Village Voices: Peter Salovey

Peter Salovey is president of Yale University, a position he has held since 2013. Here he reflects on the ways in which the Living Villages resonates with his personal call to environmental stewardship, and with the stewardship plans that are unfolding for the wider university. This conversation took place in February 2023, shortly after Salovey’s publication of “Climate innovation” in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Your family moved to Southern California when you were in your last year of high school, at a time when the state was making great strides in battling smog. Is that when you first became aware of humans’ impact on the environment?

I mostly grew up in New Jersey, and like so many Jewish kids growing up in the suburbs, I went to Hebrew school where I took a class—it might have been 1970-ish—called Ecology and the Bible. It was an exploration of ideas, which were beginning to be embraced by the first ecotheologists, having to do with living on land in a way that caused less damage. So, leaving fields fallow every once in a while, allotting the corners of fields to the poor, even some ideas about crop rotation. I remember loving this class, because here were writings, thousands of years old, that had ecological ideas. That is probably where my awareness started.

When I was a teenager, we moved to Buffalo before coming to California. I went to public school in Buffalo, which also coincided with the first Earth Days. These were big deals. The school basically turned itself over to Earth Day, with special meetings and workshops. I think of those two experiences as formative.

As you rose the ranks of leadership—from dean of Yale College in 2004 to provost of Yale University in 2008, and now president—awareness of climate change has evolved into fluency in the subject, including the environmental solutions at which Yale could lead. 

I think about the university with respect to climate change and our impact on the environment more generally in a few different ways. Obviously, there’s the teaching component. In the period I was dean of Yale College, I was very involved in reviving our Environmental Studies major for undergraduates. And the Yale School of the Environment has been a part of the environmental movement, from an education perspective, for as long as anyone.

Second, we’re a research institution. We create scholarship, and particularly in the last 10 years we have been trying to catalyze research on the environment that is multidisciplinary:  our scientists might be interested in carbon capture and sequestration, and our architecture school might be interested in building materials, but how do we break down siloes and get everyone working together? Our Planetary Solutions Project represents a university-wide commitment to science that ignores specific fields of study.

And third, we view our campus as a lab. We can be experimental with the way we use our campus and try out ideas that might then be informative of much grander building projects. The best example of this has been our adoption of a carbon charge. Bill Nordhaus, our Nobel Prize–winning economist, wrote the book on this discipline, and we are the first university to tax ourselves on carbon use and to do it in a way that allows the occupants of a building to see their previous use and how that use changed against a baseline. We’ve been going on it for more than five years and, at this point, about ten other universities have adopted some version of the carbon charge. We also have principles about investing the endowment that take carbon into consideration. So, in all, there’s education, research, and campus practice.

Yale’s sustainable design and building efforts would therefore fall in that third category of campus practice. In addition to the carbon charge program, is there a physical place that exemplifies campus practice? 

The completion of Kroon Hall at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in 2009 was the first systematic attempt to build a fully self-sustaining building, and to be equally careful about material choices. We learned a lot about sustainability—for example, that it was more expensive on a per-square-foot basis than other buildings at the time.

But this is the cost of the leadership that moves markets, right?

You can also frame that in terms of early technology adoption: 15 years ago, the technology was still immature, and the technology improves and becomes less costly as it becomes more widely adopted. That said, we want to be responsible toward the planet without being irresponsible financially. Yale’s first LEED Platinum building represented a wise use of funds.

Three years after Kroon Hall’s opening, Greg Sterling becomes dean of Yale Divinity School. And not long after that, he comes to you with the idea of the Living Village. Would you recall your initial response to Greg’s goal of creating the Ivy League’s first fully certified Living Building?

I was excited by the opportunity to do something innovative, which would push the field of environmentally sound building design and construction in a new direction. I also liked the idea that the Living Village would be part of the YDS campus, because the Living Building Challenge is a good match to the school’s orientation around spirituality and justice. Both are dedicated to living in the world in a way that is gentler on the planet and on our fellow humans.

Did you have any misgivings?

For me, the biggest challenge of my own thinking was simply the idea of graduate students living together in a community. Our residential college system is very well known and serves as a model to others; the colleges break down the largeness of Yale University into smaller community units that can lead to incredible personal relationships. I love that model for undergraduates, but I wondered whether it was the right model for students in their mid-20s and beyond. After all, it’s important to have neighbors who are unlike yourselves, to pay utility bills, to deal with a landlord—there’s a certain gratification that comes from learning to live in this world. Yet as I really thought over the matter, I thought of the success of our on-campus housing for students of Yale Law School and of some communities of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

I liked the idea that the Living Village would be part of the YDS campus, because the Living Building Challenge is a good match to the school’s orientation around spirituality and justice. Both are dedicated to living in the world in a way that is gentler on the planet and on our fellow humans.

That was the hurdle. It wasn’t about new technology or design-forward, environmentally sound construction. I want to be design-forward. And I have a lot of faith in technology catching up to problems, even if I’m not a cutting-edge technology user in my personal life. I have faith in innovation and creativity. But for me the issue was, ‘Is this the best living arrangement?’

Can you say more about overcoming your reservations?

Greg helped me realize that on-campus housing could be an important part of a YDS education, too.

Without committing you to university-wide Living Building certification, how do you envision the Yale campus remaking itself in the image of the Living Village after it’s a proven success?

We pay attention to certification because it gives us a set of considerations as we build. And we have built to different LEED standards depending on the nature of the building; we have had to make some tradeoffs. But through the Living Village, we can set our aspirations, and to that end I hope the lessons of the Living Village are quite positive and aspirational.

But the Living Village may also teach us where the construction world is not yet ready to adopt its innovations at full scale. Every time we build, we have a learning experience, and that is exactly as it should be. We are a university. We are a campus for teaching and learning. Learning should be fundamental in everything we do.

The intersection of the personal and the institutional feels palpable.

I’m honored and humbled to be a president of a great university. But I come from the standpoint that my first professional identity was and still is an educator. I think that’s true of everyone at Yale. I bet our vice president for facilities and campus development most enjoys the education part of our job. In part that’s because everybody can play a role in combating climate change.