Possibilities and Perils for Duke’s New Climate Vice President

On May 5th, eight months after Duke University launched its Climate Commitment, the school announced that Dr. Toddi Steelman, former Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment, was appointed as vice president and vice provost for climate and sustainability. She will lead the new Office of Climate and Sustainability starting in July.

Steelman spoke with me about the importance of creating more space for the Climate Commitment, a university-wide initiative to find solutions that support climate change mitigation, sustainability, and resilience. The its main areas of focus include energy efficiency and emissions reduction, environmental justice, and community resilience–especially in coastal ecosystems and Durham.

“Having a single person in a leadership position,” Steelman explained, “creates a signal of not only leadership, but accountability.” The position will allow for more time and dedication toward the Climate Commitment. “It will have my singular attention across the entire institution,” she said.

In her new position, Steelman will interact with students and community members, and serve on Duke President Vincent Price’s Cabinet. “I think that’s one of the opportunities and challenges of a position like this, […] trying to figure out, where does the common interest lie in terms of what’s the right thing for the institution at large?” Steelman said.

These discussions are nothing new at Duke. The Duke Climate Coalition, a student-led climate advocacy group, has long urged the university to divest fossil fuel industries. Last April, the group filed a legal complaint against Duke, arguing that the university’s fossil fuel investments break a state law which requires nonprofit institutions to allocate funds toward causes that align with their purpose and mission, following a similar move by students from Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, and Vanderbilt.

Some schools’ claims of divestment have raised questions regarding what it means to divest from fossil fuels. According to the Duke Climate Coalition website, 1-2% of Duke’s endowment goes toward fossil fuel stocks, a portfolio which Steelman said is similar to other schools who have announced divestment, like Harvard and Oxford. Princeton, for example, has faced criticism for announcing divestment while maintaining indirect investments in fossil fuels.

Steelman recognized that while it will take time to determine her role in the matter, she is open to having conversations about divestment. “I’m sure it’s not going to be easy, but I am excited to actually have a little bit more space to be able to actually think through what that might mean for us,” she said.

Beyond the campus community, the Office of Climate and Sustainability will work closely with Duke’s Office of Durham and Community Affairs and external partners to strengthen existing efforts. The Office of Durham and Community Affairs supports various initiatives addressing housing, education, and health, among other issues.

When she starts her new position, Steelman plans to take “a listening tour” to incorporate community feedback. “It’s important for me to […] go out and listen to people to understand what they want out of this role, what they think it can achieve, and then shape it to what we think will best serve the community.”

While many higher-ed institutions have taken significant measures to make a positive environmental impact in recent years, few have designated a cabinet-level position dedicated to climate and sustainability. Brown and Harvard have comparable positions, while other peer institutions like Yale and the University of Michigan have offices of sustainability.

“I would love to see […] every university have a focus on this, because that’s what the world needs right now,” Steelman said. “I hope that in some ways we can be leading by example.”

RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Emma Brentjens

Emma Brentjens is a Master of Environmental Management student at Duke University studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation and Community-based Environmental Management. She is driven by her belief that science is for everyone and aspires to write about environmental topics in an accessible and engaging way.