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Center Spotlight: Former Research Director, Professor Dan Cahoy

In this interview with Professor Dan Cahoy, previous Research Director for the Center for the Business of Sustainability, I was reminded of the equal importance of the social responsibility side of sustainability to the environmental side that we promote at the Center. Cahoy has immense pride in the faculty research that Smeal professors engage in and continues to show his support for the Center, Smeal, and Penn State as he continues with his new position of Risk Management Department Head. 

Why did you begin working with the Center and choose the role of research director? 

“The role of research director was created by Erik Foley because he believed we needed a specific research focus at the Center that was too much for one individual serving as director to provide.  

Erik always saw the Center as having an outside stakeholder, teaching, and research focus. He thought it made sense to have a faculty member engaged in research in the research director role so they could connect more easily with other faculty similarly engaged in research. When that was advertised, I expressed an interest in it and was fortunate enough to be chosen for the role. 

As for why I did this, I have sustainability research in my background that started off in a couple different places, one of which was in my intellectual property work.  

Intellectual property has always been my background, patents especially. One of the areas where patents play an interesting and somewhat complex role is in medicines, and one area of great interest around the globe is whether we provide sufficient access to medicines or whether intellectual property rights sometimes restrain availability and drive up pricing. Of course that’s not just an issue in the United States, but it’s certainly an incredibly important issue in the developing world.  

I’ve written a lot about that and the idea of social responsibility through access to medicines has always been of great interest to me. I’ve always thought that that’s an area that gives me a connection to the social responsibility side of our Center.  

The Center was early on embracing the full scope of sustainability, which was a great thing. I had the opportunity as research director to support a variety of projects that covered social responsibility in addition to environmental sustainability. 

As far as the environmental side goes, I have a biology degree and care a lot about the sciences. I participated in some granting efforts at the university related to biofuels and have written about biofuels and other alternative energy technologies, so that was another area that I found of great interest: the science of climate change amelioration and the extent to which the law supports or provides barriers to that.  

That is my personal background, but the real reason I would say I got involved is it took from my personal research. I was going to continue that research no matter what, and in taking it to a research director role I asked myself, ‘What support would I need to do more research if I were another faculty member at Smeal?’  

I saw the research director position as being a way that I could help to bring out other faculty research: to promote it, to incentivize it, and then bring other people who are interested in sustainability research to Penn State. 

So, it’s a back and forth – bringing our stuff out and bringing other people into us. Playing that role and doing it on behalf of other people was a pretty exciting opportunity.  

When you’re in a research director role, you think about everybody else’s research. This was a great opportunity to support the research of Smeal, promote what other people do, and serve as a facilitator of others. I also think it gave me a lot of the background and focus that I needed to now be a department chair because that’s a majority of what I do right now: help the other members of my department, help the students, and occasionally bring in others to connect with my department. This is what an administrative role is supposed to be – it's trying to help other people out.” 

What are you most looking forward to with your new role as the Risk Management Department Head? 

“What I’m most looking forward to is supporting the majors, the students, and our great tradition of faculty research in our department.  

One of the great things I get to do is participate in the accepted students program. We have all these students and parents who come and ask what the Risk Management Department does, and I get the opportunity to say, ‘it’s pretty amazing.’  

There are all kinds of things you wouldn’t necessarily know from hearing the title ‘Risk Management;’ it sounds like we stop people from spilling things, or we clean up sidewalks in the snow, but it’s more. There is a financial risk aspect, but it’s also understanding the world from many different perspectives. We do that in the various areas of our department, so being department head gives me an opportunity to support our faculty and students and communicate what we do to the outside world. It’s sort of similar to what I was doing at the Center, but this is much broader because it covers so many different disciplines. 

I look forward to supporting my colleagues and making sure that they have the opportunity to be their best selves while also getting the recognition they deserve; and when I say colleagues, I mean my faculty and staff colleagues, but also our student cohort. We have amazing students in this department, many of whom I get to teach. I get to go back and celebrate the great achievements that we have at Smeal and the incredibly accomplished nature of our Smeal students.” 

What direction do you hope to see the Center move in going forward? 

“I look forward to seeing the Center continue to promote faculty teaching and research – the things that make Smeal a unique contributor to sustainability – because it’s a necessary component of the university sustainability mission. 

Sustainability is a unique area in the sense that almost every college within Penn State does something related to sustainability. Truly, sustainability is reflected across the university. 

From that you can ask yourself, ‘What does Smeal do that is unique?’ The business school does some unique things that only Smeal can do at the level and depth of our faculty expertise.  

I want to see that maximized even more. The university already does a great job at promoting the science aspects of sustainability and I think there is even more Smeal can do to demonstrate our role in making a business case for sustainability.  

That’s kind of what the original idea behind the Center for the Business of Sustainability was.  

Erik always used to say, ‘it’s not just about making sustainable businesses in the sense that a business doesn’t die, but rather showing there is a business case for sustainability. Both , profit, and social responsibility to be made in having a sustainability focus.’  

I think that’s even more under pressure now given that the political environment has made ‘ESG’ somewhat of a politically charged term. So, I think it’s important that the business school comes out and makes sure that the incentives for being involved in sustainability are still there. 

I’d like to see more outside engagement as well. We have a lot of stakeholders outside of the university who have a connection to Smeal and are interested in sustainability so I’d like to see them more engaged: helping us to promote what we do and helping us to help them in their mission because there’s a lot of things we could produce that can help in the real world.  

If there was one thing that I’d like to see even more come out of the Center, it’s demonstrations of sustainability impact because we can’t be left with an only inward-looking focus. We need to be thinking about our impact on the world.  

We do that through our teaching – we hope that our students will go on to make a contribution in the real world, not just write notes down and reflect them on exams – and we hope that our research isn’t just inward-looking at journals, but that people actually read it, apply it, and it will make a difference in the real world.  

Impact is where I’d like to see the Center grow in the future.  

I think the Center has the capacity to continue growing and having an influence. I think it’s already off to a great start, we just have to keep the ball rolling. I have no doubt that we will. There’s a bright future.” 


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