Washington state’s two largest universities are struggling to reorganize their natural resources departments into ways that make sense in the modern world. It has been argued that the way universities structure their studies can influence scientific thinking and political actions across the state.
These recent initiatives are borne out of a recognition that environmental sciences have connections across the various disciplines. Forestry, aquatic resources, hydrology, oceanography, wildlife ecology, marine biology and so on have been specialties in themselves for many years. In the real world, however, these areas of study no longer stand alone, if they ever did.
The University of Washington Board of Regents recently approved a new College of the Environment, but it remains just a shell of an idea at this time.
Washington State University is going through an even larger reorganization that could consolidate departments across the entire campus.
Brian Boyle, former commissioner of public lands, suggests that the UW needs a new institute, not a new college. As he suggests in Tuesday’s CrossCut magazine:
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…. 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.
At WSU, a new Provost report calls for a major restructuring of the entire university course program. According to a news release issued in May, the report calls for the creation of an “area” focused on environmental sustainability. To start with, it would include resources from the School of Earth and Environmental Science, the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the Department of Community and Rural Sociology.
“In some areas, structures have been created that no longer make sense in an era where both research and teaching are increasingly interdisciplinary,” WSU Provost and Executive Vice President Robert Bates said in the news release.
It seems Boyle’s idea may already be part of the thinking at WSU, but it may need further investigation.
Check out the full report on WSU’s Web site.