UW's new College of the Environment could bring in the green

The vision is to make the University of Washington and the region a major player in the post-carbon economy. Big stuff. Whether President Mark Emmert can make it happen is an open question, however.
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Mark Emmert

The vision is to make the University of Washington and the region a major player in the post-carbon economy. Big stuff. Whether President Mark Emmert can make it happen is an open question, however.

The recent decision by the University of Washington to move forward in creating a College of the Environment may have seemed like just one more academic hissy fit over some minor rearrangements of the furniture. Some unhappy professors got two leaders of the Legislature to protest the idea, and many of the departments slated to move into the new College (notably Fisheries, and Earth and Space Sciences) cast lopsided votes against joining.

In the end, the Regents endorsed the idea unanimously, in part because UW President Mark Emmert and Provost Phyllis Wise made it clear that this was a central initiative of their administration, tantamount to a vote of confidence. In fact, the Regents' vote is just one more step in the perilous path for this idea, agreeing to the shell of the idea and giving the provost a year to convince enough skeptics to come into the tent. The story will slide off the front pages, but it's nonetheless a very big deal.

There's no question the UW has great strengths in environmental sciences and related fields. To some, that's a good argument for preserving the status quo, letting the stars go on shining, combining in flexible ways on certain projects, and not risking turmoil by reorganization. Might the College of Ocean and Fisheries Sciences, for instance, get submerged in a new College headed by an atmospheric scientist? And isn't the best way to do interdisciplinary science to have flexible, lightweight institutes, rather than large, bureaucratic colleges?

Further, such a massive reorganization is very time-consuming and may take better leadership than the provost has shown so far in such tricky areas as reorganizing Arts & Sciences or finding a new Law School Dean. If the affected departments fear that there isn't enough money to pay for quite a few new positions (about 20 new slots are talked about so far), they will suspect that departmental budgets will be tapped to fund the new effort.

A final reason for caution is the UW's track record in pulling together these forces. An earlier Institute for Environmental Studies flew apart, said to have been a victim of difficult personalities and a debate over pure science versus practical applications.

Set against these objections are some pretty compelling arguments for the new College. It would give the UW much greater national prominence, joining just a handful of schools (Yale, Duke, Michigan, Stanford) that have done this. (These other schools have in most cases not created super-departments as the UW proposes, however, but instead have institutes that pull together faculty from various departments, as in the case of Stanford.) "Suppose we wanted to hire Al Gore, or someone of that stature, to head such an effort," says one scientific leader at the UW. "This would give us a place to put him." And with that scale might well come increased funding, as well as the ability to attract top talent. Even the "rebooting" of some of these departments could be beneficial, in ways not clear until you do it.

Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation (on whose board Provost Wise sits, by the way), thinks the idea of a College of Environment is "terrific" and likely to draw new resources and talent. Hayes makes the case that, just as Stanford was able to stimulate Silicon Valley by pouring resources, ideas, and inventions into the surrounding businesses, so there is a competition on now for "the post-carbon economy" and massive investments in alternative energy research and applications. If the UW and the Seattle area want to be a big player in this game, they need the prominence and advantages of a large College of the Environment.

That's a very big vision, of the sort that President Emmert likes. It puts the UW on the global map even more; it taps new sources of grants; it lures top talent; and it links up with economic development in a way to gladden the hearts of the business community and the Legislature. It also happens to be a topic of enormous appeal to undergraduates, both for the jobs and for saving the earth.

Maybe too big? Pulling off this big rearrangement will definitely test Emmert, who prefers to delegate fully internal matters to the provost. In this case, Provost Wise is relatively inexperienced, having not been a provost before and coming from a smaller university setting (UC-Davis). Some critics say she tends to get a hold of an idea and, when running into opposition, can start railroading it — not the way things go best in academe. If Emmert, a very smooth political operator, is not going to get deeply involved in something this big, chances are the forces of resistance will win out.

So a lot is at stake here. Emmert and Wise, with numerous Young-Turk allies, really do want to stir up the UW, tackling the entrenched academic barons and adjusting more readily to a changing world. Universities, warns Hayes, "are the toughest institutions in the world to change," but this initiative may be a way to force the issue of serious reform. Emmert has been here long enough to know the ropes, and he retains strong support from the Regents. Even so, he probably has to modify his hands-off style if he expects to prevail.


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