Earth systems students oppose proposed name change to major

Over 100 students signed a Dec. 6 letter to the Doerr School of Sustainability (SDSS) dean opposing a proposal to rename the earth systems major to “sustainability sciences & systems.”  

The proposed change aims to better encapsulate the scope of the major, and is “better aligned with the school’s commitment to building a schoolwide undergraduate major,” Director of the Earth Systems Program Kabir Peay wrote in a Jan. 16 email to earth systems majors. SDSS has submitted the proposal to the Stanford Faculty Senate Committee on Review of Undergraduate Majors (C-RUM).

Though the proposal follows a five-year process that included surveys, a focus group and conversations with students, faculty, staff and alumni, some students said the deliberative process was insufficient. Earth systems student advisor Nazli Dakad ’24 said many, including herself, felt frustrated by the lack of incorporation of and response to student feedback.

According to Dakad, there is consensus among students against the incorporation of “sustainability” into the major’s name.

“We didn’t want sustainability to be the face of our major because of the lack of definition of the word and also the greenwashing associated with the word,” she said.

Because of her opposition to the proposal, Zoe Colloredo-Mansfeld ’26 changed her major from earth systems to biology.

“I am uninterested in a school or major that privileges the priorities of corporate climate work or speaks with words like ‘sustainability’ that have been used by a massive range of individuals to pretend they are taking climate action, when all they are doing is shirking responsibility and greenwashing their inaction,” Colloredo-Mansfeld said.

She said “transformative change” required moving beyond “jargon” and talking honestly and specifically about the true causes of climate change.

“It is never forgetting who we really serve — the landscapes, species and communities on the frontline of this crisis,” she added. “It is about being brave enough to break with a tradition of conforming to industry to think more broadly about planetary health.”

Other students, such as earth systems major Miki Yang ’26, expressed a more neutral stance that acknowledged both the benefits and detriments of the proposed name change. 

“The term ‘sustainability’ has become a lot more accessible and prevalent in daily cultural discussions,” Yang said. “But it has also become a lot more generalized, and it becomes easy to just throw the word around and define it as however best fits when dealing with human and environmental systems.”

Though the major remains otherwise unchanged, earth systems major Varun Shirhatti ’25 said it indicates the beginning of a broader shift within the discipline. 

“My fear is that this new name would herald a shift toward prioritizing corporate profits and operations over the Earth itself and the relationship that we have with it,” Shirhatti said.

Peay and the earth systems faculty encouraged students or community members to reach out for further discussion. The University declined to comment on students’ criticisms.

If the proposed name change is approved by the C-RUM, students will declare and graduate with a B.S. in sustainability sciences & systems beginning September 2024. Students who have already declared a B.S. in earth systems will have the option to receive either degree.