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A Modest Proposal

January-February 2016

Harvard is so decentralized that members of the community may not know what they are all accomplishing individually—or might, together. The University, for instance, maintains that “Broad efforts to raise funds for energy and environment research across the campus have already generated nearly $120 million in committed support….” Those interested in the research are directed to a website, but it is hard to get a cohesive view of professors’ work and of the “250 courses” being taught; queries don’t yield much more insight. Absent that overview, campus debate about climate change has focused on faculty, student, and alumni advocacy of divesting certain endowment holdings, and University opposition to doing so. (A letter from faculty members on page 10 continues this exchange.)

That $120 million, it appears, may include much, or all, of a $31-million gift to the University Center for the Environment, in 2013; an eight-figure pledge to endow a new Center for Green Buildings and Cities; and several million dollars for the president’s $20-million, grant-making Climate Change Solutions Fund. It’s unclear if new professorships or research programs are pending, but informative forums continue: a November 16 panel previewed the imminent UN conference in Paris.

A different approach appeared in October, when MIT president L. Rafael Reif published “A Plan for Action on Climate Change.” (It rejects divestment; news coverage focused on that—and a divestment sit-in greeted Reif the next day.) Building on MIT’s environment and energy initiatives (the latter explicitly premised on engagement with and funding from industry), Reif outlined a research agenda with eight low-carbon energy centers and $300 million of new funding during the next five years. Reporting relationships are outlined, assessments scheduled. Those efforts are married to education, outreach, and investments in campus sustainability like Harvard’s. That is what the Engineers do.

Harvard and MIT, both proud institutions, have an incentive to attract their own resources through capital campaigns (Harvard’s well advanced; MIT’s nearing launch). Harvard has expertise in government and public policy, law, medicine, and public health that MIT lacks; they overlap somewhat in architecture and business; and MIT is obviously an engineering powerhouse.

Given the stakes in climate change, what might Harvard and MIT do together? Their online teaching venture, edX, has been fruitful. What signal might a full-fledged academic collaboration on climate change send an anxious world—and how might it bring clarity to Harvard’s obvious, if diffuse, strengths?

~ John S. Rosenberg, Editor

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