- Issue: Fall 2021
Carter Roberts talks with Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School, Tufts University’s graduate school for international affairs, about career goals and the importance of vulnerability.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CARTER ROBERTS It’s my pleasure to have my dear friend Rachel Kyte with us today. Rachel, it’s great to see you again.
RACHEL KYTE It’s good to see you, too, Carter—the first gentleman of conservation. I don’t know if that’s the right way to describe you [laughter], but it’s good to see you.
CR Thanks. I’d rather be the feared firebrand than the gentleman, but I appreciate that. [Laughter.] You’ve had quite the interesting career, knit together by a constant theme of conservation, the environment, and business. Lucky Tufts, to have snared a dean who has such real-world experience in all those areas.
RK It’s good to be around young people because each generation has a different mindset, different sensibilities, and a different way of interpreting age-old values. I’m in a position where I’m hoping we can make sure that everybody who comes through our doors is fit for international leadership sooner rather than later. I honestly think that we need more of that sensibility, whether in formal diplomatic roles, elected leadership, business leadership, or leading societal organizations. Part of my reason for taking up this role was that I thought the more we could put these younger generations into proactive leadership roles, the better results we’d get.
CR You’ve been successful at looking at international environmental issues from many vantage points. You’ve also run into barriers, and you’ve run into some of those generational forces that have changed over time. When you talk about sensibility, what does that mean for a Tufts student?
RK We want them to look at the question “What are the wicked problems that we face?” and then be able to unpack those issues and interrogate them using multiple disciplines—natural science, social science, humanities, law, human rights, gender analysis, race analysis, economics. You can’t be an expert in everything, but you have to be comfortable working across teams where all of those capabilities are deployed.
And then I think there are two other elements. One is our relationship to nature. I think we can ask ourselves whether that’s going to be reset a bit by the pandemic. And the other is the intersectional way that young people look at a problem. It’s not “the gender wars are over here, and the race wars are over here, and the poverty war is in the middle”—it’s one big discussion about human equality. That gives me a lot of hope.
CR When we think about the green recovery that you’ve written and talked about, we may think about how we might deliver that primarily through infrastructure. Instead of building highways, we’re building grids and renewable-energy systems and food systems that use less land, energy, and water. But what you’re describing here is a different type of infrastructure, an educational infrastructure. I think the pandemic has taught us that people can learn in different ways. As a college dean, how do you educate students in the midst of this pandemic? And what parts of that will you hold on to once the pandemic is over?
RK Let’s be honest. We can impart the knowledge and provide the flexibility, and the innovation of the faculty can be extraordinary, but we just miss that interaction. I don’t think we’ve found ways to compensate for that. Everyone is doing the best that they can. Hopefully, we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. What does the world look like afterward? I think you’ll see much more of a hybrid model—people studying and working at the same time. Lifelong learning will become essential. We must build these things into people’s lives in a much more systematic way, and I think that’s what businesses will want as well.
CR You gave an interview to the New York Times in which you talked about the concept of reciprocal vulnerability. Can you explain what that is? How does it apply to things such as climate change or the global response to the pandemic?
RK Reciprocal vulnerability is when a leader reveals their own vulnerability in a way that is more likely to engender social trust, which we need in order to tackle things like this pandemic, future pandemics, and climate change. That social trust needs to be built, especially when we are trying to get people to do things that they might not see as easy or desirable but that will benefit them in the long term.
A good example is Mette Frederiksen, the prime minister of Denmark, who was elected in 2019. She ran on a climate change platform. In her first address to the nation after she won, she said that Denmark would increase their climate ambition and get to net-zero emissions by 2040. She also said words to the effect that “I don’t know exactly how we will get there, but I am confident that we can. I believe in the ingenuity and the entrepreneurship of our business sector, and I believe in our relationships with the rest of Europe and elsewhere. I believe in the Danish people, and I believe that together we know this is the right thing to do. We’re going to get there.” She didn’t stand up and say, “I’ve got a plan.” She opened up that space for full participation and discourse. And New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, also demonstrated reciprocal vulnerability in the way that she tackled the pandemic.
I think that the interesting question is whether it’s easier for women to be reciprocally vulnerable. If so, why? Is it something that’s difficult for men to do? I think there’s more to be explored there.
Social trust is fundamental in dealing with immense global challenges. Societies with higher levels of social trust are managing their way through this pandemic much better than those without. We need to think about the types of leadership that will help us build up the degree of social trust we need.
CR All right, last question. When graduating seniors ask you for career advice, regardless of what field they choose, what do you tell them?
RK I think there’s enormous pressure on young people today to live their lives in one straight line going up. But I think giving people permission to have a circuitous career path is very important. Given a choice between a job with a fancy title and a job working for somebody extraordinary, I’d say take the job working for somebody extraordinary.
And then I think that whatever job you do, you have to keep feeding your right brain and your left brain. Every biomedical engineer needs to be an ethicist. Every ethicist needs to understand what new industries are looking like. Every scientist needs to be a communicator.
CR Yes, I love that. There’s more than one way to get after a problem, and it takes more than one kind of person. Rachel, it’s been a great pleasure.
RK For me as well. Thanks, Carter.