Stanford professors join Biden-Harris transition team

Nov. 14, 2020, 11:48 a.m.

Four current Stanford professors — Pamela Karlan, Arun Majumdar, Ramin Toloui and Colin Kahl — have been selected to serve on President-elect Joe Biden’s agency review teams to aid the incoming administration in its transition to the White House. Monday’s announcement of the team members came two days after media outlets projected victory for the Democratic presidential ticket.

The four faculty members are serving on the Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Energy, State Department and National Security Council review teams, respectively. The agency review teams are charged with assessing the state of federal agencies under the current administration and making policy recommendations to the president-elect.

Along with their fellow transition advisors, the Stanford affiliates were chosen for their “deep backgrounds in crucial policy areas across the federal government,” according to the Biden-Harris transition team. 

In addition to the four current professors, three other Stanford affiliates are aiding the transition process. Precourt Energy Scholar Dan Arvizu is contributing to the Department of Energy team and Robert Silvers, a CISAC affiliate, is serving on the Department of Homeland Security team.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor emerita of education, is leading the Department of Education team. Darling-Hammond previously directed education for the Obama administration’s transition in 2008 and was reportedly considered for Secretary of Education in Biden’s cabinet. She ended the speculation by reiterating her commitment to her current position as head of the California Board of Education. 

Advisers will guide the newly elected administration’s initiatives, coordinate with career officials and prepare the incoming cabinet. President Trump’s refusal to concede the election poses a challenge to Biden and his transition staff, who have been unable to access government offices, secure communications and classified briefings.

The four professors are unpaid volunteers who are aiding “in their personal capacity.” Karlan and Kahl declined to comment, writing that the transition had asked them not to field media requests, while Majumdar and Toloui did not respond to The Daily’s requests. 

Karlan, a professor of law and co-director of Stanford’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, is a member of the DOJ team which will be responsible for reviewing the department under the Trump administration. Professor Jim Steyer, who co-teaches the Election 2020 and Justice at Home and Abroad courses with Karlan, told The Daily that the transition “couldn’t have made a better choice.”

“Pam is one of the most extraordinary lawyers in the United States, but she is also a fantastic teacher who cares about her students,” Steyer said, adding that Biden “should make her attorney general.”

One of the most significant challenges the Biden administration will face, according to Steyer, is rebuilding the DOJ and upholding its foundational principles after the tenure of Attorney General William Barr, whom Steyer described as “disgraceful.” 

Karlan previously served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s Civil Division from 2014 to 2015 in the Obama administration and was reportedly considered to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter in 2009. Sonia Sotomayor was ultimately nominated.

Majumdar, a professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, was selected to lead the Department of Energy agency review team. He previously worked in the Obama administration as founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA–E). He also served as acting undersecretary of the Department of Energy, as well as senior advisor to the secretary of energy.

Sally Benson, co-director of the Precourt Institute along with Majumdar, told The Daily that he “brings a very broad set of experiences to his role as the head of the Energy Transition team,” citing his unique background as an immigrant from South Asia who led the establishment of the ARPA–E. 

“All of these perspectives are needed as we embark on the energy transition that must take place over the coming decades. There is no one better to lead this effort than Arun,” Benson wrote in a statement to The Daily.

Political science professor and director of the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) Michael McFaul, who has collaborated with Majumdar at the Precourt Institute and in planning for Stanford’s new sustainability school, described Majumdar as a “fantastic colleague” who is a “bridge builder between science and policy.”

“The Biden transition is incredibly lucky to have him to run the transition for the Department of Energy,” McFaul said.

Toloui is a Biden transition team member reviewing the State Department. He previously served as assistant secretary for international finance at the Treasury Department from 2014 to 2017. At Stanford, he currently teaches ECON 101: “Economic Policy Seminar.”

Toloui’s colleague Gopi Goda, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), characterized Toloui as a “great contributor to SIEPR” and “a great lecturer [who] takes a lot of pride and has a lot of passion for teaching students.”

“I’m very excited that the new administration will be able to tap on his expertise,” Goda said, adding, “I think it’s a great thing for both the United States and for Stanford.”

Political science professor Colin Kahl, who is also a senior fellow at both FSI and the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), will help review the U.S. National Security Council. Kahl previously served as Biden’s National Security Advisor while he was vice president from 2014 through 2017.

Kahl spoke on behalf of Biden at Stanford’s Iowa satellite caucus in February. 

“I sat with [Biden] every single day for two and a half years,” Kahl said at the time. “Joe Biden is a good man. He’s a good person. He loves his family, and he wants everybody in the United States to get a fair shake.”

McFaul said that he recruited Kahl to Stanford, describing him as “one of the best hires we’ve had at FSI.” He called Kahl a “big thinker” and “superstar” who has been “an incredible leader at CISAC and an incredible teacher at Stanford.” He added that Kahl’s prior rapport with Biden will allow him to “bring connectivity between the old Biden team and many of the new members on the transition team.”

When the transition advisors complete their tasks and return to Stanford, McFaul said he was optimistic that the professors’ experiences preparing the incoming administration will be an asset to the University.

Contact Jessica Zhu at jesszhu ‘at’ and Cameron Ehsan at cehsan ‘at’

This article has been corrected to reflect that Arun Majumdar is leading the Department of Energy agency review team, not the Department of Commerce team. The Daily regrets this error.

Jessica Zhu '24 is the Vol. 264 Executive Editor and was formerly Head Copy Editor and a News desk editor. She studies international relations, human rights and French, and can probably be found at CoHo with a quad espresso.Cameron Ehsan is a junior at Stanford studying neurobiology. He served as a news editor and newsroom development director for Vol. 261 and was the Vol. 260 winter managing editor.

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