Q&A: Mathy Vathanaraj Stanislaus and The Environmental Collaboratory at Drexel
Last month, Mathy Vathanaraj Stanislaus officially started at Drexel University as the Vice Provost and inaugural Executive Director of The Environmental Collaboratory, an interdisciplinary initiative formed last year and launched last month to partner Drexel’s research programs and community engagement efforts to identify and incorporate climate, environmental justice and the implementation of corporate commitments to environment, social and governance obligations.
Stanislaus will lead the groundbreaking institute, with an initial team of Jennifer Britton, director of communications and special projects in the Office of University & Community Partnerships, and Hugh Johnson, senior associate in the Office of Research and Innovation, working locally, nationally and globally to develop partnerships between the University and external communities and organizations. The Environmental Collaboratory will also function as an internal hub for faculty, professional staff and students to connect and engage with environmental and sustainability issues and opportunities.
In this Q&A, Stanislaus talked about his background and experience and how that will relate to his new role and The Environmental Collaboratory opportunities at Drexel.
Q: Can you explain a little bit about where you’re coming from and how you got to Drexel?
A: A couple of events led me to where I am, starting from when I was younger. One is the  Bhopal disaster, one of the largest chemical plant disasters in the globe’s history, which killed 20,000 people and maimed numerous people in India. I’m Sri Lankan by birth, and a civil war began in Sri Lanka [in 1983]. I was also personally affected by racial violence in the U.S. at a very early age.
I went from a chemical engineering background to getting a law degree to drive real world transformation that links civil and human rights with the environment. I initially practiced law at a firm in New York City. That wasn’t my space, but I also started doing a lot of pro bono work assisting community-based organizations and working on what now is referred to as environmental justice: looking at the issues of low-income communities of color, initially in New York City, for everything from being subject to siting of polluting facilities to doing advocacy to address those conditions with policymakers and bringing attention to those issues. And I soon realized that advocacy only goes so far, and that if you want to get into solution-building, you really need to build a table for uncomfortable conversations and create a safe space and an honest space that enables co-designing of solutions by a diversity of experts and stakeholders while ensuring that those impacted are at authentically designing the solutions.
I’ve continued working to link human rights and civil rights with environmental principles, environmental outcomes and community-based planning. I led a broad coalition that passed the first legislation in this country’s history linking community-based planning with tax credits to rebuild low-income neighborhoods. I took that program and built it up nationally, working with communities and a wide diversity of folks looking at rebuilding communities.
When the Obama Administration asked me to join, I served both terms as the assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Office of Land & Emergency Management. I was the EPA’s lead official for environmental disasters; for example, I led the country’s response to Superstorm Sandy and the Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill. I saw firsthand the consequences of natural disasters — not only the immediate event, but the long-term community and financial cost of rebuilding and the fracturing of neighborhoods as well as loss of life, loss of livelihoods and loss of place. I spent some time in Alaska reviewing and providing assistance to address the impacts of the permafrost fracturing and the need to resettle tribal communities because land is being lost due to climate effects. These experiences resulted in the first comprehensive adaptation plan for the country to address the measures, preparedness and response to increased flooding, fire and other consequences of climate change for the country.
I led the U.S’s work with the G-7 around this idea of addressing the link of carbon and materials intensity in the global economy that resulted in the G-7 establishing an alliance to address these issues in global supply chains.
Once I left the Obama Administration, I worked for h the World Economic Forum over the last five years, bringing together CEOs, governmental leaders and executive directors of international and national not-for-profits (civil society) organizations and academia leaders to develop solutions that link environmental and social issues with the economy and business considerations.
More recently, I was the interim director and policy director with the Global Battery Alliance within the World Economic Forum, which works on driving human rights and sustainability in the battery value chain, in the scale up of electrification and renewable energy. Most people don’t think about child labor and forced labor being prominent in the production of batteries, or Indigenous rights being violated to secure lithium and cobalt. We looked at how to build and bring more accountability and responsibility to greenhouse gas claims and those kinds of things. I led the development of global transparent data authentication system to drive the scale-up of electric mobility and clean energy in alignment with circular economy, human rights and community development.
Q: What made you want to start at Drexel?
A: I see that journey as linked to this excitement of The Environmental Collaboratory. I love the framing of environmental justice and climate together. I love the fact that it’s reimagining the role of academia; it’s not just research for research’s sake, but looking at using the expertise and the capability of Drexel’s schools and experts to drive solutions that are meaningful today or in the near future. I believe academia has a unique role of being viewed as neutral expertise and there are interesting opportunities to use that expertise to develop models locally and translate that to global solutions.
I would just underscore the alignment of The Environmental Collaboratory and the recent COP26 UN Climate Conference, where I helped lead a session. The Environmental Collaboratory can help advance some of the significant agreements including commitments to advance just transition, and the ensuring that community and Indigenous leaders and young people lead the design and implementation of solutions.
Q: I know you haven’t been at Drexel very long, but what are your first impressions?
A: I really love how welcoming people have been towards me personally, and also the excitement that people have about what the Collaboratory could deliver, both in terms of the faculty and students. There’s recognition that many students are wanting to have more of a purpose-driven education and looking at careers that are purpose-driven. I love that energy.
Q: What have you been working on as your first steps?
A: When I was interviewing for this position and was asked about my game plan for the year, I said I need to build trust and spend a lot of time building trust. My plan is to have deep conversations with people, and multiple phases of conversations, to really understand where they are. How do we translate what they’re doing, and how The Environmental Collaboratory can align and be additive — not subtractive — to what they’re doing?
The Environmental Collaboratory team’s plan is to build out the implementation in three phases. The first phase is doing broad, deep consultation and that probably will take a few months. Then we’ll get into building out a draft implementation plan that investigates the operational side including funding and how it can link with the research, co-curricular, the co-op program and broad student engagement at Drexel. This would culminate in a University-wide affirmation of the plan in September and the selection of a set of proof-of-concept projects. We are thinking about establishing a five-year implementation plan with a focus on getting on the ground, with early demonstration projects.
I also want to establish something like a governing council or an advisory council, which would be a representation of both internal and external stakeholders, to provide advice, oversight and, frankly, a bit of accountability to the work of The Environmental Collaboratory.
Q: Can you talk about how your background will help solidify or create external partnerships with the Collaboratory?
A: My heart is rooted in on-the-ground partnerships and working authentically with local NGOs and local governments in partnership with the private sector. But I see opportunities to link that with national and international organizations, sometimes from cross-learning perspectives. I see some strong ongoing partnerships to really inform — at a project level — local government, local NGOs and local businesses.
Then there’s a second layer of bringing Drexel’s intelligence and expertise nationally and globally. For example, I continue to be an advisor to Carbon 180, which is a natural carbon sequestration group in Washington, D.C., and how they could incorporate the ideas of environmental justice and community-driven strategies in building out a carbon sequestration strategy. I will continue that and try to bring Drexel folks and their expertise and capacities into the Global Battery Alliance; I’ve already brought the College of Computing & Informatics to participate in discussion regarding the design of a global data traceability platform. I’m currently advising and facilitating discussions of the European Commission on building out a program to drive visibility and accountability using data. The session that I had at COP26 was around demonstrating and verifying greenhouse gas claims in a way that provides reliable information to policy makers and the public, but protects intellectual property and confidential business information. This is going to translate into activity with the G-7 under Germany’s presidency, so I’ll be trying to bring in some of the Drexel expertise in working with Germany with the goal of establishing a G-7 framework on data governance.
Based on my prior relationship, I brought The Environmental Collaboratory as a member to the World Bank’s Energy Storage Partnership, which is trying to bring in both policymakers and entrepreneurs to drive clean energy transformation in the global south. We initially did some work in Africa on issues about energy access, and we will follow with a deep dive in South Africa, working with South Africa’s leadership; there are opportunities to bring the capabilities of both faculty and students to work with the World Bank. I have similarly convened a discussion with LeBow College of Business, Office of Global Engagement, College of Engineering, Steinbright Career Development Center, Enrollment Management & Student Success, and Close School of Entrepreneurship with the World Bank to explore opportunities to assist it in advancing clean energy in the Global South.
The Environmental Collaboratory is now also a member of the Global Battery Alliance with a focus on advancing data systems to drive authentication of GHG and responsible sourcing, and circularity.
Q: How do you see the Environmental Collaboratory’s interdisciplinary nature bolstering research at Drexel?
A: In broad strokes, the Collaboratory wants to add value and help advance innovative research programs with a real focus on sustainability and climate. We want to broaden the student experience and make Drexel attractive because of The Environmetnal Collaboratory. But I want to be agnostic at this moment regarding the “how,” and I want that to come out of the consultation process.
At this moment of climate crisis linked with racial justice and ensuring the transition doesn’t cause harm or burden lower income communities, countries or regions, I’ll reinforce the idea of being interdisciplinary, which in some cases gets either overused or underemphasized. In solving the problems of today, while we need the climate scientist and the ecologist, we need expertise in finance and engineering and entrepreneurship and so much more. We cannot solve these problems with a myopic view of what climate and environment looks like. I think everyone, in whatever field that they’re in, must see themselves in climate because the solutions require multiple disciplines. If you don’t know how to integrate that within your discipline, you’ll be a step behind.
The model of doing this work will include projects on the ground with local partners as co-leads, which I think is a big differentiator of The Environmental Collaboratory from other institutes with a similar topical focus. Separately, we want to engage the business community regarding how they can implement environmental, social and governance into their practices with an initial focus on facilitating multi-company, pre-competitive approaches.
Q: How will the Environmental Collaboratory help carry out Drexel’s mission of civic engagement?
A: I think another one of the attractive features of this position is Drexel’s experiential learning and experience in civic engagement and authentic engagement with external stakeholders through a community-based approach. Frankly, I want to leverage all of that through an Environmental Collaboratory lens, and extend that if possible. I’m a big believer in on-the-ground, community-driven approaches. I think that’s fundamental to the Collaboratory, for sure.
Q: How have you been working with Drexel’s internal community so far? How can people get involved with The Environmental Collaboratory?
A: I’ve been doing one-on-one calls with anyone who’s interested. I want to really receive comments. We plan to hold in-person events, perhaps over lunch. There could be topical workshops, both in-person and virtual. I want to go where people are and whatever venues makes sense for them. But I also really want to solicit feedback from all the internal stakeholders including faculty, students, professional staff and administrators. When I was at the EPA, I would do a lot of skip-level conversations to break through government’s hierarchy. I didn’t want to just hear from those that directly reported to me — I want to gain insight from everyone.