Philanthropist Bill Kuni says it was the Bren School’s non-traditional approach to problem solving that first caught his attention. “The Bren School was looking at environmental issues in a multidimensional way—not stuck in silos. I saw the excitement and energy of the dean and the faculty and thought, ‘Yes, this train is moving in the right direction,’” said Kuni.
In 2016, Kuni provided the gift that launched the H. William Kuni Endowed Research Fellowship Fund. Every year, teams of 2-4 social and natural science Ph.D. students are selected to receive the research award, which helps them take on a complex environmental management problem. Seventeen students have now completed Kuni Fellowship projects (some more than one).
Asking the right questions
Bren School graduate Patrick Callery, Ph.D., credits his Kuni Fellowship project with starting him on a path of inquiry that will keep him engaged for years to come. As Ph.D. students in the Bren School, Callery and his research partner Jessica Vieira posed a simple but important question: Are corporations accurately reporting their carbon emissions and other climate change policy to investors and the public?
The answer was, not always. Callery and Vieira discovered that many corporations exploited loopholes in third-party reporting mechanisms, thereby misleading their investors and the general public. This was a high-stakes question: roughly one fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from industrial sources (source: C2ES), and institutional investors were increasingly using the data to make investment decisions. The obvious follow-up question will be an even harder one to answer: How can we make the reporting process more accurate?
“The Kuni Fellowship funding gave us access to data that shed light on how companies disclose their carbon emissions and other climate change risk policy to the public. We were able to see how firms sometimes mislead investors and the public about their carbon emissions,” said Callery.
Callery and Vieira made a good interdisciplinary team. Callery’s academic interests were in strategic management and corporate sustainability; Vieira was studying life cycle assessment. Coming from different disciplines, they were able to approach the question in a new way, and their work is already influencing the field. Their student project findings were recently published in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries, and additional projects are currently under peer review at other academic journals.
Callery continues to explore this emissions reporting problem as a tenure-track faculty member at Carleton University in Ontario. Vieira is now the senior director of sustainability at Apeel, which develops green solutions to problems like food spoilage.
“The fun thing is that the Kuni Fellowship research opened up a series of other important questions. Five years later, I am working on projects derived from that original work, leveraging that original data,” said Callery.
Making multidisciplinary magic
Multidisciplinary teams are at the heart of the Kuni Endowed Research Fellowship Fund, and a passion for its namesake. “When I came out of graduate school, I was very focused on a specialty. But when I went to work for a consulting firm, I began working on assignments that were very complex. It was never just a financial problem or an organizational problem or an engineering problem. It was always some combination of all of those things. I quickly learned that, to survive, I had to consider how it all worked together,” said Kuni. “The Bren School understands that.”
Bren School Dean Steve Gaines sees the approach as crucial to success. “The only way to make progress is to get the right interdisciplinary team together. None of the component disciplines are adequate to solve the really big environmental problems,” said Gaines.
Kuni and his partner Mary Yang, Ph.D., have forged close bonds with the Kuni fellows over the last four years. “We’re still in touch with several students,” he said. “It’s gratifying to see what they have achieved.”
It’s been such a positive experience that Kuni teamed up again with Gaines and other Bren School faculty to create another high-impact program: The H. William Kuni Endowed Junior Faculty Fellowship.
Cultivating the next generation of leaders
Launched in 2020, the Kuni Endowed Junior Faculty Fellowship is intended to support promising scientists early in their careers, who will grow into the next generation of Bren School leaders.
“Bill pushed us in an interesting direction,” said Gaines. “There are lots of endowed chairs in academia, but they typically go to senior people who are 80-90 percent through with their careers. There are very few endowed positions for junior faculty.”
Kuni saw an opportunity to bring what he had learned over decades in business to the Bren School. “It’s important to hold on to senior people – they have the wisdom and maturity that comes with experience,” said Kuni. “But you also need to cultivate the bright young people who will stay and lead.”
The inaugural early career fellowship will go to a junior data scientist. The team chose to start with data science because the discipline is becoming central to understanding key environmental issues. Today’s increasingly powerful computer technology allows scientists to collect and analyze massive amounts of data, enabling them to not only better understand problems like global warming, but to advance green solutions, like solar power.
Bringing diversity to data science
As of this writing, the school is interviewing final candidates for the inaugural early career fellowship. There were more than 200 applicants — a very promising pool. The ideal candidate will come from a traditionally underrepresented background. Gaines considers this a matter of justice, and an essential step for innovation.
“Big data is allowing us to understand and address environmental justice and equity issues in ways that we couldn’t before. The flip side is that data science has its own problems with data bias within data sets. If you don’t think of that from the beginning, you are driving inequitable solutions. And possibly misreporting what the real world looks like. We recognize that we need diverse voices at the table to ask the right questions,” said Gaines.
Kuni agrees. “Academia needs people from different cultures with different points of view in order to stay relevant,” he said. “And I see the endowed faculty fellowship as a way to recruit people from all over the country who want to start their careers at a younger, more nimble institution that’s not set in its ways.”
Kuni is adamant that his partnership with the Bren school is as meaningful to him as it is to the school. “We are on a disastrous course with the environment. This is my chance to do something about it,” he said.