News from the Columbia Climate School

Creating Positive Change With Thoughtful Leadership: Meet Alicia Roman

This story is part of a series celebrating the work of women at the Earth Institute, in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021. Read more about the day and our related blog posts here.

alicia roman headshot
Alicia Roman is the Earth Institute’s new executive director.

On January 4, Alicia Roman became the new executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. She comes to the institute with more than 20 years of experience in education administration in both the public and private sector, most recently serving as chief operating officer of the New York City Department of Education. She has also served as executive director of operations for Newark Public Schools, and director of finance and administration for Columbia University. Roman has a bachelor’s degree in English from William and Mary, a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from the George Washington University, and is set to complete a doctorate in organizational leadership from the University of Southern California this year. We recently sat down with her to talk about her return to Columbia University, goals for the Earth Institute, and what leadership means to her.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What interested you about this role?

I think the importance of managing climate change drew me in. At the time that I was interviewing for the role, national policy was a little bit different under the previous president, and I found myself really concerned about the role of science in that policy. I was also concerned about a lot of the rollbacks that were occurring in environmental law and regulation. I really wanted to do something that I felt personally invested in. My father worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, and my parents were environmental and civil rights activists during the 1960s and 70s. So, we spent a lot of our childhood being encouraged to be very socially and environmentally conscious. I’ve always been driven by the urge to give back and to make an impact, and I really felt like this role was a way to do that.

What goals do you have in this position?

I would like to more closely link all of the centers and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory together and really create a sense of collegiality. I’d like to smooth out some of the processes that connect the Earth Institute with the central administration at Columbia University as well as drive diversity in administrative hires and faculty appointments. I’m a big believer in innovation. I guess that goes along with being interested in change. As an institution, I think we can and should strive to be really nimble and I want to make that possible with my role.

Alicia Roman and her family on a beach
Alicia Roman and her family

What made you decide to come back to Columbia?

The people who work at Columbia. They’re all super smart, highly competent, and they’ve always just been a pleasure to work with. There is a real healthy culture of support and collaboration. It’s a place that encourages learning and growth and I just love it. My wife is also a Columbia graduate!

What role do you think academic research institutions should play in the global environmental crisis?

I think they’re a vital component of pushing not only science, but public policy forward. Without the science, without understanding that what we do as people impacts the planet, we can’t effect change. Otherwise, the anecdotal narratives that get perpetuated about the climate as going through some sort of cycle of warming, or the idea of bringing back coal — those become the dominant narratives. We must have academic research centers provide hard science to say, ‘No, we’ve researched this, and this is the impact that, say, oil or coal is having on the environment, and this is what we need to do to reverse those effects.’

Along those same lines, how do you plan to lead the Earth Institute to combat skepticism towards science?

I think it’s really about getting our narrative out there and by making connections with industry, government, other academic institutions, and the press. All of these connections are really important to getting people to understand the science behind climate change.

Why did you pursue a PhD in organizational leadership?

I’ve been part of a lot of change efforts in my professional roles, and through that process, I became interested in studying organizational change from a research standpoint. I became really curious. I wanted to know why some of these change efforts aren’t working. How could we be more effective? How can we be more thoughtful when we’re going through a change? Ultimately, I’ve learned that change is a little less about process and a little more about people than I think most people would expect. If people feel adrift in a change process, that is when you will most likely have a breakdown. You can work on your process and your project plans, and they can be impeccable. But the people in your organization are the engines and if they don’t feel that you’re doing something that’s beneficial, if they don’t feel heard, if they don’t feel invested, you’re going to have a very difficult time changing anything.

What qualities do you think are most important for a good leader to possess?

Organization, integrity and respect. I think those are really key qualities that every good leader should have. You should enter into conversations with respect and always operate from a place of integrity. And, lastly, from an organizational standpoint, you have to be able to organize your people and your resources if you really want to get your work done, if you want to make an impact.

What do you think are some of the pitfalls that leaders typically can fall into if they’re not careful?

Not listening to the people around them who have different opinions. I think it’s really important as a leader to listen to people who have different opinions. When I worked at Columbia the first time around, I hadn’t been there long, but I did something and it was a misstep. And someone who reported to me was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I didn’t think you should have done that.’ And I said, ‘Well, you could have told me!’ (laughs). I accept the feedback. I willingly accept the feedback. If you have a different approach, I want to hear it. I don’t have the idea that I’m the only bag of solutions. I’m not the only person who has good ideas or solutions or thoughts. I really think collaborative leadership is where you get the best results.

You mentioned that diversity of appointments is one of your goals. Why is diversity so important?

Because it only enriches us. Different perspectives and opinions can create a solution where people might not have seen one in a homogenous environment.

Now for a more fun question. What do you like to do for fun?

Oh, boy — I like to work on my dissertation for fun (laughs). But seriously, when times are normal, I like to go different places and experience different cultures. I’ll go to a grocery store someplace I’ve never been and buy the local food. I’m not the American buying Fruity Pebbles in the market in South America; I prefer a more immersive experience.

If there was a Netflix show about your life, what would the opening credits theme song be?

Oh my gosh. Definitely “How Far I’ll Go” [by Auli’I Cravalho] in the Disney movie “Moana.”

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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