In 2004 Stanford President John Hennessy announced the creation of a new interdisciplinary institute for the environment — an independent center designed to serve as an umbrella organization for environmental research and leadership education at Stanford University.
“The Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Institute for the Environment was created to leverage the excellent environmental research taking place throughout the university,” recalled President Hennessy. “Since then it has become the primary hub for world-class scholars across campus to collaborate on solutions to the great environmental challenges facing our planet. Its impact will be felt at Stanford — and in the broader community — for generations to come.”
“Some of our most daunting challenges are environmental ones: How can we build a world that supports sustainable development for our "children's children's children"? Today, between 1 billion and 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, resulting in a devastating array of public health problems and disease. At the same time, we are literally changing the face of the planet: Human activities are driving the extinction of species at faster rates than we have ever seen. The world population is expected to grow by several billion people over the next half-century, and the world's energy demands are likely to grow even faster. The challenges before us are critical and enormous. … In recent years, we started asking ourselves: Given the university's great research and education programs, how can Stanford most effectively contribute to addressing these complex problems?” — Stanford President John Hennessy, 2004
DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES, COMMON GOALS
In 2000, shortly after John Hennessy became president of Stanford, he announced plans to assess 21st century priorities. That year the Provost’s Committee on the Environment, chaired by Professor Peter Vitousek, produced a report calling for a "major initiative" to make Stanford "a national leader in providing solutions for environmental problems." This effort resulted in the 2003 creation of the campus-wide Initiative on Environment and Sustainability as part of Hennessy’s priorities plan.
“The mission of the initiative is to promote an environmentally sound and sustainable world by identifying current and future environmental problems and challenges," Vitousek said in a presentation to the Faculty Senate. "We will develop creative solutions to these challenges through the integration of science, technology and policy — and effectively communicate our findings beyond Stanford."
While the Provost Committee created a blueprint for collaboration between faculty and staff from various schools within the university, Hennessy created the Stanford Institute for the Environment in 2004 to serve as the initiative’s centerpiece and focal point. He appointed Professors Buzz Thompson and Jeff Koseff as its founding faculty directors. Debbie Drake Dunne became executive director in 2009.
The Institute was envisioned as a unique hub for Stanford’s environmental researchers, bringing together experts from across the university’s seven schools to pursue interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented research addressing the planet’s most complex environmental challenges.
Visionary supporters helped the Institute grow quickly. Many of these early donors would later form the Institute’s Advisory Council. In 2006 the Institute was formally renamed for Stanford trustee Ward W. Woods, '64, and his wife, Priscilla, whose significant contribution supports innovative environmental programs and collaborative research.
When the Center for Environmental Science and Policy in the Freeman-Spogli Institute was dissolved in 2007, many of its programs were incorporated into the Stanford Woods Institute and most of its core faculty became senior fellows at the Institute.
A HUB FOR ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH
Since its founding, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Institute for the Environment — often simply called the Stanford Woods Institute — has expanded its reach to encompass projects and research on every continent except Antarctica. Its budget has grown from about $1 million to around $20 million and its community has grown from a handful of committed faculty to more than 150 fellows, affiliated faculty and researchers.
The Stanford Woods Institute’s size and scope have been enlarged over the years to include research and education in seven focal areas: climate, ecosystem services and conservation, food security, freshwater, oceans, public health and sustainable development.
Similarly, the Stanford Woods Institute’s list of partners has expanded to include globally influential organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Despite the change, the Institute’s mission has remained steadfast: to find solutions to environmental challenges and train the next generation of environmental leaders.
Stanford Woods Institute faculty and scholars are engaged in dozens of projects around the world. Their research has led to the development of biodegradable building materials, paradigm-changing wastewater treatment technology and new government policies for drinking water access in sub-Saharan Africa.
The educational courses, seminars and workshops offered through the Institute have inspired and better prepared hundreds of current and emerging environmental leaders. The Leopold Leadership Program, for example, provides more than 150 scholars from around the U.S. with the skills, approaches and theoretical frameworks for translating their knowledge into action to address the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges. The Mel Lane Student Grants Program has empowered dozens of Stanford students to realize their visions for environment and sustainability projects that make a measurable impact through action or applied academic research.
The Stanford Woods Institute has more than realized the hopes of its founding faculty members. “The Institute is doing exactly what we set out to do — finding creative new interdisciplinary solutions to the world’s major environmental challenges and training the next generation of environmental leaders,” Thompson said. “Woods has shown how an academic institution can tap into the talents and time of faculty without requiring that they move to new departments, change their affiliations or otherwise reorganize the university,” added Koseff. “This new framework for working across disciplines allows faculty to focus on solutions. It’s really altered the landscape of higher learning, pioneering new ways of appointing faculty, reassessing what scholarship deserves support and redefining what universities are about.”
A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
In 2011 the Stanford Woods Institute launched a major planning process to guide its next phase of work, soliciting input from a broad range of interested parties, including faculty, staff and external stakeholders. Based on this process, Woods crafted a five-year strategic plan to advance its interdisciplinary research on sustainability and the environment. Moving forward, the Stanford Woods Institute remains committed to putting ideas into action that will solve the environmental challenges of today and tomorrow.