Environmental Rock Star to Speak at HMC Commencement

Reinforcing its mission of using technology and science to contribute to society in a positive way, Harvey Mudd College announced California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary D. Nichols as its keynote speaker for the college’s 57th commencement ceremony.

Nichols, who has been the board's chairman since 2007, has dedicated her career to public and nonprofit service, particularly in advocating for the environment and public health. The California Air Resources Board is a governmental organization that seeks to “promote and protect public health, welfare and ecological resources through the effective and efficient reduction of air pollutants,” according to its website.

Prior to her current position, Nichols worked as an assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air and Radiation Program, Secretary for California’s Resources and director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

“The Harvey Mudd community values the work of leaders like Mary Nichols, who share our belief that science and technology are at the very core of addressing many of the challenges facing our society,” HMC President Maria Klawe wrote in an email to TSL. “Throughout her career, Mary has demonstrated this as she has been instrumental in improving public health, protecting natural resources and advocating for the environment.”

Senior Class Co-Presidents Will Clausen HM ’15 and Varun Kanwar HM ’15 organized the search process for the commencement speaker. Clausen said that the process began last spring when they sent a form to the entire class asking for speaker suggestions. From there, the presidents narrowed the suggestions down to a shorter list of candidates.

The list was then distributed to seniors, asking them to rank their favorites. From that list, Clausen said that they contacted three high-ranking candidates: actor, writer and director Alan Alda, writer Bill Bryson and Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg, all of whom declined. Annie Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, was the class's second choice candidate but was not contacted due to concerns raised by some students about the organization.

Priya Donti HM ’15, a joint computer science and mathematics major, then proposed Nichols as speaker. Donti said that she thought of Nichols because last semester she had asked Nichols to speak at a conference at HMC, but she had not been able to attend.

“I am really interested in using technology for environmental sustainability, and in general, I think that it’s really important for technologists to understand how it interacts with politics, social context,” Donti said. “I thought it was really important for Mudd students to get an activist, political kind of perspective to put their work in context.”

Called a "rock star" by her supporters, according to the Los Angeles Times, and the "Queen of Green" in a 2012 Dan Rathers Reports, Nichols already has experience working with California Governor Jerry Brown who had appointed her as the ARB chair in the 1970s when he was governor for two terms. Nichols then came back to the ARB in 2007, responding to a call by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Since then, she has led a revolutionary cap-and-trade program for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the chagrin of the oil industry. According to the L.A. Times, this program will likely be discussed as a global model by world leaders during their 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference from November to December in Paris.

Clausen said that he believes Nichols will be a positive role model for the graduating class in its road to a future where the students will hopefully be able to give back to society by using their education from HMC.

“Four years at Harvey Mudd has been great, a really awesome experience. I mean, ups and downs, certainly challenges and struggles for sure that I don’t think anybody comes out of Harvey Mudd without struggling a little bit,” Clausen said. “As far as commencement goes, I think that it’s a great time to reflect on what Harvey Mudd was and hopefully focus on the positives while also acknowledging the hardships we've all gone through and look forward to the things that we have ahead.”