An environmental engineer and president emeritus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jared Cohon has formulated how best to use public water sources around the world, taught and served in the administrations of three American universities, and helped turn a faltering Rust Belt city into an up-and-coming tech center. Cohon, presently a professor at CMU, is one of two candidates running this year for AAAS president-elect.
“If you're interested in seeing the science of environmental management, academia is the place to be, but that does not have to keep you from being involved in more practical activities,” said Cohon, whose particular field is water resources systems analysis.
While he was president of CMU, from 1997 to 2013, Cohon put the strengths of his tech-based school — which include computer science excellence and its reputation as the nation’s premier robotics research and education facility — to work for the good of the community. Working with local nonprofits, businesses, and government, as well as other area colleges, including the University of Pittsburgh, CMU created a hospitable setting for startups and other businesses that need top-notch computer scientists, engineers and other STEM professionals.
The effort had swift and significant benefits for Pittsburgh, where a stunning tech-fueled renaissance is now underway. A number of articles, including one in the in 2015, have drawn a bold line between the city’s revival and the computer science “geeks” of Carnegie Mellon.
“Carnegie Mellon and Pitt had everything to do with the city’s turnaround,” Cohon said. “We were quite strategic and intentional in this. We dramatically changed our technology commercialization policy to make it much easier for faculty to start companies, and the results were spectacular,” he said. Between 1995 and 2007, more than 170 companies were created that were affiliated with CMU faculty, students or intellectual property; nearly 300 additional companies have been created since 2008.
“We constructed a building on campus, the Collaborative Innovation Center, specifically to be a landing place for tech companies from outside Pittsburgh,” including Google Pittsburgh in its early years. Google Pittsburgh has its own facility now, two miles away, where it employs 500 people. Apple is still in the CIC. Uber’s and Ford’s research efforts on driverless cars are nearby and are closely allied with CMU.
“It started in that building on the edge of our campus,” Cohon said. “And I have to say, the change was really dramatic, really rapid.”
In addition, under Cohon, the percentage of freshman women majoring in computer science at CMU jumped from 8 percent to 40 percent over a five-year period (this year’s CS freshman class has a majority of women).
Cohon also moved CMU assertively into global education, establishing a number of degree-granting campuses, including one in Kigali, Rwanda, he said he thinks will prove to be “prescient.”
He said, “I'm really proud of the Rwanda program.”
Cohon also successfully committed CMU to using the equivalent of 100 percent renewable energy to power its operations, and worked to persuade other area colleges to do the same. Under his leadership, the university also built the world’s first LEED-certified residence hall.
Cohon is running for president-elect of AAAS, he said, because he believes strongly in promoting science to the public — and in making sure science is defended, represented in policy-making, and used appropriately. Cohon notes that those have always been the goals of AAAS. The election period runs from October 26 to November 26.
Of climate change denial, especially in the government, Cohon said, “It's maddening, it’s outrageous, it’s irresponsible. At the same time, without anybody really noticing, the U.S. electric power sector has substantially reduced its carbon emissions. That has largely come about because of market forces, the substitution of natural gas for coal, but also the rise of solar and wind. Things are moving too slowly, but it’s happening.”
Cohon said advocates for science can help by getting the facts out. “Make sure someone is standing up for the facts and being clear about what’s actually happening,” he said. Some big problems are facing us, Cohon noted, and science advocates have to be in this effort for the long haul. His fieldwork has given him a perspective on how long it can take to solve big problems.
Cohon was a civil engineering undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania when he took the “one and only required environmental engineering course at Penn. It really appealed to me,” he said. That class gave him the architecture for his career.
“Environmental problems have a people element that designing a structure doesn’t. You have to incorporate economics and politics, and be attentive to people to be effective. I liked that,” he said.
After obtaining a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cohon taught and held administrative posts at Johns Hopkins University for nearly 20 years. In 1992, he became the Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.
In 1997, he became Carnegie Mellon’s eighth president, serving until 2013, when he stepped down. Cohon is still a professor at CMU, a change in status he said the faculty and even the students had a harder time navigating than he did.
In the field, Cohon has devised and applied mathematical models for planning and implementing large-scale water systems in South America, Asia and the United States. He chaired the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board and co-chaired the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories. He has advised Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama on science topics, and has served on numerous boards for the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, including, presently, as chair of the Board on Energy and Environmental Systems.
Self-deprecating and with a great sense of humor, Cohon never fails to credit his success to his wife, Maureen (nicknamed Bunny), a lawyer, now retired. They met in second grade in Cleveland, Ohio, and married when he was 19 and still in college. “Without question, marrying her was the most transformative thing to happen in my life,” he said. The Cohons have a daughter, Hallie Cohon Donner, who also lives in Pittsburgh with her family.
“It’s in the nature of what I do to have optimism about the future, that the world my grandchildren will inherit will be livable. What that will look like and how we will get there, I don’t know.”