In studying the world’s environment, Harvard is changing its own environment.
Global and campus challenges have eight of its nine Schools pooling expertise and efforts in ways unprecedented in University history. For three years the Center for the Environment has been drawing on Harvard’s resources in the arts and sciences, business, design, education, government, law, medicine, and public health to increase understanding of the environment and to respond to factors that threaten its stability. Projects range from slowing environmental degradation in China to grappling with the economics of climate change, from a new undergraduate concentration to training executives in business, government, and academia.
The center grew from an idea posed by former Harvard President Derek Bok to a University Committee on Environment, founded in 1991 under the aegis of Neil Rudenstine, Bok’s successor. Michael McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies, chaired the University wide committee, and became director of the center when it was established in April 2001. It will now pass to Daniel Schrag, professor of earth and planetary sciences, who has been serving as acting director.
“Under the leadership of Mike McElroy, the Harvard Center for the Environment has been enormously successful in integrating a wide range of disciplines relating to the study of the environment,” commented Provost Steven Hyman. “The University owes him a debt of gratitude for all he’s done to build this tremendous resource.”
“I very much appreciate the opportunity of working with colleagues from so many different disciplines,” says McElroy, who remains associated with several of the center’s programs. “The experience has been intellectually broadening and personally satisfying.”
“I’ve been very lucky to inherit the center after the hard work of starting it has been done.” Schrag comments. “Mike has been a close friend and mentor. I’m looking forward to working with him and other faculty around the Harvard community to achieve his vision of the best possible scholarship and education on environment.”
Collaboration with China
Even before the center was established, McElroy initiated one of its most successful projects, an ongoing effort to protect the environment of China, a rapidly growing nation of 1.3 billion people, and to ease the impact of its energy demands on the global environment. “The project brings together a cross section of Harvard scholars, who don’t usually discuss their work with each other every day, and Chinese scholars who enjoy the highest level of support from their government,” McElroy notes.
“Working with a variety of Chinese institutions and other Western universities, we have completed 19 original analyses to launch larger studies that integrate the areas of natural, applied, and medical sciences, economics, urban planning, policy, law, and cultural anthropology,” notes Chris Nielsen, director of the China Project. “We are now working in areas that include a dynamic model of the Chinese economy, hazards of energy-related pollution to health and the economy, and transportation demands and health risks.”
Another gem in Harvard’s environmental crown is a concentration in environmental science and public policy, established in 1992 by the University Committee on Environment. “It was a tough challenge to start a new concentration that includes so many Schools and diverse areas of specialty,” McElroy admits. “The secret of our success has been the ability to intellectually engage both the students and the wide variety of faculty. You have to keep both from getting bored, and both have to learn new things.”
“It’s not an easy concentration,” he continues. “Our students must do tough chemistry and real biology, be mathematically literate and pass courses in economics and government.”