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Progress on expanding undergraduate sustainability degree programs

The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability is making progress toward the goal of having a school-wide undergraduate degree program that reflects the ambitions of the school and the aspirations of our students. The proposed new major builds on the powerful and historic Earth Systems major.

For more than 30 years, the Earth Systems program has been a home for undergraduate environmental and sustainability education at Stanford, training students in interdisciplinary systems thinking as a foundation for analyzing, understanding, communicating, and solving complex sustainability challenges. Following surveys, a focus group, and conversations with students, faculty, staff, and alumni, the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability (SDSS) is submitting a proposal to the Faculty Senate Committee on Review of Undergraduate Majors (C-RUM) for Sustainability Sciences & Systems as the new name for the major. 

The motivation to change the degree name stems from reflecting on the program’s impact over the last 30 years and its potential to evolve within SDSS to better meet the broad curricular needs of current and future students, engage faculty, and create off campus educational experiences. The proposed new name, Sustainability Sciences & Systems, is better aligned with the school’s commitment to building a schoolwide undergraduate major and the future educational opportunities that will emerge as the school expands its faculty over the next decade. This name also fulfills the goal of being easily understandable and recognizable to prospective students and high school families. 

I am very grateful for the feedback we received from students and alumni in the lead up to this moment, which was shared directly with the Dean and other school leaders. (Learn more about the five-year timeline of community engagement leading up to this decision.) We heard the support and rationale from many students and alumni advocating to keep the Earth Systems name; we heard the desire to keep the focus on science and a systems lens. We heard your concerns about the modern perceptions of the word sustainability and the co-opting of the language by inauthentic actors. 

These concerns and this input helped shape the naming of the degree:

“Sustainability science” is an emerging field and represents the transdisciplinary direction we aspire to move towards. “Sciences” encompasses the breadth of rigorous natural, physical, and social sciences that has been and will continue to be reflected in the degree. “Systems” reflects the imperative to situate the work within complex social and environmental systems and enable future students to tackle large, complex socio-environmental challenges. Our hope is that much as Earth Systems helped pioneer an interdisciplinary, systems based approach to training environmental leaders, we can also help define what it means to authentically study and practice sustainability.

I know that many of you will have much more specific and important questions about what this means for you and your degree. I have included as an addendum to this message my current guidance about what a name change means for current and incoming Earth Systems majors. Another concern many of you expressed was that changing this name signaled the loss of your Earth Systems community. I want to assure you that although the name is changing, the core of Earth Systems - our program staff, advising approach, and educational mission - is unchanged. While discussions are beginning regarding how the degree requirements should gradually evolve and expand to reflect new courses and disciplines in the years to come, we are committed to maintaining continuity so that the history and connection between Earth Systems and Sustainability Sciences & Systems is clear to current and future students and alumni.

While I know that this is a big change, our planet and our society are in need of transformational change, and I am excited about our potential to lead this change going forward. Please feel free to reach out to me or other leadership in the Earth Systems Program or school to share any thoughts or questions you might have at this moment.

Sincerely,

Kabir G. Peay
Victoria and Roger Sant Director, Earth Systems Program

Addendum

  • Students conferring their degrees this academic year (2023-24) will be graduating with a degree in Earth Systems
  • Students can continue to declare the Earth Systems major during the 2023-24 Academic Year
  • Students currently declared in the Earth Systems major and students who will declare this academic year (23-24) will remain in and receive their B.S. in the Earth Systems major unless they choose to change to Sustainability Sciences & Systems in the future. 
  • We anticipate Sustainability Sciences & Systems being active effective September 1, 2024, so students would begin declaring under the new name in Fall 2024. 
  • Diplomas will list the name of the student’s declared major at the time of degree conferral (either Earth Systems or Sustainability Sciences & Systems).
  • The MA/MS degree names are not changing at this time

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