U-M School for Environment and Sustainability receives $11M gift to establish Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment

October 7, 2021
Written By:
Lori Atherton, U-M SEAS
Dan and Sheryl Tishman

Dan and Sheryl Tishman

The NorthLight Foundation and Dan and Sheryl Tishman have committed an $11.125 million gift to the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability to expand the school’s environmental justice efforts and impact at a pivotal time for social justice.

The gift is the largest in SEAS’ history and will establish the Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment, the Tishman Scholarship Fund, and two Tishman Professorships in Environmental Justice in both SEAS and the College of Engineering. It will help address the growing urgency and increasing demand for environmental justice expertise and professionals.

The gift builds on SEAS’ rich history of leadership in the environmental justice field. It was the first school in the nation to launch an academic program in environmental justice nearly 30 years ago. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is the idea that all people, especially vulnerable populations, have the right to the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, as well as equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.

The Tishman Center will enable SEAS and the university to expand the scope of their environmental justice program and integrate environmental justice more effectively into all solutions for the planet. The gift will provide funding to hire and retain additional top environmental scholars across disciplines, and create more cross-campus partnerships to embed environmental justice within all fields. To that end, the new faculty positions will be hired within both SEAS and the College of Engineering. The gift also will provide for expanded justice programming and training, and allow for the recruiting of top students from underrepresented backgrounds who lack the resources to study in SEAS’ preeminent environmental justice program.

“We are grateful to the Tishmans for their incredibly meaningful gift, which will help SEAS, Engineering, and the University of Michigan expand our work to ensure that justice and equity are at the core of the transition to a more environmentally sound and sustainable low-carbon world,” said Jonathan Overpeck, the Samuel A. Graham Dean and William B. Stapp Collegiate Professor of Environmental Education at SEAS.

“There is no sustainability without justice, and this gift comes at a time when we’re seeing a greater emphasis on incorporating justice into all aspects of infrastructure and economic development, transportation, energy, public health, business, climate action, and more. The new center will help ensure that SEAS is positioned to have the greatest impact in the communities with the greatest need.”

Overpeck noted that it is often people of color who are disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental hazards, including air pollution, toxic waste and flooding. Communities on the frontlines of injustice live in urban and rural areas, and they are more likely to be affected by income inequality.

“This gift will give us greater capacity to work in partnership with communities and their leaders to ensure solutions are developed with them and truly work for them,” he said.

Citing an increased focus on environmental justice at federal and state levels, Overpeck said the Tishman Center will allow SEAS to meet the demand to educate more students who will make sure environmental justice is an integral part of whatever they choose to do in their long careers. It is more critical than ever, he said, that those in interdisciplinary fields across U-M, including engineering, have a firm understanding of how to integrate environmental justice into real-world solutions that address climate change and sustainability.

“This gift empowers us at SEAS to foster the educational experience that communities affected by injustice have been demanding of universities,” said Kyle Whyte, the George Willis Pack Professor of Environment and Sustainability at SEAS, who also serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “We can mobilize the best knowledge and methods to prepare generations of new leaders on how to center justice in their environmental advocacy, and develop new programming for cultivating justice-grounded leaders who can act to solve the most pressing environmental crises, from climate equity to food sovereignty.”

Through their NorthLight Foundation, the Tishmans make investments at the “intersection of human and environmental landscapes and work with organizations to deliver high impact and systemic change.” The family has a multigenerational legacy at U-M: Dan’s late father, John, and son, Gabe, are both U-M alumni. As longtime supporters of the university, Dan, Sheryl, and John’s combined charitable gifts, which include donations to the College of Engineering, Michigan Athletics, and this most recent commitment, will total more than $25 million.

“As environmental funders, for decades we have discovered that frontline communities have been largely left behind by the environmental movement,” said Dan and Sheryl Tishman. “These communities have very little voice in the battle for a clean environment and climate change, but sadly have been the most impacted. It is our mission to invest our philanthropy in places where there is a great need and little investment.

“Environmental justice is at the heart of solving the greatest environmental challenges of the day. We know of no other university that has been willing to establish a center focused on environmental justice. We are so excited to be partnering with Michigan to create this one-of-a-kind program.”

“Societal challenges such as climate change harm us globally, but they do not affect us all equally,” U-M President Mark Schlissel said. “It’s crucial that we understand the intersection between sustainability and social justice. By elevating important voices and centering affected communities, the Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment will advance the University of Michigan’s mission to serve the people of Michigan and the world.”