A better environment for a UW College of the Environment

Don't make a megalith, advises a prominent expert in forestry. Instead, think of a virtual environment with porous walls and many disciplines. The result could put the University of Washington in the lead for solving the world's environmental problems.
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Phyllis Wise

Don't make a megalith, advises a prominent expert in forestry. Instead, think of a virtual environment with porous walls and many disciplines. The result could put the University of Washington in the lead for solving the world's environmental problems.

University of Washington regents recently approved the shell of a new College of the Environment, following the recommendations of Provost Phyllis Wise. UW's environmental expertise across its three campuses encompasses 400 faculty, 50 programs, and over $140 million in research, according to Wise. Although this formidable army could theoretically be concentrated in the new College, a series of events and serious opposition reduced the regents' proposal to a concept with no clear purpose, a shell without a yolk.

The opportunity is to turn this empty shell into a golden egg. More disciplines need to take part, and the structure needs to be more flexible and adaptable than a large new College would likely create. Below, I give some examples.

Almost to the day of the regents' meeting, the provost's College proposal, rather than encompass all the potential resources, would initially have absorbed just six academic units: Forest Resources, Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, Oceanography, Atmospheric Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences, and Marine Affairs. Forest Resources has been characterized as a great takeover target, since its undergraduate course offerings in environmental science and resource management are attracting large numbers of students and its endowments and gifts are much larger than the other five.

An interim dean of the shell college, a professor of atmospheric sciences, has been named. He has set out to make the case for the proposal in a business plan, a document curiously absent in the materials prepared for the regents' consideration.

The hitch came when a vote to join or not was presented to the faculty of each of the units. Despite UW administration efforts to cajole their support with promises of big endowments, additional faculty, and more staff, Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, Oceanography, Forest Resources, and Earth and Space Sciences voted no. Only two small units, Atmospheric Sciences and Marine Affairs, voted to join, but with conditions.

Notably missing in action in the new COE proposal are Architecture and Urban Planning, Public Affairs, Engineering, Public Health and Community Medicine, Business, Law, Information Science, and the Jackson School of International Studies — all of whom help comprise the 400 faculty, 50 programs, and $140 million of research in the concept. Some have indicated support for the COE concept, but reject being a core unit. Biology (part of Arts and Sciences) and Environmental and Civil Engineering (part of Engineering) faculty are reputedly interested, but their deans have indicated that these departments will not participate as whole units.

Almost immediately, the negative votes of the chosen units were met with criticism in the media about entrenched faculty, supposedly stuck in the past and unwilling to meet tomorrow's climate change challenges. Faculty members who oppose the current limited structure feel that their votes have reanimated old wounds and wars in people's minds.

Despite the votes and the furor, faculty members I talk with are strongly supportive of a comprehensive approach to UW environmental education and enthusiastic about UW becoming more relevant to the issues of the Pacific Northwest's rapidly-changing environmental quality. Many UW faculty members favor an advanced institute, drawing from individual departments as needed, where they could collaboratively teach and conduct research among several colleges to address environmental issues. The University would be seen as the center of solutions, rather than the center of the debate.

The College of Forest Resources faculty voted in 2003 to change its core curriculum to Environmental Sciences and Resources Management, and student enrollment has soared, increasing by 30 percent in the past year. The Visiting Committee of the College of Forest Resources, which I chair, has urged UW administration to consider a more expansive proposal involving Environmental and Civil Engineering, Public Health, Law, Public Policy, Landscape Architecture, Biology, Information Sciences and the others that have either opted out or not been chosen to participate.

Law, business, and economics are key to the new market-driven approaches to environmental stewardship, in collaboration with science. Controversies around the Columbia River and Puget Sound haven't historically been resolved when a group of scientists makes a pronouncement, and universities have been slow in the past to acknowledge that all natural resources decisions are political, and political decisions weigh economic issues with environmental gain.

Information science is also critical to modern-day environmental management. Engineering talents are required to address green and sustainable product manufacturing and life-cycle assessments. Atmospheric sciences help in understanding potential climate impacts on forests, farms, and hydroelectric energy sources and how to plan for unplanned events. A 21st century UW approach needs to corral all these disciplines and more into a workable "collaboratory" that could be unique among U.S. universities.

The best recent useful example of this approach is UW's own Department of Global Health, which was established as a new department, jointly managed by the School of Medicine and School of Public Health and Community Medicine, with new institutes and new directors, rather than agglomerating the two big Schools into a megalith. The new institutes have been very successful in attracting new staff, faculty, students, and money from around the world. Why not do something similar with natural resources and the environment?

The provost's instinct against building too many academic units into the initial COE is correct, but is also the very reason why so many essential units resist its ultimate bigness, and why so many faculty believe that a huge, traditional college only creates a new hierarchy, which could obstruct an innovative UW approach to research and teaching about the environment.

The UW could have much more influence on how the region and nation address environmental issues through science by creating institutes for Human Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and really address the complex nature of environmental challenges and their economic and social implications. This could be done by creating a virtual environment, with porous walls, for teaching, research, outreach, and collaboration that involves every person at the UW with expertise in environmental interactions. Whoever says collaboration has to take place in the same room, the same building, the same college, hasn't been paying attention to what's been going on in bioengineering, nanotechnology, surgery, or even Facebook.

Exploring these possibilities would be better than just rearranging boxes on organizational charts and demoting existing academic units. Done right, with all 400 faculty and 50 programs able to play a role, a UW Center for Human Ecology and Environmental Sciences could be a flexible reflection of the multidisciplinary approach of the new century, rather than a recapitulation of old models and old failures. What's needed now is a serious effort to create an expanded vision and execute a business plan that would turn a good idea into a brilliant stroke.


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