Multiplication Factor: University Partnerships for Global Sustainability

What will the world look like when our children have their own children?

When Jerry and I think about our philanthropy, this is top of mind for us.

 This summer, parts of the world were underwater even as others burned. The laws of atmospheric physics explain the increasing frequency and intensity of these events, but changing the course of things is far more complicated. Climate change is what scientists call a “wicked problem”—the kind that is hard to describe and even harder to solve. Pursuing global sustainability means tackling a whole collection of wicked problems that are complex, intertwined, and mutually reinforcing.

So what is sustainability and how do we achieve it? In imagining the new school, Stanford faculty have articulated: a sustainable future is one in which humans and nature thrive in concert and in perpetuity.

This is a concept grounded in equity. We will not have achieved a sustainable society until all of the world’s population can participate in its benefits; it is difficult to move the needle on challenges like climate change and biodiversity when so many people are understandably focused on their next meal.

This is a high bar. For all humans to thrive, we will need to do more than just stop climate change. We will need to stop climate change while also providing adequate nutrition, fresh water, and sanitation to a growing population. And we will need to expand the energy system to include nearly one billion more people for whom lack of access puts adequate health care, education, and economic opportunity out of reach.

I have been heartened by the urgency with which NGOs and nonprofit organizations—from the smallest grassroots collectives to the most powerful global entities—have taken on these issues, fueled in part by the passion and commitment of new generations coming of age amid environmental crisis. All of this work is critically important.

Our major research universities have a crucial role to play, partnering with others in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to work toward the same ends. Universities are where many of our best minds gather to untangle wicked problems, share what they learn for the benefit of humanity, and prepare young people for leadership roles in society. Committed to the impartial pursuit of both fundamental and applied knowledge, universities are among the world’s principal drivers of discovery and innovation. The knowledge, ideas, and pedagogy forged in university teaching and research flow into every other kind of institution in our society.

Despite these benefits, federal funding for university research has been in decline for many years. Over the past two decades, during which I have served in a variety of board roles across the sustainability landscape, I have admired the way visionary philanthropists have stepped in to help preserve and enhance the ability of our academic institutions to serve as collective R&D department to the world.

This is why Jerry and I are especially excited about Stanford’s bold move to establish a new school—the first in more than 70 years—focused on climate and sustainability. A new kind of school with impact at its core, it will help to define the emerging fields of study that will govern the way we think about and approach challenges a generation from now. The school’s emphasis on community engaged learning and research, anchored in equity, offers a glimpse of the future of higher education.

Immediate impact is baked into the school’s mission, most notably in the form of its Sustainability Accelerator. At the end of the day solutions need to be put into practice. The Accelerator provides a platform for academic researchers to partner with outside groups, including NGOs and community organizations, to create and test policy and technology solutions together.

I believe these efforts represent no less than a paradigm shift in how our institutions leverage one another’s strengths for maximum impact. Humans may be the root cause of the world’s sustainability problem, but Jerry and I also have a lot of faith in people as the solution. So, when I think about the full impact of this endeavor, my thoughts turn to people. The sheer number of individuals who will be touched by the school—from students and researchers in residence to symposium participants to the far-flung beneficiaries of Accelerator projects and the ripple effects of each—is staggering.

We must seek out and support institutions that empower agents of change with the tools, community, and assistance they need. Universities possess a multiplying power that is unparalleled. It’s what gives me hope for the world our children will inherit.


Photo: Arthur Kobin for Drew Altizer Photography