Colby’s Environmental Leadership

June 9, 2017

Dear Colby Community,

The College’s solar array is taking shape on Washington Street as you approach Mayflower Hill. This initiative builds on Colby’s extraordinary commitment to environmental sustainability on campus and the significant investments we have made to ensure Colby leads liberal arts colleges in the study of the environment and climate change.

These investments include the recent establishment of the Buck Lab for the Environment and Climate Change and the Russ Cole Research Fellows Program and Resident Lectureship, which provide our students with unparalleled opportunities for research, internships, and global experiences related to environmental issues. They include the creation of the Environmental Humanities program, offering exciting scholarly opportunities and attracting environmental leaders from a range of fields to Colby. They also include the hiring this year of five distinguished faculty who work on issues related to environmental science and policy and new partnerships with Allen Island, the Up East Foundation, and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

These commitments, enhanced by our having one of the few carbon-neutral campuses in the country, place Colby at the forefront of scholarship, teaching, and student experiences related to the environment and climate change. Why, then, some of you have asked recently, have I not signed a letter critical of the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and pledges (for each organization that signs on) to meet the standards of the agreement? There are three primary reasons.

  1. My responsibility is to foster an environment on campus that supports free inquiry, a broad exchange of ideas, and scholarly and pedagogical work that is evidence based. We must be a place that is open to the widest array of perspectives, dissenting voices, and unpopular views. Faculty and students should explore ideas freely and not be constrained by institutional positions that declare how we are to think about issues of the day. For example, we should be open to arguments about the tradeoffs of the Paris Agreement from a scientific and policy standpoint, the nation’s role in international agreements, and the appropriate political process for creating commitments of this type. The outcomes of these arguments should not be predetermined by an institutional stance. So on most political issues of the day, I will choose not to affix Colby’s name. I ascribe to the view expressed by the late William Bowen, president of Princeton University, who said, “The university should be the home of the critic—indeed, the home of critics of many different persuasions—not the critic itself.”

  2. I draw an important distinction from general political issues to ones that are more narrowly targeted to legislation or funding that have a direct impact on Colby, such as a recent letter I signed about immigration policy and its impact on colleges.

  3. The letter I’m being asked to sign now urges organizations and cities to commit to the standards of the Paris Agreement, which I view as less ambitious than the standards we already adhere to at Colby. We have reduced our emissions by 75 percent since 2000, while the Paris accord calls for just a fraction of these reductions. I do not see the value in agreeing to do less than we already are doing.

  4. Many of you who have written have argued that signing these mass letters is a sign of strong leadership. I disagree with that assessment. Signing a group letter is easy. We act with conviction and demonstrate true leadership when we make the kinds of investments I describe above and continue the ambitious program of environmental stewardship we have long had here at Colby.

I understand my approach will be unsatisfactory to some, and I welcome a conversation about these issues. But let there be no doubt about Colby’s commitment to the study of the environment and climate change and to building on our admirable position as one of the nation’s most sustainable campuses.

David A. Greene

Office of the President
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