Meet Toddi Steelman, the woman hoping to turn Duke into a ‘climate university’

Courtesy of Scholars@Duke
Courtesy of Scholars@Duke

Nearly eight months ago, President Vincent Price announced that Toddi Steelman, former Stanback dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment, would take on the role of vice president and vice provost for climate and sustainability.

Now, Steelman has effectively become the face of Duke’s Climate Commitment, which was first introduced in September 2022. She heads the new Office of Climate and Sustainability, which was created to organize the University’s various resources and initiatives in support of the Climate Commitment.

Steelman is tasked with making Duke a global leader in climate and sustainability efforts under the Commitment, using her dual titles of vice president and vice provost to oversee both campus operations and student education. Her biggest challenge will be to achieve University-wide climate fluency while also ensuring that Duke achieves and maintains carbon neutrality across its facilities.

“I never imagined in a thousand years that I would end up in a position like this,” she said. “... But what I’ll tell you is that every single thing I have done professionally has added up to make this the right next step for a variety of reasons.”

Steelman is optimistic about Duke’s progress under the Climate Commitment. The enthusiasm of the student body has become a reliable source of inspiration for her since her time at the Nicholas School of the Environment, which she continues to draw upon in her new role.

“The students are amazing because they keep you on your toes all the time, not only in terms of challenging us to do better in what we are doing, but also the creativity and insight and innovation they bring into the school through their projects, through their coursework and the conversations that we’re having,” Steelman said.

Still, the Climate Commitment has not been without its controversy. Student climate groups perceive the Commitment’s goal of “plac[ing] society on the path toward a resilient, flourishing, carbon-neutral world” as hypocritical so long as the University continues to invest in fossil fuels. The student movement to divest from the fossil fuel industry, now entering its 12th year, has seen little traction, despite the majority of voters in the 2022 Duke Student Government election voting in favor of divestment and continued demands from student organizers. 

Nevertheless, Steelman sees engaging with student voices as a valuable and necessary component of her work.

“Even for those students who are really cynical about what we’re doing, I ask them to keep an open mind and to engage with us to build instead of tear down, because the topic is way too important for us to be overly cynical about what we can all achieve together,” Steelman said.

The road to Duke

Steelman’s road to the Climate Commitment begins in a small town in West Virginia, a state known for its economic reliance on the coal industry. 

“I am truly a coal miner’s daughter,” Steelman said. “... Coal put a roof over our family’s head and put food on our table.”

Growing up in a region where economic success is deeply intertwined with the fossil fuel industry helped Steelman realize the importance of prioritizing equity in sustainability efforts, in order to avoid “second, third, fourth-order challenges for us down the road that will make everything all the [harder].” 

Steelman pursued this passion throughout her college years, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and international affairs from West Virginia University and a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton. She received a doctoral degree in environmental and resource policy from Duke’s own Nicholas School.

Steelman then held a number of teaching positions at other universities, including the University of Colorado at Denver and North Carolina State University. She began her administrative career at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability, where she was named its first permanent executive director in 2012.

Dean of the Nicholas School 

In 2018, Steelman returned to her alma mater to take up the position of Stanback dean at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

“It was a real honor to be able to come back and be dean of the same school where I graduated and to be able to lead that school,” she said.

In her time as dean, Steelman expanded program offerings to set the school up for a greater focus on climate issues. She directed the launch of two new majors for undergraduates, oversaw the revision of master’s curricula and secured funding for new faculty hires.

Steelman credits those five years for giving her the skills and experience needed to helm the University’s work under the new Climate Commitment, a project that the University was laying the groundwork for when she arrived. She began working with the Board of Trustees and Duke faculty task forces to begin identifying areas the university might target. 

Steelman’s climate work intensified in July, when she officially began her tenure as vice president and vice provost for climate and sustainability and took over University efforts in support of the Climate Commitment.

“Duke University is going to strive to be a more resilient, carbon-neutral purveyor of just and equitable solutions when it comes to the climate challenge,” Steelman said. “As part of that, we’re going to activate every member of our community — students, faculty, staff, alumni — to become engaged in meaningful change in solutions when it comes to climate change and sustainability.” 

Looking forward

The Climate Commitment is built on five pillars: education, research, sustainable operations, external engagement and community partnerships. Updates on University efforts in each sector were provided last month in the 2023 State of the Duke Climate Commitment, the first annual progress report.

Steelman hopes that Duke will become a destination for anyone passionate about climate change solutions and sustainability — what she calls a “climate university.” 

In order for students to achieve climate fluency, Steelman hopes to create an “immersive environment” where all students graduate from Duke with “a significant component of climate or sustainability education.” She anticipates multiple pathways emerging for students to get that experience, ranging from climate modules incorporated in a student’s regular coursework to direct involvement through a climate-related degree program.

Duke has taken significant steps towards carbon neutrality since president Richard Brodhead signed the 2007 American College and University presidents’ Climate Commitment and committed to full neutrality by 2024. 

Since then, the University has reduced its carbon footprint by 38%, despite adding 3 million square feet of space. Steelman explained that the remaining 62% would be covered by carbon offsets in the first year of neutrality, while a 100-megawatt solar plant currently slated for completion in 2025 will bring the percentage of offsets needed down to 30-40%.

“Our longer term goal is to ratchet down the number of carbon offsets that we need over time and continue to capitalize on the carbon reductions in our footprint that we want to see also over time,” Steelman said. “We will meet our 2024 goal — that's the headline — but we still have work to do.”


Zoe Kolenovsky profile
Zoe Kolenovsky | Associate News Editor

Zoe Kolenovsky is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor for the news department. 

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