Jane Lubchenco ’69 was bird watching in Tasmania when the presidential transition team called to ask if she would come to Chicago to speak to then-President-elect Barack Obama about serving as the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere in the new administration. As professor of marine biology and zoology at Oregon State University, she was involved in some of the most significant research on the planet about the planet. She is widely regarded as one of the world’s preeminent experts on climate change and she didn’t want to leave her teaching and research, but when the president-elect asks, “Won’t you please come to Chicago,” how can you say no?

From the bottom of the ocean to the mountains of the moon, several other CC alumni have been tapped to join Lubchenco, bringing their expertise to the debate on climate change, space exploration, protection of natural resources, and more. Among them are: Marcia Kemper McNutt ’74, Ken Salazar ’77, Lori Garver ’83, and Harris Sherman ’64. Additionally, Lubchenco and McNutt are the first women to head their departments.

Undersecretary Lubchenco is not only the first woman, but also the first marine ecologist to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She led the U.S. delegation to the third U.N. World Climate Conference in Geneva this fall. Representatives from more than 150 countries gave unanimous approval to create a global framework for climate services. NOAA’s role will be to design a “climate forecast.”

“The most recent intergovernmental study is unequivocal. The planet is warming, most likely due to human activities,” says Lubchenco. “Crops, weather, and building codes are based on the expectation that the future will be similar to the past. That’s no longer the case.”

When Ken Salazar was U.S. senator from Colorado, he was a leader in the development of a renewable energy economy. Now secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Salazar has transferred that commitment to his new job. More than 1,000 projects that include renewable energy components are now under way at the Department of the Interior. The goal is to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, reduce CO2 emissions, and save money.

Other CC Alumni and Parents in the Current Administration

William (Bill) Natter III ’90, deputy undersecretary of the Navy
Matt Chandler ’06, deputy press secretary of the Department of Homeland Security
Colin Walsh ’07, special assistant, Economic Recovery Task Force at Department of the Interior
Bill McDonald ’68, recent acting commissioner, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Aaron Gutierrez ’08, intern, The White House, Office of Legislative Affairs
Tom Vilsack P’03, U.S. secretary of agriculture
David Axelrod P’09, senior adviser to the president, married to Susan Axelrod ’74
Christine Varney P’09, assistant attorney general, U.S. Department of Justice

To Salazar, developing renewable resources also means developing best practices in his department and overturning those practices not based in science. He reinstated a rule that requires federal agencies to consult with scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or NOAA during the siting process for new energy facilities. He brought back the stream buffer rule that prohibits mountaintopmining operations from dumping waste products into rivers downstream from the mines.

Lori Garver, deputy administrator at NASA, is looking beyond the moon to Mars and how to get there. “The question has been, ‘What do you do first?’” says Garver. “We have to develop the technologies so that by the time we go, we will do it in a way that we can sustain the program, not to just go once and never go back.”

Harris Sherman is the new agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment. The position oversees the Forest Service and conservation projects at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Sherman most recently served as executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, overseeing Colorado’s energy, water, wildlife, parks, and state lands programs.

Marcia Kemper McNutt is leaving the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Research Institute to become the first woman director of the United States Geological Survey and the first geologist to serve as science adviser to the secretary of the interior. Her first assignment will be to improve the scientific monitoring network. Scientists will use the data provided through the network to understand migration patterns of endangered species, site energy facilities on public lands, and cope with the hazards of wildfires and other natural disasters.

Following her nomination, McNutt said, “Many other countries are far ahead of the U.S. in installing wind farms, installing solar panels, moving to alternate energies, and preparing their populations for the decision-making necessary to cope with climate change.”

Like McNutt, Lubchenco also believes strongly in making information available in ways that ordinary people can understand it and act on it.

“I care very much about understanding and strengthening the connections between people and the environment; the health of our communities is in many regards tied to healthy ecosystems,” Lubchenco said.

Lubchenco credits Colorado College with the insight she draws from an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving and with her understanding that critical thinking skills are transferable from one area to another. She believes that the focus on building resilient communities will help meet the challenges of climate change.

Excerpt from Marcia Kemper McNutt’s statement as nominee for director of the U.S. Geological Survey, presented on October 8, 2009, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources:

“I majored in physics at Colorado College, but my favorite college course was Introduction to Geology, taught by Professor John Lewis. Colorado College uses the Block Plan, in which students take only one course at a time for a month. Introduction to Geology is two blocks long. So my first two months at college were spent with Doc Lewis and about 19 other students scrambling around the Front Range with our backpacks and sleeping bags trying to piece together the geologic history of the Southern Rockies from first principles. We never cracked a book the entire time. I was drawn to the grandeur of the Earth sciences and awed by the time and space scales upon which Earth processes played out. No lab coat. No test tube. Science outside!”

The science team that includes the CC alumni has worked closely together in the past. Lubchenco thinks the members are positioned to be very productive and that McNutt will hit the ground running. “I’ve known Marcia and worked with her for a very long time,” she said. “We start off with great respect for each other.”

“This is a special time,” says Lubchenco. “We want to make things happen.”

“I’m a strong believer, probably back to our Colorado College days, that we have to have policy decisions based in scientific fact. The research that we provide is specifically for the policymakers to make the very best decisions that they can,” Garver says. “CC can be really proud, for such a small school, to have so many alumni working on this really critical topic for the administration.”

When NASA administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden sees Garver and Lubchenco together at the many conferences they attend, he says, “Uh oh, now they’re going to break out into the CC fight song.”

Garver noted that CC doesn’t have a fight song,* but she does join the chorus on something far more important for CC — an education that trains students to focus on one issue and to conceptualize interdisciplinary solutions that she learned studying under the Block Plan.

You can find stories about other CC alumni in government service and elected positions at the Bulletin archive, including:

Ed Goldstein ’79, Spring 1996
Diana DeGette ’79, November 2004
Jeffrey Beattie ’69, November 2004
John Schiffer ’67, November 2004
Mark Norris ’77, November 2004
Randall Edwards ’83, November 2004
Katie Sieben ’99, November 2004
Katherine Maraman ’73, September 2008
Liz Cheney ’88, February 2009
Mary Cheney ’91, February 2009
Joe Simitian ’74, February 2009

Nancy Webber ’73, P’11 is a video producer/writer who lives near Eugene, Ore.

*Note: Alumni from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s may recall that CC does have a fight song, but it was not sung regularly after the ’60s.