The TH Interview: Richard C. Levin, President of Yale University

Richard C. Levin's fourteen-year presidency at Yale University has been marked by big challenges, both on-campus and off. In the 90s, Levin and his colleagues addressed the Ivy League university's aging infrastructure, and worked with local officials to reverse the economic doldrums that had beset Yale's hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. He worked to put the university at the forefront of the internationalization trend in higher education, and to strengthen the sciences at a school legendary for programs in the humanities. Now, Levin is leading the Yale community to address an even bigger challenge: the global climate crisis. We discussed these efforts with President Levin by email between February 16th and 22nd.

Treehugger: You recently made your fourth trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Many of the news reports on this year's meeting created the impression that climate change and environmental issues "stole the show." First, what was your impression of the role these topics played in this year's forum? Second, do you believe that political leaders, both internationally and here in the US, are "getting it" in terms of the threats and opportunities presented by climate change?

Richard Levin: The threat of climate change and how it ought to be addressed was clearly a major issue in Davos among the participants from all the sectors; business, government, education and health included. I had not previously experienced such a level of interest, concern and depth of knowledge on global warming among the many leaders with whom I interacted. The growing scientific evidence has clearly had an impact on the leaders of the various sectors, and this was just before the release of the latest report by the respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which for the first time stated that global warming is unequivocal and that most of the warming over the last half-century is very likely due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. I do think that government leaders do appreciate the scientific consensus and the need for a significant global response more than ever, even though their collective action to date has yet to demonstrate that fact.

TH: Of course, some might say that we focus too much on our political leaders. Universities are certainly making positive moves in terms of environmental challenges (such as the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, and the creation of "sustainability director" positions), as are major corporations such as GE, Wal-Mart, and the Home Depot. As an economist, do you think that market forces and private action can provide the primary means to address climate change and associated issues? Or is some kind of substantive government action necessary to really "prime the pump?"

RL: Broad government action is essential if we are going to have significant impact on the problem in the coming decades. With that acknowledged, large organizations all over the world with the power to act independently should take matters into their own hands and begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now. We need to demonstrate that resisting global warming is feasible and not prohibitively expensive. By showing leadership in action, not just in words, we will make the necessary response by governments much more likely, in part because they will be more confident that significant laws and policies in response to climate change will be accepted by those they represent.

Universities are a natural place to demonstrate that global warming can be resisted and its adverse long-term consequences avoided. It is, after all, our scientists who have identified the causes and effects of climate change and who are researching ways to address it. And it is our students who, in the coming decades, will have the responsibility for ensuring that the opportunities for the health and prosperity of future generations will be no less abundant than they have been for the generations that preceded them. We can set a powerful example for the next generation of leaders who will be increasingly interacting with one another on global issues.

TH: Yale did quite well on the recent College Sustainability Report Card released by the Sustainable Endowments Institute: the university received "A" grades in five of the seven categories, and a B+ overall. Here's your chance to brag: what, specifically, is Yale doing right in terms of sustainability? What evidence do you see in the wider world of higher education that other universities and colleges are looking to Yale as a leader in the field? Have other schools adapted specific practices created at Yale?

RL: We have established an ambitious goal to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below our 1990 levels by the year 2020. That will require a 43 percent reduction even while our campus continues to expand. In the first year of our initiative, we reduced emissions by 6 percent. We also believe that we can meet our goal at the reasonable cost of about 1 percent of our annual operating budget. We have a comprehensive strategy in place that combines conservation, renewable energy and carbon offsets that produce a net environmental benefit.

We look at all our operations for emission reductions: we seek LEED certification for our new construction, we have a campus co-generation power plant, we run our shuttle system on biodiesel and we set our thermostats a bit warmer in summer and bit cooler in winter. I have been speaking with other university leaders in various forums, including at Davos, and I believe we will see other institutions adopting reduction targets. Yale hosted sustainability directors from around the world last fall for an exchange of ideas and programs, and I told them that setting a goal and working toward it is what is critical, even if they cannot match Yale’s target, or use Yale’s specific strategies.

TH: The only low grades Yale received on the Report Card were in the areas of endowment transparency and investment priorities. First, do you agree with the Sustainable Endowment Institute's choice to judge these practices as a part of higher educations' overall commitment to sustainability? (Obviously, endowments are their focus.) Why or why not? Second, does Yale have plans to reconsider its investment priorities, and its publication practices for endowment information? Why or why not?

RL: I do not believe there is another major institution that matches the performance and integrity of Yale’s endowment management. The record on both those counts is a model for all, and Yale continues to receive accolades in this area. Yale was a pioneer of ethical investing and the fundamental investment principles that the university has followed are sound and have produced outstanding results that support Yale’s research and education missions. I don’t envision changes in those basic guiding principles. Since you asked, I do not see the logic of a methodology that links investment disclosure policy and investment priorities with campus sustainability initiatives.

TH: Yale's Sustainability Strategy lists "culture" as one of the three major elements of the "spectrum of sustainability." I'd guess that, at some levels, this is the most challenging of these elements. What successes and failures has Yale experienced in trying to change campus and community culture towards a focus on sustainability? As an Ivy League institution, does Yale have specific advantages here? If you were to discuss such culture changes with administrators at, for instance, community colleges, or small regional public universities, what different kinds of challenges do you believe you'd have to address?

RL: I could not be more pleased with the role that our faculty, students and staff have played in helping to shape and implement our campus sustainability initiatives. Our students, for example, are surpassing the targets we have established for reducing their residential energy use. Yale is able to call on a very potent mix of scientific expertise, talent and enthusiasm among its faculty, students and staff to make a significant contribution in this area through its own initiatives and as an example of what can be accomplished.

I believe that any institution, however, can make worthwhile progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions in a feasible manner. All institutions can measure their emissions and adopt a reasonable reduction goal. Once there is an institutional goal clearly stated and in place, I believe that a school’s community of faculty, staff and students will work hard to see it reached. That is what I would tell my counterparts at other schools. I would also emphasize that taking action will make your students more environmentally aware, be a valuable part of their educational experience and affect their actions in the future in a way that will be beneficial for sustaining their generation.

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