Campus & Community

Center for the Environment is established

4 min read

Provost Harvey V. Fineberg has announced the establishment of a University Center for the Environment. The new center will draw on the strengths of and serve all of Harvard’s faculties and will support the development of multidisciplinary approaches to the solution of complex environmental problems. “It is our hope that this center will become the world’s leading university-based enterprise for the study of the environment,” said Fineberg.

The new center will assume the mandate of the existing University Committee on Environment, a group of 50 scholars representing eight of Harvard’s nine faculties. Michael B. McElroy in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) chairs the committee and will serve as the center’s first director. Said McElroy in response to the announcement: “The center, drawing on the unsurpassed breadth and depth of Harvard’s expertise, from public health to business, government, law, religion, and the arts and sciences can make a pivotal contribution to our understanding of our place in nature and our responsibilities to serve as wise stewards of our global commons.”

The establishment of a center represents a new level of commitment by the University to the field of environmental studies, according to Fineberg: “The founding of the center responds to the importance and enduring character of the environmental challenges facing our planet.”

It also directs attention to a field which has long been a major strength at Harvard. The School of Public Health and the Kennedy School of Government field top programs in environmental health and environment and natural resources, respectively. The FAS departments of earth and planetary sciences and organismic and evolutionary biology focus that faculty’s environmental efforts. Individual faculty members in business, design, law, and medicine count the environment among their primary intellectual commitments.

Joseph D. Brain of the School of Public Health and Robert N. Stavins of the Kennedy School, members of the University Committee’s executive committee, expressed enthusiasm for the new center. Brain commented that “[the] center has great potential to better integrate resources in environmental science throughout the University… . We are eager to involve undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty colleagues from around the University in our research and teaching. Similarly, we look forward to enhancing our contributions to other parts of the University.”

Stavins was similarly positive: “The Kennedy School is the hub of public policy study at Harvard … [and has] enjoyed a great working relationship with the University Committee on the Environment … . [We] look forward to an even more productive relationship with the new University Center.”

The University Committee on Environment had for many years been charged with stimulating collaborative efforts in environmental studies. Founded in 1991, the committee developed a pioneering cross-disciplinary research venture – the China Project – on the intersection of health, economic development, and environmental degradation in China. And it sponsored the very successful Global Environmental Assessment Project, which focuses on improving relationships among science, assessment, policy, and management in societies’ efforts to grapple with global environmental change.

The committee also worked closely with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to establish a concentration for undergraduates in environmental science and public policy. Teachers from the government, public health, design, medical, law, and divinity faculties, as well as from arts and sciences, have taught in the program. The concentration enrolls approximately 100 students. Since 1994, 81 students have submitted honors theses to the program’s interfaculty Board of Tutors.

The new center will continue to play an important role in these endeavors and will stimulate new activities too. It will be supported in part by a generous grant from the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation. The foundation will provide more than $1.5 million over the next four years to support research at the center by students and faculty members. This most recent grant brings to more than $5.2 million the amount the foundation has provided since 1994 to support University-wide environmental activities.

Other foundations and alumni have also supported the University Committee since it was founded. Indeed, it was the committee’s advisory board of alumni and friends which urged the establishment of a center to secure the University’s activities in the field of environmental studies. The committee’s advisory board will serve in the same capacity for the new center.

The University Center for the Environment will be stewarded by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and governed by an executive committee drawn from across the University. FAS Dean Jeremy R. Knowles welcomed the announcement: “I strongly support the burgeoning interest of our students … in the health of the environment in which we live. I applaud the establishment of the new University Center for the Environment, that will both help to prepare our most committed undergraduates, and engage our wiser faculty colleagues, in the issues that affect the planet that we together inhabit.”