A Conversation with Rachel Kyte, New Dean of The Fletcher School

Kyte, a visionary leader on climate change, describes her hopes for the school
Rachel Kyte, the new dean of The Fletcher School, talks in an interview about the transformational role the school can play in the lives of its students and the world.
“We are at a transformational time in history in terms of higher education, as well as world politics and civic engagement,” said Rachel Kyte. Photo: David Aaron Troy
June 21, 2019

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For the last three and a half years, newly appointed Fletcher School Dean Rachel Kyte, F02, has directed United Nations efforts to increase access to clean, affordable energy for the world’s poor. Before that, she headed the World Bank Group’s campaign to advance international action on climate change and support clients in the move to a low-carbon future.

“Tufts University and The Fletcher School are acquiring a formidable talent in Rachel Kyte, who has a track record of outstanding accomplishment at the highest levels of some of the world’s most distinguished organizations,” said Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco. “Rachel’s leadership and commitment to addressing global challenges such as climate change—combined with her deep understanding of the complexities of multilateral international negotiations, and her advocacy for the marginalized in society—make her the perfect choice to lead The Fletcher School.”

Currently the chief executive officer of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and special representative of the UN secretary-general for SEforALL, Kyte is a 2002 graduate of Fletcher’s Global Master of Arts Program and a professor of practice at Fletcher since 2012. She will succeed Dean ad interim Ian Johnstone, who has helmed the school since the departure of Dean Emeritus James Stavridis, F83, F84, last summer. Kyte will be the first woman to lead the school since its founding in 1933.

Kyte grew up in eastern England and earned her degree in history and politics from the University of London. She is married to Ilyse Zable, a therapist, and the couple has two children.  

Tufts Now recently caught up with Kyte to learn more about her and what the Fletcher School community can expect when she takes the reins October 1.

Tufts Now: What attracted you to Fletcher?

Rachel Kyte: When I was looking for a graduate program, it was the interdisciplinary nature of how Fletcher taught international relations that attracted me. Now, coming back, I want to make that interdisciplinary education more widely available. We need to put the best global leaders we can on the field of play today and I believe Fletcher can do that.

We have to take Fletcher’s interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary ethos and inject it into the questions of our time. That’s going to mean finding new ways to strengthen Fletcher as an institution, working across the faculty and across disciplines. It’s going to mean a new era of collaboration across the Tufts family, and it means new ways to work with our sister institutions—some of whom we already have deep relationships with—in Europe, in Asia, and elsewhere. How can we take this essence of what we are and propel new research questions, new curricula, new opportunities for engagement, new opportunities to bring the world to Fletcher, to address the challenges we face now?

Watch a video interview with Rachel Kyte.

You once told the Financial Times that your work aims to prove that economies can grow “and become greener, and meet the needs of the poor.” Are these goals in conflict?

One of the weaknesses of parts of the environmental movement over the past twenty-five to thirty years is the fact that we have failed miserably to communicate that this cleaner world is going to be a fairer world. That’s what the young people who are protesting around the world—the schoolkids—are asking for. For me, the “leave no one behind” social equity that comes out of stewarding the world’s resources better is one and the same goal.

The work that I’ve done for the secretary-general and for the deputy secretary-general over the last three or four years now, thinking through ways to arrive at 2050 with a decarbonized energy system that serves everyone, has been this extraordinary opportunity to show that we can do it cleanly and we can do it fairly and we will all be better off.

You’ve spoken about the importance of staying at the negotiating table to reach an agreement, even when people are saying things that drive you mad. How have you done that?

Throughout my career, I have experienced being one of a few: being a young woman in a room of older people and making sure that young people’s views were heard, being the only woman in the room, again and again. It is really important to build a cohort around you so that you are not the only one, because that is very lonely and it’s not effective.

I take pride in the fact that I’ve been able to put my foot in the door. I’ve been able to keep that door open and let others come in. Others put their foot in the door for me and let me come in. Making sure that we use our foot in the door for others is really important. We are not at the point yet where we have all the views we need around the table to make the critical-risk decisions for the future in diplomacy, in business, in politics, even in the governance and management of civil society organizations.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

I have built a track record of taking up difficult things, building process, building teams, hanging in there and doing it. More than once in my career, people have turned to me and said, “We never thought you’d be able to do it.” And in fact, on at least one of those occasions, the reason I was given the job was because some people thought it was an impossible job.

I am particularly proud of the role that I played in understanding how to move the instruments of finance in support of a global climate agreement. Not everyone believed that we could come out of the Paris meetings with the agreement that we had, and it would not have been possible without money on the table.

To achieve such difficult goals requires staying power, vision, commitment, and partnership. I am proud of the people I’ve worked with. I stand on the shoulders of many and I hold hands with many.

What inspires you?

First, my children. I feel very strongly that this world has to be better for them. I think my generation, and the generations a little bit above me, have been profligate in many ways, and we have to course-correct. It’s not fair to hand things off the way things currently are. My son is fourteen, my daughter is eleven. I’ve got work to do to till the ground for them.

My second inspiration is the late United States congresswoman Bella Abzug, who was quite a character. I worked for her and learned a lot in a short period of time. She said to me, “Rachel, if there is a fork in the road and you have a choice, you must do the courageous thing.” And that has stayed with me because, I think, if you have shoulders that are broad enough, if you have an institutional responsibility, if you have a position of authority, you must be courageous.

The third is “tikkun olam.” We’re a Jewish family and for me, this idea of healing the earth is very profound.

How has your work required courage?

I’ve gotten into cars with a blindfold on to go and negotiate. I have been arrested at roadblocks trying to do my job. I have run into a doorway as the police tried to quell a protest. Those are the traditionally sort of “dangerous” things that diplomats or officials or young politicians have done. We need people who are courageous and prepared to do those things to pursue a common good.

But standing up as a minority and saying who you are and what you believe also feels dangerous, and sometimes is dangerous. This is a kind of danger and courage duopoly that I want the students of Fletcher to explore. As a lesbian, it has been an interesting journey of having to come out, sometimes every day. It takes courage to be the person who stands up and says, “No, this is who I am,” to not just let something go. If I can help keep the door open, if I can create the space for people to be themselves, I’ll be very proud.

What is one way you might strengthen the Fletcher experience for students?

Diplomacy is both a science and an art, whether it’s applied to security or global health or humanitarian affairs or the global economy. So, in addition to what you learn in the classroom, having the opportunity to be in the room where such diplomacy is being done is invaluable. I want to work very hard with the faculty and everybody else at Fletcher to make sure that apprenticeship is part and parcel of what it means to study here.

What opportunities do you see ahead for the school?

We are at a transformational time in history in terms of higher education, as well as world politics and civic engagement. I look forward to harnessing the brainpower and enthusiasm of this community to heighten Fletcher’s impact on the world as we prepare the next generation of global leaders.

Given the direction global society is moving, it is imperative that we foster and fortify the areas in which Fletcher has built its name and continues to set the bar. Fletcher’s longstanding commitment to the highest level of tutelage in diplomacy, international security, human security, law, negotiation and mediation, and deep regional expertise—to name just a few key historical strengths—as well as more recent focus on critically important areas such as global business and cybersecurity, are more important now than ever before. I’m thrilled for the opportunity to build upon Fletcher’s strong foundation while identifying new growth opportunities for the school.

This interview has been condensed and edited.