Schools of Sustainability, Colleges of the Environment

July 23, 2009

Charles L. Redman’s faculty bio includes an ambitious statement: “As inaugural director of the School of Sustainability he is creating a new approach to higher education that is collaborative, transdisciplinary, and problem-oriented to address the enmeshed environmental, economic, and social challenges of the 21st century.”

“There is still a debate about whether sustainability is a genuine field, and that’s why we use the word transdisciplinary – it isn’t just that we’re working across fields, but we’re creating a field by working across fields,” says Redman, a professor of natural history and the environment and director of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, which opened in 2007 and which this fall expects a class of 70 graduate students and 500 undergraduate majors.

“This is where the problems of the world are. They’re to be solved and addressed by people who can make connections and understand cascading implications and do all these things in a rigorous way so they can really make statements and make connections for the future. Otherwise, we’re just trying to add the parts together and we’ve proven that doesn’t work.”

Photo: courtesy of Mark Boisclair

Arizona State's Global Institute of Sustainability

In recent years, a steady stream of universities have established either a college, school or campus dedicated to the study of sustainability and the environment, and they're experimenting with a range of innovative organizing principles and structures to promote interdisciplinary (or transdisciplinary) teaching and research.

Arizona State’s majors and masters’ degrees are intended to be flexible and interdisciplinary, and the degrees are in sustainability, period – a B.A. and B.S. in sustainability, or an M.A., M.S. and Ph.D. in sustainability. There are now about eight faculty appointed solely to the school, about 16 more who are jointly appointed by the school and another academic unit, and 40 additional affiliated faculty in other departments.

Faculty at the State University of New York at Stony Brook’s Southampton campus, which is dedicated to the study of sustainability and which also got started in 2007, are not organized into departments, but around multi-disciplinary majors -- including a B.A. in ecosystems and human impact, a B.S. in marine sciences, a B.A. in sustainability studies, a B.S. in business management with a specialization in sustainable business, and a B.A. in environmental design, policy and planning. “There’s a real need for this kind of program at the undergraduate level,” says Mary C. Pearl, administrative vice president and dean of the campus, which has a projected enrollment of about 520 undergraduates this fall. “I think we’re ready to approach problems as systems.”

"Some colleges have lab schools," Pearl says. "Stony Brook has a lab college."

Meanwhile, at Dalhousie University, in Nova Scotia, a new Environment, Sustainability and Society major, launching this fall, is only offered as part of a double major. “That means it’s married to disciplinary study,” says Steven Mannell, director of Dalhousie’s new College of Sustainability, approved by the University Senate in June 2008, and a professor in the School of Architecture. “Our sense also is if we’re going to make a significant difference in the world of the future, training a number of specialists is probably less profound in its effect than training a whole lot of people who will go off and do all kinds of things. If they all have an ability to see it through a lens of sustainability, they’re going to make a difference whether they’re in business or the arts or engineering."

Mannell describes the college as "neutral territory," outside the purview of the university's 11 faculties. "The college generally sits outside the faculty structure and is more of a collaboration amongst faculties," he says, adding that the plan, in Dalhousie's case, is not to have any professors appointed solely to the College of Sustainability. "It's almost entirely drawing on people who are already teaching in the university in a traditional discipline."

Colorado State University started a new School of Global Environmental Sustainability last summer; it plays a similar role. "We have eight colleges [including a college of natural resources] and multiple degrees and the school sits over all of them; we're trying to be a coordinator or a streamlining shop," says Diana H. Wall, director of the School and a professor of biology. "Clearinghouse is a good word for us."

Photo: Chatham University

The Eden Hall Farm campus

"We want to take what's already here, the strengths that are here, make sure we highlight those and then start moving toward, 'Here are the foundation courses that we don't think are offered yet.' "

Chatham University, in Pittsburgh, is the most recent one to move in this direction, in June announcing plans for a new School of Sustainability and the Environment, and a search for a founding dean. The university plans to take better advantage of its new, 388-acre Eden Hall Campus, an amalgamation of 17 family farms that for years served as a retreat for the women who worked for the H.J. Heinz Company. The first degree program to be offered through the school will be a master of arts in food studies. “The farm is right on the perimeter of a major urban area, and that strikes us as an unusual and an important location for a program on food,” says Esther L. Barazzone, Chatham’s president.

A 'Not-Accidental' Expansion

Colleges have increasingly added academic programs in sustainability; the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s most recent digest tracked the creation of 66 sustainability-focused academic programs in 2008. In terms of the creation of whole schools or colleges, “It does feel like there’s a fair amount of activity,” says Julian Dautremont-Smith, AASHE’s associate director. “Starting a school or a college is a pretty big endeavor, it’s not like there are hundreds of schools doing it, but it does seem to be increasingly common. More schools tend to start with a minor in sustainability or maybe even an undergraduate degree, or something like that. “

"It's kind of hard to ignore the trend, and the [examples] you mention are the ones that you can kind of put a title on. There are an awful lot of others who are looking at the same set of issues through inter-college programs, interdisciplinary programs within colleges, special curricula within their honors colleges. I think it's a very widespread emphasis, and not accidental at all," says David Hales, president of College of the Atlantic. The Maine college, founded in 1969, offers a single major, in human ecology.

While College of the Atlantic is still unique in its single institutional focus, "I'm seeing a convergence," Hales says, with institutions of all different types moving toward a greater academic emphasis on humans and the environment. "That confluence is a healthy sign that higher education is paying attention to the world around us."

"We definitely have more competition than we used to," says Bob French, vice president of enrollment management at SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which has been around since 1911. "It has not hurt ESF. I’m not even sure that hurt’s the right way to put it, but we’ve reached record numbers of applications for three years running. There may be room for some additional programs, both in the private sector colleges and the public sector colleges. Certainly we would all agree that we want sustainability- and environmentally-related programs to be available to people. That’s good for the nation in a variety of ways.”

That's not to say there's unlimited student demand, however, French adds. “If there were a lot more programs developed, there might be some that would struggle to find appropriate enrollments. But the number of programs available today appears to be a pretty good match with the number of students that are interested in those types of study."

A College of the Environment

To take a closer look at one of the new entities under development, the University of Washington established a College of the Environment to leverage and capitalize on its existing strengths in environmental sciences, explains Phyllis M. Wise, the provost and executive vice president. As of July 1, the inaugural units were rolled under the College of the Environment’s umbrella – among those moving over were the College of Forest Resources (now the School of Forest Resources), the School of Marine Affairs, the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, and the Department of Earth and Space Sciences. “It’s sort of one-stop shopping so to speak. For me it is an opportunity to really feature – feature I guess is a fine word – the fact that we have a lot going for us and we intend to invest further to be to take advantage of even greater opportunities, that we really intend to catalyze high-impact research, to develop research that could lead to solutions and prepare effective leaders in the whole area of the environment,” says Wise.

"One of the more innovative parts of it, we hope, will be the Environmental Institute, which will be housed within the College of the Environment but will actually be our mechanism for facilitating the interaction across different units of the university -- for example, bringing the social sciences and the natural sciences together on a specific problem, and also engaging with the community outside the university through the institute," says Dennis L. Hartmann, interim dean of the college.

Once all of the units are integrated into the college, it will be Washington’s fourth-largest, says Wise, who adds that the plan is to increase the number of faculty by roughly 20 percent within five to seven years (the original hope was to do this in three to five years; economic circumstances have slowed down, but not altered, their plans, Wise says). Faculty of two schools, the School of Oceanography and the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, have yet to make a determination about whether to move out of their existing college, the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences, into the College of the Environment.

“The faculty have been discussing it and it’s probably been the most prevailing topic the last couple years,” says David Armstrong, professor and director of the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and associate dean of the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences. He expects the faculty will make their decision this fall. “There are just lots of unknowns. There’s a new dean, there will be more academic units [than in their current college], it’s as you’re aware, probably the worst financial time in the history of this state” – leading to questions about allocation of resources, and whether they’ll be redistributed.

“People then ask as well what new possibilities, what greater benefits might arise by virtue of this amalgamation of academic units? And that discussion is totally open-ended. Some people are extremely optimistic, some imagine that it could take a few years for anything new to develop based on provision of new resources. But I think by and large faculty have been slowly, inextricably moving toward a view that it would be beneficial in the long run to move into this organization.

“From a teaching perspective there may be better opportunity in terms of curricula to provide new courses, streamline old courses, blend faculty across these participating units in new ways that provide better educational opportunities. And that’s viewed as very positive,” says Armstrong.

At the same time, “There is,” he says, “inescapably a certain packaging, PR component in it. Which isn’t meant to trivialize it. That’s critically important to a huge research university like this. And that may be a positive benefit at the fiscal level.”

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