Dow donates $10M to start multidisciplinary sustainability fellowship

Many of the biggest sustainability problems stretch far beyond a single discipline, involving policy challenges, for example, as well as technology and social science challenges. So their solutions also will arguably need to involve many different fields. Yet many universities' sustainability programs are stuck in a single school – such as the school of environment or the school of engineering – today.

The Dow Chemical Company hopes to help change that: It's giving $10 million to establish a fellowship program at the University of Michigan geared toward getting students from different schools to collaborate on viable sustainability concepts. The idea is that multidisciplinary training could ultimately help worldwide organizations solve some of the globe's biggest challenges.

"This is a bold experiment," Neil Hawkins, Dow's vice president of sustainability, told GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower in an interview. "We're trying to create a platform and forum for people with different passions about sustainability from different disciplines, studying together in cohorts so we can train the sustainability leaders of the future about working on multidisciplinary approaches."

Dow's financial contribution will be spread over six years to create and support the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program, which has been in development for three years.

Aimed at graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, the program includes three levels of fellows, awards and a lecture series. The fellows programs -- masters, doctoral and postdoctoral -- will be open to all graduate schools in the university.

The program is intended to help cultivate real sustainability solutions, partly through the fellowship awards for projects with the potential to have a large impact on solving sustainability challenges.

"The kinds of challenges that will be put before these fellows over the next six years are really big ones -- like going from 7 billion to 9 billion people," Hawkins said. "How do you feed that change in population -- and a growing middle class at the same time -- without destroying the ecosystems of the world? How do you approach megacities of 10-20 million people? How do you construct more sustainable megacities? How do you take science and technology into commercial processes and come up with more sustainable energy that is self-sustaining and long-lasting?"

One stipulation of the program is that fellows will need to meet up monthly to share and discuss what they're working on.

"So anthropologists are challenging the engineers," said Don Scavia, special counsel to the president for sustainability at the University of Michigan, "and engineers are challenging the business students."

Most of the funding is slated for scholarships and project support for the fellows, and Dow and the university expect about 300 fellows to complete the program in six years.

The $10 million represents the largest gift to the university from Dow, which employs more than 300 University of Michigan alumni and also has a handful of employees teaching there are as adjunct professors.

"Michigan is a very important school for us from a recruiting point of view," Hawkins said. "To the extent that it helps Dow's reputation at the university, that is a very big plus for us. My guess is that some of the projects will intersect with technical interests of our company, and we'll be very happy to assist. If they need practical expertise, more than likely we've got people here working on it."

Illustration of joint work and collaboration by VLADGRIN via Shutterstock.com