March 28, 2013

sanderDear colleagues, staff, and students,

On June 30, 2013, I will be stepping down, at my own request, as dean of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability (the School).

I will continue as Foundation Professor with tenure in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC) and a half-time appointment in both SHESC and the School. I will have the pleasure to keep my responsibility as co-director of CAS@ASU (the new name of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative), as well as for the development of ASU’s Center for Integrated Solutions to Climate Challenges.

This is, for me, a liberating step. After ten years of administrative duties at ASU, I see my remaining years in academia melting like snow under the Arizona sun. I want to return to a more normal academic life of teaching, writing, thinking strategically about the scientific domains I am involved in, and strengthening ties with colleagues all over the world with whom I enjoy working.

But it is also a painful step. I have hugely enjoyed my various roles in the university, but I have to admit to myself that it is time to hand over my responsibilities to the next generation. For me, the inspiration for life in academia has always been to combine the intellectual with the entrepreneurial, and as an administrator in these interesting times, it is increasingly difficult to combine these roles.

As a knowledge-producing organization, a university is a complex adaptive system. Because of its many dimensions—too many to understand intellectually—the only way to shape a university is by living the experience, mixing theory with practice, and adapting ideas to unexpected realities and consequences. A university cannot be constructed, but has to grow. In that growth process, I have had the privilege of working with wonderful staff and faculty who are highly committed to the cause and to the enterprise, high achievers, and wonderful colleagues.

Together, we have set the next few steps in making ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability (the Institute) and the School unique institutions. We have tried to move the School past the sustainability science and scholarship of the '80s and '90s, and towards those of the 2030s, recognizing that the real sustainability challenge is societal rather than environmental. After all, a society defines its environment, doesn't it? Everyone had their own brilliant ideas, but we could only test out so many at a time. Some things have worked, but others have not quite yet.

Gary Dirks and Chris Boone, the two new leaders that will strengthen the team alongside its current, courageous, and tenacious mainstay Rob Melnick, are two of the most strategic, thoughtful, constructive, and efficient leaders I have encountered at ASU. They are prepared to do what it takes, have wide knowledge of the domain, and the trust of those who matter. I am thus fully confident that the work will go on and be successful.

I do not want to go without thanking from the bottom of my heart all of you who have made positive contributions, in whatever way you could, from our Board of Directors, down to staff, faculty, administrators, and students. You are too many to mention by name, and you know who you are and what you did. Your contributions have greatly been appreciated, and have made my time here both interesting and rich. I only want to make one single exception: my boss, close colleague, and friend to the end, Rob Melnick. Without his experience, survival instinct, management skills, courtesy, and friendship, the Institute, the School, and I wouldn’t be where we are today.


Sander van der Leeuw