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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, September 27, 2023

New Fletcher Dean Kyte discusses climate activism, leadership

Fletcher Dean Rachel Kyte poses for a portrait in her office in Cabot Intercultural Center on Oct. 8.

Rachel Kyte officially assumed the deanship of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on Oct. 1, making her the first woman to lead the Fletcher School after 13 previous male deans. 

Kyte comes to Fletcher with rich experience working on the front lines of the climate change battle. She previously served as the CEO and UN Special Representative for Sustainable Energy for All, an international initiative launched by former UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon in 2011

After spending a significant part of her career working at the international level, Kyte has an understanding of the complex issues climate change is already causing for people around the world. 

“I have been in villages where the impact of climate change is to drive their young girls into the arms of extremists … and it’s a direct cause. So the idea that you can sit in a part of the world where the legacy of emissions has produced a moment where that happens, is an issue of extreme urgency. It is a climate emergency,” Kyte said. “When you see it, you can’t close your eyes and not see it.” 

According to Kyte, she was drawn to the deanship because she wanted to take a more holistic approach to the climate battle, informed by her significant experience on the front lines. 

“I wanted to stand back a little bit from the forefront of the battle — I believe that it’s a sprint as well as a marathon, and I wanted to hand the baton over to somebody else in terms of my practitioner work and have an opportunity to think a little bit more broadly about how we do that,” Kyte said. 

In her new role, Kyte can use her experience to send home the message that climate change will affect everything we do in the next 30 years. Kyte said that anyone training to enter the foreign service should understand how climate intersects with this work, and she hopes to bring such an understanding to her work as dean.

“[Climate] certainly cuts across every aspect of what it means to be a leader in this world,” Kyte said. “Being part of a process where we make sure that climate cuts across the way that we teach law, economy, energy policy, health … that seemed to me a way that I could contribute to the struggle in a slightly different way for a few years.” 

In terms of what this will look like in practice at Fletcher, what’s most important to Kyte is the ability to give everyone who comes through Fletcher the tools to address the crises that face our world. 

“What I want to do is look at what we teach, so the curriculum, the way in which we allow students to be able to address these existential crises while mastering the skills and knowledge that they need in different aspects of what has been traditionally Fletcher’s strength,” Kyte said. 

She said she understands what students who come to Fletcher invest in the school, and she wants to use this understanding to ensure that the degree programs Fletcher currently has will best serve students' needs. 

Kyte said she believes that this approach to a Fletcher education can and should have implications beyond the walls of Tufts itself. According to Kyte, what’s currently missing in the climate fight is leadership to set the standard for what needs to happen to move to a "decarbonized economy" by 2050. 

“For me, the delta between business as usual and response to the climate emergency is leadership. And it’s political leaders now, and we don’t have the classic political leaders that are brave enough to make a decision,” Kyte said. 

According to Kyte, one sign of "brave leadership" is a commitment to the truth. She cited an example from her own experience, where she was asked to facilitate a meeting between leaders of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion and ministers in the British government. 

She described a moment when the ministers asked Extinction Rebellion leaders what they wanted from their government, and the Rebellion leaders simply responded that they wanted the government to tell the truth. 

“[They said] you are our government, we don’t want to be the government, we don’t [want] to overthrow you, we want you to tell us the truth so that we can work together in a time of national emergency,” Kyte said. “I think that is profound, I think that is what we need in every country in the world — it is a national emergency, it’s a global emergency, and you have to unleash every piece of society to work on that emergency.” 

According to Kyte, collaboration between facets of civic society like governments and activist groups is crucial because it’s the only way to create a cohesive response to climate change. She cited the women's suffrage movement as an example of this. 

“There will be people who lead from inside institutions, and there are people standing at the door screaming on the outside of institutions. No system has ever changed just by having people on the outside or just by having people on the inside,” Kyte said. 

One way Kyte said that she believes Tufts could exemplify leadership is through debating the complexities surrounding fossil fuel divestment. 

“In order to have a decarbonized economy in 2050 the energy system will have to be radically different than it is today. The question is not is it going to be radically different than today, the question is how quickly will that happen?” Kyte said. “As the Dean of Fletcher, I think that to have a vibrant debate about this is obvious, right?” 

Kyte’s advice to all students who pass through Tufts is to remember that there are people from all walks of life, all over the world who want to do the right thing. 

 “You have to commit to find those people [who want to do the right thing], and not to take looks and to test your own assumptions and your own prejudices about where those people are,” Kyte said. “So you have to go and make common cause. Use the time that you’re at Tufts to commit yourself to a lifetime of being evidence-based and to finding the tools that allow you to make common cause. And if we can do that, we can make the changes that we need to make.”