UW News

January 31, 2008

College of the Environment: UW proposes bold initiative as part of legislative request

One of the UW’s supplementary budget requests to the Legislature this session would provide money to begin preliminary work on what is perhaps the boldest new initiative the University has put forward in years.

The request would allow the University to recruit staff to partner with the Puget Sound Partnership, to work with other external environmental organizations, and to start planning for a College of the Environment. Funds would also go to planning for an institute that would bring together faculty from the UW and other universities, leaders in businesses, government, and nongovernmental organizations with undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for intense analysis of specific challenges.

The request isn’t the only action under way toward making a College of the Environment a reality. A number of faculty working groups have been meeting regularly over the past few months to consider what such a college might look like. And Provost Phyllis Wise and others are working on a business plan for the college to submit to the Board of Regents in the spring.

Why a College of the Environment? The notion arose during Wise’s first two years here, when she visited faculty, department chairs and deans all across the University.

“The whole idea of a College of the Environment came out of those discussions,” she said. “The message I got is that our faculty’s work on the environment is wonderful, but we don’t have the impact and the respect and visibility of other universities that are probably not even as good as we are. We have more than 400 people who are researchers in some aspect of the environment. Yet they don’t seem to get the leverage that they should, and consequently we might be missing opportunities for new grants and new partnerships, and also might not be getting the notice of potential donors.”

Many of those she talked to told Wise that the University’s efforts in the environment do not get the notice they deserve because they are so spread out in different departments. Moreover, students who are interested in the field often don’t know where to turn to get the information they need.

The discussions convinced Wise that a College of the Environment might be worth considering, so last June she convened a charrette — a sort of concentrated brainstorming session that included people both inside and outside the University — to discuss the idea. Enough enthusiasm was generated that Wise continued the discussion with many small groups of faculty throughout the summer, and from those discussions, the working groups were formed.

The vision working group began discussions in November, followed by the organization and structure group in December. The curriculum and learning goals group has just begun its work, and the finance and communications groups are also meeting. Stephanie Harrington, who has been providing staff support for the working groups, said the process is completely open and that anyone who is interested is welcome to join one of the groups. Minutes for the groups are posted on a Web site linked to the provost’s Web site, and can be read by anyone with a UW NetID.

Although nothing about the proposed college is set in stone at this point, those involved universally describe the idea that has been drafted as a very porous, open-structured entity that goes beyond disciplinary boundaries.

Arthur Nowell, dean of the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences and chair of the Council of Environmental Deans, said that the new concept of a college without borders “was the key phrase from the very beginning that I think is one we really want to achieve. Having a college that just replicates traditional college structure is unlikely to achieve the level of impact that we want.”

Nowell believes the new college must be built around collaboration — bringing together faculty from different fields to do interdisciplinary research and teaching.

Julia Parrish, chair of the Program on the Environment and co-convenor of the organization and structure working group, agreed. “I think the College of the Environment, unlike any college we have here, will have very, very squishy, porous borders to it,” she said. “It will almost be hard to tell what’s in it or what’s not in it. Certainly there will be some degree-granting units that will report to that dean. But I also expect there will be units that report partially to the College of the Environment and partially to other colleges currently extant at the University. I expect there will be many, many faculty members from across campus who will be outside of the college in the academic reporting structure but nevertheless do substantial work both in teaching and research inside the college. That doesn’t actually happen right now in any other college. You’re either in or you’re out.”

Part of the reason for the fluid structure is that tackling environmental problems requires input from fields not normally thought of as dealing with the environment — fields like law, public affairs, even philosophy. No one envisions the law school, for example, being folded into the College of the Environment, but tackling real world environmental problems requires a knowledge of the law.

And tackling real world problems is something everyone agrees would be at the center of the new college. Provost Wise has consistently talked about the University’s strength in research and the need to bring that expertise to bear on finding environmental solutions.

“That then brings up the most important question,” Nowell said. “Who defines the problem? That’s where I think the unique opportunity arises with the environment, to have the University partner with people outside who can help define the problem and then to collaborate as we find solutions.”

The new institute for which the University is seeking funding from the Legislature would be one avenue within the college to tackle problems requiring interdisciplinary solutions. Faculty could be brought in to the institute for a limited time to work on a specific problem, then return to their home departments when the work was done.

One question that has yet to be decided is which existing departments and programs would be part of the new college, and how existing colleges would be affected. It is, of course, a touchy question. But Mary Lidstrom, vice provost for research, doesn’t see it in terms of winners and losers.

“I don’t think any program that becomes part of the College of the Environment is going to lose anything,” she said. “Will deans that have programs that move lose anything? Not if it’s set up correctly. Part of the novel aspect is that there would be many joint appointments, and that is a win-win situation because it will help deans attract better faculty. It will leverage the college for all the other deans — and whatever resources get raised for that entity will help everyone involved. And it will attract better students. It contains all of the parts that we need to increase excellence at the University.”

And what about the teaching aspects of the new college? Parrish said there is general agreement that although some existing degree programs would move into the new college, there would also be new composite degree granting units that would “ally disciplines within social sciences and policy, within engineering and design and within the health sciences,” and that these new units might have a dual reporting structure.

Nowell is interested in having the new college promote “environmental literacy.” He suggested, for example, that instead of a student taking Introduction to Oceanography to fulfill a distribution requirement, he or she might take an introductory course that focused on the environmental problems we face and how one thinks about them.

There are also proposals for fifth year master’s programs that would allow a student with a science-oriented undergraduate degree to study the sociopolitical aspects of his or her field in graduate school.

Parrish said the organization and structure working group was able to agree on several basic aspects of the proposed college: That there should be degree-granting units and a dean, that there should be an interdisciplinary institute, that there should be a mandate of environmental literacy for all students. But the devil is in the details.

“I would call what we have 30,000 foot enthusiasm,” she said. “If you’re in an airplane and you fly over an island, you look down and it looks beautiful, and nobody would disagree that it’s a beautiful place. But when you get there, everybody experiences it a little bit differently. I think that’s where we are. But the fact that everybody says yes — yes environmental education, yes institute, yes degree-granting units, yes dean. I take that as a large leap forward.”

Lidstrom adds that the University has some experience with joint departments — bioengineering and global health — that have both been very successful and have taught us about how to foster strong interdisciplinary activities. “Having unusual academic structures is something we’ve been able to pull off here,” she said.

Lidstrom also believes the University must act now. “There’s a very clear issue of timing which has to do with the growing acceptance by the public that global environmental problems are real and are going to affect their lives,” she said. “There has been a sea change in attitudes in the last three years. What we have right now is the strength at the UW plus the support of the public. The stars are becoming aligned so that the opportunity exists now.”

Provost Wise wants to take advantage of that opportunity, but wants to do so with the support of the faculty who can make it a success. “I want to be careful but not timid, bold but not crazy,” she said. “What I have in mind here isn’t a matter of just moving the deck chairs around. I want to position us to make a greater impact in an area where we are already strong. And there is an urgency of meeting the environmental challenges through coordinated and collaborative research and education. We can create a premier College of the Environment at the UW.”

Public forums on the College of the Environment especially aimed at students are planned for February. Information about the proposed college can be found at http://www.washington.edu/provost/coenv/index.html