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Alumni Push Universities Forward on Climate

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When the graduation ceremony is over and the cap and gown come off, a common interaction many alumni have with their alma maters is ignoring emails soliciting donations or invitations to come back for the annual homecoming game. But younger generations of alumni are recognizing their leverage to drive progressive, top-down action on climate change at their former universities.

“I think that there is undervalued potential for impact by alumni at universities across the country looking toward their board of trustees to effect major change, including climate action,” said atmospheric scientist Christa Hasenkopf, director of Air Quality Programs at the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago. “I think it’s an underleveraged aspect of the climate action landscape.”

Hasenkopf, an alum of Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in University Park, was recently elected to the university’s Board of Trustees, filling one of three open seats this year. She spoke with Eos prior to the election and clarified that her statements do not represent the Penn State Board of Trustees.

Penn State Forward, the grassroots organization that supported Hasenkopf’s nomination, is one of a few groups to run climate-forward campaigns for university governing boards in the past few years. Some of these campaigns have led to surprising success stories, whereas others have received strong pushback. (Note: I am also an alum of Penn State and voted in the 2022 Board of Trustees election.)

“It’s clear that we need advocates on the highest level to promote the ideas and policies that students, faculty, staff, and community members are behind,” said Nora Van Horn, cofounder of Penn State Forward and a current student at Harvard Law School. When grassroots efforts work to put advocates at the highest level, governing boards “can be part of a broader movement for climate action, equity, and university transparency. This requires us to demystify how they work and invite alumni that have been historically excluded to participate in them.”

Forward Thinking

Institutions of higher education contribute to anthropogenic climate change in a host of direct and indirect ways. Many colleges and universities still invest money in fossil fuel companies and receive funding from them in return. Most buildings and other campus fixtures like stadiums or shuttle buses are powered by nonrenewable energy sources like coal or natural gas. In some cases, fossil fuel companies direct money to university research on climate solutions—something a large group of climate scientists decried in an open letter earlier this year. Too, given the reputation and credibility universities hold in the public consciousness, their actions can shape public perceptions of what can and should be done to thwart climate change.

Learn More

Harvard Forward: harvardforward.org/

Harvard Board of Overseers: harvard.edu/about/leadership-and-governance/board-of-overseers/

Yale Forward: yaleforward.org/

The Yale Corporation: yale.edu/board-trustees/

Penn State Forward: psuforward.org/

Pennsylvania State University Office of the Board of Trustees: trustees.psu.edu/

Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Database: divestmentdatabase.org/

But who decides whether a university will divest from fossil fuels or convert its campus power consumption to renewable energy? For the most part these decisions are made by a group of university alumni elected or appointed to governing boards. These boards usually have dozens of members, most of whom are appointed to their positions rather than being elected by popular vote. For boards with elected seats, only a handful are up for election each year. They might be called trustees, overseers, regents, fellows, or governors, but each committee serves a similar purpose: to protect the interests of the university, guide its future direction, and oversee its finances. To meet their legal and fiduciary duties, board members must factor the increasing threat of climate change in to those decisions, Hasenkopf said.

“When it comes to fixing the climate, it can feel so overwhelming for any individual to feel like they can do a single meaningful thing about it,” she said. “It feels like it is too large of a problem.” In addition, university boards of governance have not always been receptive to feedback from students on contentious issues like climate action, racial justice, or sexual harassment and assault prevention.

“But that’s what’s so impactful about college alumni getting active in university governance,” Hasenkopf said. “For the entire Penn State system to divest its $6.2 billion long-term investment pool, inclusive of both endowed and nonendowed funds, from fossil fuels, you just need a relatively small group of people—the Board of Trustees—to support it. And alumni at many institutions collectively have the power and will to make this happen by electing fellow alumni [to the board] who will push forward climate action efforts.”

Alumni-driven efforts to elect climate-forward candidates to governing boards began at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. In 2019, Nathán Goldberg Crenier and his peers at Harvard started an organization called Harvard Forward, which aimed to elect candidates to the five open seats on the Board of Overseers in 2020. Goldberg is the cofounder and president of Bluebonnet Data, which organizes volunteer data analysts for progressive political campaigns.

“We thought that this was a clear place where Harvard as an institution was out of step with Harvard as an interconnected group of people—meaning alumni, students, faculty, and staff.”

“One of the issues that was a core organizing principle of the group was fossil fuel divestment and climate action in general,” Goldberg said. “We thought that this was a clear place where Harvard as an institution was out of step with Harvard as an interconnected group of people—meaning alumni, students, faculty, and staff—and that if we organized a campaign around this issue, that would galvanize a lot of support that Harvard wouldn’t be able to ignore.”

For institutions of higher education that elect or partially elect their governing boards, electoral processes tend to draw heavily on the alumni base. Candidates are most often nominated by current board members, are elected by networks of alumni from similar backgrounds, and sit on the board for multiyear terms.

Most governing board members are white and male. Most also share other characteristics, such as age: “The people who are making decisions about what happens on campus have not been students in 20, 30, 40, 50 years,” Goldberg explained. And at Harvard, for example, although its board is more diverse than most with regard to gender and race, the majority of board members have a finance or legal background, which further limits the diversity of viewpoints and experiences brought forward to recognize or solve a problem.

There is also the issue of voter turnout. In the most recent Board of Trustees election at Penn State, 97% of eligible alumni did not vote in board elections, the same percentage as the year before that. “Demographically, you look at who votes, and it’s primarily two-to-one men to women, largely folks who graduated in the 70s and 80s and who live toward the center of Pennsylvania,” Hasenkopf said. “Even increasing that voter turnout [by] just a couple percent could make a dramatic improvement in representing where alumni want the university to go. Penn State has many campuses across Pennsylvania; it has a large potential for reducing its carbon footprint and making a statement not just for Penn State or Pennsylvania, but really for the nation.”

A Hard-Won Battle for Change

A change in board demographics can be hard to come by, but not impossible. Many institutions have a democratic process of nominating independent candidates for board positions. At Penn State, for example, a trustee candidate who receives 250 nominations will be added to a ballot. At Yale, the target was signatures from 3% (about 5,000) of eligible alumni voters.

For the 2020 Harvard board election, the goal was signatures from 1% (about 3,000) of all alumni, a large hurdle for elections with traditionally low voter turnout. Harvard’s petition process for board nominations has been successful only a handful of times in the university’s history. Notable petition candidates include Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1989 and former U.S. president (and past president of Harvard Law Review) Barack Obama in 1991. Even fewer petition candidates have been elected. (Tutu was elected; Obama was not.)

The Harvard Forward team knew its goal was possible, even if the hurdles were difficult to overcome and had become more bureaucratically arduous after each successful petition.

During Harvard Forward’s campaign, the head of the alumni committee that selects overseer candidates spoke out against grassroots campaigns in general, stating that “the role of an Overseer is not to advocate for some particular set of issues that you are expert in or that you care really strongly about.” Furthermore, she explained, “effective board members…are thoughtful about the university as a whole, not just the parts that most connect with their personal interests. They check their egos at the door.” In a more targeted denouncement, Harvard Alumni Association leaders distributed a letter to alumni accusing the Harvard Forward campaign of raising “copious funding,” “leveraging atypical campaigning methods,” and setting a “precedent for effectively ‘buying’ seats on the Board of Overseers [that] threatens to undermine the integrity of the University and its mission.” (Harvard Forward refuted the accusations.)

The message was clear: “People support this. If they have the option to vote for it, they will.”

What’s more, the system to register a signature is antiquated by current standards: People either must sign by hand on specific university-marked paper and file it in person or download a form from an online submission system, sign by hand, and scan it back in to submit it—no e-signatures allowed. Through the tremendous efforts of volunteers, representatives of Harvard Forward showed up at the 1-day Harvard Alumni Association networking event that takes place in cities around the world. “We got volunteers to go to events in Singapore, in Berlin, in Lima, in Mexico City, Boston, New York, L.A.,” Goldberg said, “and tell people in person, face to face, ‘Hey, you probably don’t know how our governance works, but we have a chance to elect people that stand for something.’” On that day alone, the group collected more than half of the signatures they needed.

Overall, Harvard Forward collected around 4,500 signatures for each of its five candidates in 2020. When voting time came, three of those candidates won seats on the Board of Overseers.

Even Harvard Forward leaders were surprised at their success. “We did not even have a press release version ready for winning three seats,” Goldberg said. “It was a huge win.” The message was clear, Goldberg continued: “People support this. If they have the option to vote for it, they will.”

Less than a year later, Harvard announced that the university would not renew its investment in fossil fuels, a reversal of its earlier position. The school is moving toward fossil fuel divestment, joining a growing list of more than 1,500 businesses and organizations that have already done so and spurring other universities to follow suit.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

It seemed like Harvard Forward’s success story was set to repeat itself at Yale in early 2020. Scott Gigante and his peers cofounded Yale Forward, a student- and alumni-led campaign inspired by and modeled after Harvard Forward. “They had built a lot of the infrastructure that we needed to start Yale Forward in a quick and easy way,” Gigante said. “We thought that this was an underleveraged mechanism of moving our society to address the climate crisis.” Gigante is a machine learning scientist at Immunai, a company that seeks to map the human immune system to improve health outcomes.

Yale Forward’s climate goals were similar to those of its Harvard predecessor: Make Yale carbon neutral by 2030, prioritize climate action at the highest university levels, and fully divest from fossil fuels as soon as possible.

The group’s candidate for The President and Fellows of Yale College, or the Yale Corporation, was 2015 forestry and environmental studies alum Maggie Thomas, who had been a climate adviser on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) 2020 presidential campaign. The organization received enough signatures to get Thomas on the 2021 ballot, but she later had to withdraw her name when she was appointed chief of staff to National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy. Yale Forward shifted its efforts to the 2022 election with environmental management alum Zoraya Hightower, who also received enough petition signatures to be on the ballot.

But a day before the 2021 election and shortly after Hightower announced her intent to run the following year, the university announced that it was suspending the petition process indefinitely.

“There was quite a lot of outrage and disappointment,” Gigante said. “I heard from a lot of alumni personally [who] said to me, ‘I may not agree with the candidates’ policies, but I am 100% in favor of them being able to get on the ballot and make their positions known and being able to vote on that.’”

The official statement from the Yale Corporation does not mention Yale Forward by name, although it does call attention to “issues-based candidacies, with intense campaigning by petitioners who are materially supported by organizations that seek to advance specific platforms.” Minutes from the closed meeting during which the decision was made are embargoed until 2071. Gigante, however, believes the move came in retaliation for the slew of petition candidates in 2021 and 2022—there were five over 2 years. Before that, the last successful petition candidate was William Horowitz, Yale’s first Jewish trustee, who was elected in 1964. (A few other petition candidates made it onto the ballot since Horowitz, but none was elected.)

Even Harvard Forward’s 2020 success did not come without consequence to the university’s electoral process. After that election, the university changed the rules so that only six out of the 30 members of the board could be elected via the petition process. Harvard Forward went on to successfully nominate and elect a fourth candidate to the Board of Overseers in 2021; the organization chose not to run a 2022 campaign as it reevaluated its future path.

“When your opponent controls the rules of the game, it’s very hard to play to win.”

Gigante said his group expected the Yale Corporation to respond at a level similar to that of the board at Harvard. Losing the petition process entirely was “pretty extraordinary and much, much stronger retaliation than we ever would have expected,” he said. Lacking a democratic process to nominate candidates for the Yale Corporation, the group has shifted its efforts to getting that process reinstated.

Despite the setbacks, Gigante believes that Yale Forward’s efforts have led to some small progress in bringing climate and other environmental issues to the fore at Yale. The school announced new principles for fossil fuel divestment, and Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund, was elected to the university’s board this year through the traditional, nonpetition process.

“When your opponent controls the rules of the game, it’s very hard to play to win,” Gigante said. “That said, we’re not going to stop advocating for the interests of alumni who care about climate action, who care about transparency in governance, who care about representation of those young alumni and diverse alumni.”

Surprisingly Quick Success

The 2022 election was Penn State Forward’s first attempt at getting independently nominated candidates on the school’s governing board—the organization ran three candidates for three open alumni seats. Van Horn said that Penn State Forward received a lot of help and advice from Goldberg and others at Harvard Forward on how to get the campaign started. The group’s members took heart at the success of their Harvard counterparts and learned to temper their hopes after seeing the pushback at Yale.

Penn State Forward was cautiously optimistic during the campaign, Hasenkopf explained. Maybe the group would receive one nomination that year, she recalled thinking, but it would probably take a few years to build the awareness and momentum to actually get a candidate elected.

“Even more than surprise though, I felt hope for the grassroots issues and ideas our student and young alumni–run campaign stood for.”

But in the end, all three of Penn State Forward’s candidates were successfully nominated, and one, Hasenkopf, was elected. “I was very surprised when they called my name as one of the three winners of the election,” she said. “Even more than surprise, though, I felt hope for the grassroots issues and ideas our student- and young alumni–run campaign stood for: achieving educational equity, taking climate action, advancing student health and safety, and ensuring transparent and inclusive governance. Clearly, these issues resonated with the wider Penn State alumni network.”

Thus far, the Penn State Board of Trustees has responded positively to Hasenkopf’s election and climate-forward goals. “Climate change is recognized as one of the most important issues of our time and Penn State has faculty and top experts working to address the complex challenges that we are facing worldwide,” board chair Matt Schuyler said in a statement provided to Eos on behalf of the Penn State Board of Trustees. “All members of the Board of Trustees have an opportunity to discuss and engage on topics that are critical to the mission and goals of the University.”

Climate scientists at Penn State have also been encouraged by the organization’s success and expressed hope that their university will soon announce progressive climate action.

“A few years ago, a student group gave the administration at Penn State coal in a metaphorical holiday stocking as a comment on how little the university was doing to address climate issues,” said Sue Brantley, a Penn State geoscientist. Advocacy from students, staff, and faculty has pushed the university toward lowering its carbon footprint, but Hasenkopf’s election to the Board of Trustees is a big leap forward, she said. “Penn Staters now anticipate that the university will accelerate its proactive climate decisionmaking. What is truly exciting about this is that Penn State Forward is pushed by our younger alumni finding their political voice…on our campus.”

“Wise use of [climate] knowledge will give us a larger economy with more jobs, improved health, and greater national security in a cleaner environment more consistent with the Golden Rule,” said Penn State climate scientist Richard Alley. “Huge, critically important parts of the future will rest on research from universities and colleges, will be built and implemented by students educated at universities and colleges, and [will be] helped along by service from those universities and colleges. So getting universities and colleges into the lead and keeping them there is important for us, our students, and the broader world. That applies to Penn State and to all other institutions of higher learning.”

Paving the Way Forward

Hasenkopf’s term on the Board of Trustees began on 1 July and will last 3 years. In addition to advancing the climate platform she ran on, she hopes that her election serves to raise awareness about how alumni can participate in the university governance process. At Penn State, people who have voted in the past automatically receive a ballot, but “those who just graduated or have never voted before don’t have a great way to know the elections are even going on,” she said.

“There are more than 700,000 living Penn State alumni, a wealth of brainpower.”

One of the most direct ways alumni can contribute to large-scale climate change action at their alma maters is to vote in elections like these.

“There are more than 700,000 living Penn State alumni, a wealth of brainpower,” Hasenkopf said. “With only 3% participating in elections, we barely access our biggest resource—alumni!—for our elections, and I’d like to see that change.” This will help ensure that people from the generations most affected by climate change are also the ones making decisions about how to fight it, she added.

Van Horn added that regardless of the results of the election, “one of the outcomes has been that the dialogue has shifted. Because [when] there are candidates [who] are running on climate action, candidates [who] in past elections would never have to talk about climate change are now being called to the table to engage in that dialogue. And even if they don’t have as ambitious goals as we do…they’re still called into that really important conversation about what Penn State can and should be doing.” Penn State Forward is planning to run more candidates in the next election, she said, and the team is excited to build on its success.

“I hope more scientists consider taking on leadership roles at institutions of higher learning—or in society at large.”

Goldberg expressed how proud he was that Harvard Forward was able to serve as a model for the Yale and Penn State organizations. “I see it as an interconnected family of campaigns,” he said. He hopes that alumni networks at more schools will come out of the woodwork wanting to take similar action and said the team members at Harvard Forward are ready to offer advice based on their experience if needed.

And for alumni who want to follow in Hasenkopf’s footsteps and seek a position on a governing board, her best advice is this: “Do it!” she said. “I hope more scientists consider taking on leadership roles at institutions of higher learning—or in society at large.”

Author Information

Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer

Editor’s note: The author is an alum of Pennsylvania State University and voted in the 2022 Board of Trustees election.

Citation: Cartier, K. (2022), Alumni push universities forward on climate, Eos, 103, https://doi.org/10.1029/2022EO220537. Published on 21 November 2022.
Text © 2022. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.

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