it — they are going to encounter some aspect of sustainability. Every discipline can add perspective and solutions to sustainability, which is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity."

The initiative responds to growing student demand. A 2020 USC survey found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of USC's students were "very interested" in sustainability.

Around the same time USC was announcing its expanded focus, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was launching its own effort to bolster studies in sustainability and climate change across the curriculum. As of August 2021, MIT offered more than 120 courses related to sustainability in some 23 academic departments.

But that wasn't enough to satisfy student demand, according to a university release. A 2020 survey of MIT students conducted by the Undergraduate Association Sustainability Committee found that "only one in four had ever taken a class related to sustainability."

So MIT pledged to recruit another 20 faculty members to teach climate-related courses and "make sure that every student graduates with a serious grasp of the scope of the climate problem and pathways to solutions," notes the university's "Climate Action Plan for the Decade."

This sense of urgency is repeated in all such announcements of higher education's ramped-up investments in sustainability and climate change studies. And for good reason: the 2010s were the warmest decade ever recorded, according to the United Nations.

"Today's real and pressing challenges — not least, solving our climate crisis — require that knowledge be channeled toward the building of practical, implementable solutions," said Stanford donors John and Ann Doerr in the university's release. "This is the decisive decade, and we must act with full speed and scale."