Jonathan “Peck” Overpeck is a world-renowned climate scientist with over 200 published works, including coauthorship of a Nobel Prize-winning report on climate change. He joins the University of Michigan as the inaugural Samuel A. Graham Dean of U-M’s new School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). Peck recently hosted Leaders & Best for a conversation about what it takes to lead U-M through a major expansion of its environment and sustainability initiatives.

Dean Overpeck

“Our job isn’t just to educate and create knowledge. Our job is to help people in society, to make their world better for their livelihoods, and improve their quality of life.”

What is SEAS and how has its identity evolved to reflect the needs of the day?

The School for Environment and Sustainability is here to make the world a more environmentally sound, sustainable, and just place. The vision for this new school came from faculty working together to recommend a new focus for environment and sustainability initiatives at U-M. One of the big innovations of SEAS is that it’s a cross-campus school. It’s one of the first such experiments that I know of in the country. We’re not only a school with very rigorous academic programs, leading research, and global engagement. We’re also charged with reaching across all of campus to act as a catalyst for achieving more, both in terms of academic prowess and in our university’s impact in society.

Our school has its roots in forestry. The very first courses in forestry in the United States were taught at the University of Michigan. The progression since then has never really lost sight of those roots in the natural environment that we live in. But it’s now a much more comprehensive school with a much more comprehensive focus. That reflects the fact that our natural environment and the people on this planet are interacting in ways that create a lot of challenges. Those challenges now expand to include environmental justice, climate, food and water, energy, and so much more. SEAS won’t be leaving its roots behind, but will integrate them in with a broader perspective that will have more impact when it comes to serving society.

How can SEAS leverage the interdisciplinary breadth and depth of U-M to create real-world environmental impact?

Our goal is to make U-M the best university in the world when it comes to environment and sustainability. The only way you do that is to recognize the excellence that has made its way into every nook and cranny of this great university. At SEAS, that takes shape in so many partnerships across campus. Over in the College of Engineering, we have world-class faculty working on sustainable systems, climate change, weather, water, and so much more. In LSA, just about every department is contributing to a more vibrant and sustainable world. We’re engaging with businesses in our partnership with the Ross School and the Erb Institute. At the Law School, we’re trying to understand how legal institutions operate with respect to the environment and how we might make them better for the future.

Our list of partners within U-M just goes on and on, and I can’t stress enough the importance of these partnerships across campus. Every school, college, and unit at U-M plays a role. As I said, our goal is to be the best. We’re only going to achieve that by bringing everybody together and making the sum better than the individual parts. That’s what SEAS is charged with doing: to be a catalyst, to be an empowerer. We not only need to help get our university to the very top of environmental research, but to have more impact in society than any other university in the world.

What sort of partnerships can SEAS establish outside of the U-M community?

I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to figure out how to make universities more outward looking, how to form partnerships with practitioners in society. Those partners could be resource managers, community leaders, political leaders, or the general public. Everybody in our society has a stake in our environment. Our job on campus is to learn about these perspectives off campus and to build partnerships to identify what challenges are most in need of addressing, then we need to work together to solve our shared problems. Our job isn’t just to educate and create knowledge. Our job is to help people in society, to make their world better for their livelihoods, and improve their quality of life.

We have so many efforts around campus focused on the Great Lakes region. What I want to do is coalesce these programs, big and small, into a more organized effort that will ensure that the Great Lakes only get greater. We want to achieve something that future generations will look back and say, “The University of Michigan and its partners were there to ensure that we were in it for the long haul, and thank goodness for that.” We’ve also started growing our international programs, because some of our biggest problems are global. This means finding partners like our alumni and others from around the globe. We have one program called Sustainability Without Borders, which works in Africa, Latin America, and Puerto Rico to enhance the way people live in those countries, particularly people who don’t have a lot of power or wealth. We’re trying to bring greater equality to this world, as well as get people out of poverty.

How is donor and alumni support and involvement central to SEAS’ mission?

The donor partnerships with the University of Michigan are nothing less than mind-blowing, especially for someone who came from another university. Our alumni, donors, and friends have such a remarkable spirit for making the University of Michigan a better place. I can’t help but look around this campus and note all the wonderful things that donors are doing in terms of infrastructure, programmatic support, and supporting our professors and students.

There are so many partners helping us do these things right now. Don (BSE IO ’55, MSE ’56, DEng Hon ’09) and Ingrid (BSDes ’57) Graham are just terrific supporters of the school, and terrific supporters of the University of Michigan’s enterprise, more generally. The Graham Sustainability Institute is already allowing us to do so much more than what a typical university can do in terms of moving the needle, in terms of getting things done in society. Likewise, the Erb Family Foundation, in creating the Erb Institute, a partnership between the Ross School of Business and SEAS, is another example where we have a uniquely powerful program with world-leading synergy. It’s amazing what we can accomplish in terms of helping business partners understand how they can create a more sustainable and just world.

I’d also like to mention the Wege Foundation. They have been wonderful in their support of the Center for Sustainable Systems. It’s a wonderful partnership between SEAS and the College of Engineering. Peter C. Mertz (BS ’74, MBA ’81) has also been visionary in his support of our students. I cannot overstate the critical impact that he’s had for our master’s students, and how important that is to the success of those programs. Really, it would be so difficult to acknowledge all of the partners who provide life-changing support to our students, not to mention the vision and expertise they provide for our programs. We have so many wonderful collaborators who are making U-M a better place.

Where does SEAS need the most help in meeting its goals?

We’re always looking for continued support for our students. That will always remain a top priority for SEAS. My goal as dean right now is to double the support available to them. It’s also critical to me that we fund programs. When it comes to our new goal of really engaging in society and focusing on partnerships off campus, we can’t afford to drop the ball because we’ve run out of funding or we’ve had a gap in funding. My goal is to find partners who can ensure the long-term sustainability of our research, education, and engagement programs.

Another area that’s critical for our students is in the area of communications and engagement. One of the real strengths of the University of Michigan is our alumni. They’re out there fighting the fight for the environment and sustainability, and we need to be giving them a stronger quiver of tools to utilize in their careers—tools that will last. Many places now are focusing on communication and how to communicate knowledge more effectively. What we want to do is go beyond communication to engagement. How do you actually build trust? Because ultimately I think it’s those trusted partnerships and relationships that will help us depoliticize environmental issues. If we can accomplish that, we can have much more impact in ensuring an environmentally sound, sustainable, and just world.

Seas' Impact Around the World

SEAS’ impact extends from the state of Michigan to around the world. Here are a few examples of how SEAS faculty and students are meeting the needs of today and tomorrow.

Related Stories