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One College of the Environment deserves a look back at another

The man who created Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University, the nation’s first such college, hasn’t followed the controversies surrounding a similar college at the University of Washington, but he has some succinct advice: “Devote yourself to the science, the hard data,” says C. J. (Jerry) Flora, “and don’t get swept up in the fads.”

Flora, a zoologist retired from Western since 1991, has in mind the student-activist period of the 1970s, when Huxley was created (1970), and also more recent trends. He wants more science on global warming, for instance.

The ’70s saw Western create three new “cluster” colleges, all reflecting trends of the day, and Flora saw all of them into life, as Western’s president from 1968 until 1975. Fairhaven, a freestyle campus similar to Evergreen, was created in 1968, Huxley in 1970 and a short-lived College of Ethnic Studies in 1971.

Huxley had relatively easy going in the turbulent ’70s, but has always had to deal with the problem that seems to bother UW professors: that of “hard science” as opposed to the more activist areas of environmental education and communication. Flora’s advice to favor “data” vs. “fads” exemplifies the conflict.

At Western, Flora hired a Huxley dean and then hiring began, both from departments on campus, and from outside. No entire department or program was transferred to a new college, as UW plans to do. The Western approach, Flora believed, created loyalty to the new college, but removing a unit from an existing college and placing it into another might result in split loyalties.

Competition, both healthy and counter-productive, will almost certainly follow the creation of any college with a mission; certainly at Western Huxley is seen as an advocate, and faculty make no bones about their environmental sentiments. This often causes “hard scientists” to denigrate the excellent research that is conducted by Huxley faculty. It is, I heard in many a department chairs’ meeting, “ideologically driven,” in contrast to the “purity” of researchers in the traditional disciplines.

This rivalry may be even more pronounced at UW, because it is a major research university with powerful graduate programs. Western remains primarily an undergraduate university that values teaching as its primary mission.

Flora feels that Huxley is more solidly based in scientific research than it was in its early years, but also admits that is due in part to the times. The ’70s were rampant with experimentation on campuses, and Huxley rose on the tide of environmental activism. Protesters for one cause or another closed streets and occupied buildings; the university got a reputation as a “red” school.

UW lives in a different environment 40 years later, but that old argument between “pure” science and “advocacy” science is alive and well, and likely to plague implementation of the new UW college as it has Huxley for four decades.

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