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Obama-era EPA head Gina McCarthy encourages Exonians to act

“You will bring the next generation of technologies to the table,” says this year’s Bragdon Fellow.

Melanie Nelson
December 13, 2017
Gina McCarthy talks with students about the history of human interaction with, and destruction of, the environment.

Gina McCarthy talks with students about the history of human interaction with, and destruction of, the environment in a class titled Vulnerable Conquerors: Humans and the Environment.

For an address that was at turns forceful and funny, Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama from 2013-17, earned a standing ovation at Tuesday’s assembly. McCarthy, who was invited to Exeter as the Bragdon Fellow, spent two days on campus giving a talk at Phillips Church as part of the We the People Lecture Series, meeting with faculty and students in humanities and science classes, and delivering her pithy assembly speech.

Prior to her appointment to the EPA, McCarthy, a career environmentalist, served five different administrations, both Democratic and Republican, in her home state of Massachusetts and as the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. She is currently a Professor of the Practice of Public Health in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Known for her straight-shooting style, McCarthy, after being introduced by Principal MacFarlane, opened her talk by acknowledging that students were likely concerned about “what is happening or not happening in D.C.,” noting that the current Administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is “not really embracing the mission of the agency.”

“If you ask me if I’m ticked off — absolutely,” said McCarthy. “If you ask me if I’m giving up — absolutely not.” A chorus of snaps signaling student approval quickly ensued.

From that point, McCarthy forged ahead, nimbly ticking through the many issues that have shaped the modern national and global environmental movements — among them history, politics, economics, science, gender — while occasionally pausing to offer advice to students or humorous anecdotes about her life and work. In particular, she urged students to elevate the environment above partisan politics and to continue working on its behalf at the grassroots level as such efforts inevitably snag the attention of state and federal lawmakers.

McCarthy likewise encouraged students to stay active in the movement through public service (“You’ll never get rich at it, but you’ll have an incredibly rich life.”) and to enjoin scientists to employ “crisper messaging” when conveying their research findings. After a student asked about how the new tax bill wending its way through Congress might impact graduate-level studies in America, and therefore environmental research, McCarthy concluded the assembly by emphasizing the importance of higher education in the U.S., telling her audience, “You are very lucky students.”

The Henry Bragdon Public Service & Interest Fellows Fund, inaugurated in December 2006, brings to campus speakers who have demonstrated special accomplishment and prominence in their professional and personal lives. The objective of the visits is to encourage discussion of issues relating to public service. Bragdon was a revered instructor of history and renowned scholar who taught at the Academy from 1945–72. He instilled in thousands of Exeter students a great sense of the American experience and a deep appreciation for public service. 


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