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Faculty Profile: Kitty Kay Chan

MS in Sustainability Management professor Kitty Kay Chan
MS in Sustainability Management professor Kitty Kay Chan

Master of Science in Sustainability Management professor Kitty Kay Chan was drawn to the program because she felt the curriculum’s interdisciplinary learning environment was the perfect catalyst for future sustainability managers to effect real change. Currently, Kitty is the chief economist at the New York State Department of Financial Services, which supervises and regulates thousands of banks, insurance companies, public pensions, and other financial institutions with assets over $6 trillion.  She oversees quantitative analysis across divisions and provides expert advice and evaluation spanning risk assessment, pricing, regulation design, emerging economic and industry trends, data management, and investigations, among other issues. Previously, Chan served as the chief economist and director of audit and review for the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, and as a deputy inspector general for the New York State Inspector General’s Office, building and leading a new quantitative analysis division at each of these agencies. Her work has covered a wide spectrum of sectors including financial services, transportation, telecommunications, real estate, pharmaceuticals, electrical utilities, internet search engines, agriculture and entertainment. As the instructor for Economics of Sustainability Management, Chan teaches the economic theoretical frameworks and analytical techniques that students need in order to implement sustainable growth.

1. Why did you choose to teach in the program?

My work focuses on applying economic theories and quantitative methods for practical purposes in business operations, risk management, legal proceedings, law enforcement, policy design and regulatory oversight. Thus, I really liked how the MSSM program has an interdisciplinary learning environment that combines academic scholarship and professional practice on issues of sustainability. The program and the Earth Institute have attracted students from diverse fields and backgrounds worldwide who share the desire to learn how to put critical sustainability thinking to practice to achieve an impact in the real world.

2. What is new in your area of expertise?

Technological advances are changing the way consumers and businesses bank and invest. Electronic payment systems and novel financial products such as virtual currencies and online lending continue to become more complex. The ability to digest digital information becomes crucial to monitor emerging risks and achieve sustainable economic growth in the financial industry.

The issue of climate change is also rising in importance in the financial sector, because businesses and regulators are evaluating the risks and opportunities associated with a changing climate. A growing number of financial firms are urging policy makers to recognize the cost of carbon so as to provide greater market certainty and encourage investments; regulators are evaluating the impact of changing climate on the safety and soundness of their depositories; and some insurance companies are adjusting their models and risk factors to incorporate climate change impacts.

3. What course do you teach, and why do you think that it is important to the field of sustainability?

I teach Economics of Sustainability Management, a course which covers economic theoretical frameworks, including consumer behavior and incentive theory, as well as analytical techniques such as regression analyses and optimization methods. These concepts and techniques give students valuable tools to combine strategic thinking with data analytics in examining issues and policies that support sustainable growth. For example, practitioners in sustainability management are often challenged by the need to evaluate investments and policies that involve environmental goods and services with no formal market price, such as clean air. My course introduces approaches to address this challenge.

4. What is your favorite part of your job as a professor?

Nothing can beat seeing students smile when they learn how seemingly abstract economic theories and data analytic techniques are actually being applied to seize opportunities to improve business operations and promote sustainable growth. I feel so proud of my students when they tell me they are putting concepts and techniques they learned in class to use in their projects from another class or in their professional work.

5. What do you believe is the greatest benefit that the Sustainability Management program has to offer its students?

The program provides lifelong empowerment in sustainability thinking and practical techniques through an interdisciplinary approach. Key benefits are the analytical toolbox that students gain, the network they develop from working with those who share common interests and goals, and the experience of meeting and working with people from diverse academic and professional backgrounds worldwide.

6. What advice would you give to your Sustainability Management students who are not already working in the field?

Incorporating sustainability concepts is still relatively new or even non-existent in many academic and professional arenas. For students who are not already working on issues of sustainability, I would suggest introducing sustainability frameworks and evaluation methods in decision making as an alternative scenario alongside traditional approaches used in their fields.  They can then compare and discuss the different approaches with stakeholders and monitor the performance of these approaches over time so as to refine their processes.

7. What kind of research are you doing now related to the economics of sustainability management?

The amount of information available for decision-making is rising at an unprecedented rate. Robust data design and analytic approaches make it possible to capture and digest such information more efficiently than under traditional information review processes. This, in turn, creates opportunities to improve the value of business operations, as well as facilitates sustainable policy design and economic growth. One of my current projects examines how insurance companies use big data analytics to improve their decision-making processes. Another project involves addressing data gaps and using quantitative methods to monitor emerging risks so as to support stability and sustainability across the financial sector.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.  

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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