Environmental Center/Institute Idea Moves Forward After Campus Forum

A campus forum was held last week on the feasibility of an institute or center that will position NMU as the leader of environmental programs and activities in the Midwest. Most in attendance agreed that the idea warrants a closer look, despite some territorial concerns expressed by representatives of impacted departments.


“I think it went really well,” said Suzanne Williams (Chemistry), who along with Jill Leonard (Biology) is leading the feasibility study. “We had good, detailed discussion and got some important feedback. I only wish there had been more students there.”


Online survey results showed general support among nearly 1,300 undergraduate and employee respondents for reorganizing environmental activities, with yes responses in the 72-75 percent range. A slightly smaller majority approved the idea of a new center or institute and more than 80 percent favor outreach activities and collaboration with community organizations. Funding is a concern among both groups, but students—more than staff—want to see new environmental academic programs. 


Williams and Leonard visited other universities and reported on what they discovered: “No university is actually doing the global model we’re envisioning,” Williams said. “We like to think big and look for something novel and innovative that we can capitalize on. Michigan Tech is doing K-12 outreach. We'd like to expand what our Seaborg Center can do to include educational components for research grants."

Leonard echoed that sentiment: “A potential institute model is an approach to increasing cooperation on campus, creating opportunities for research, scholarship and internships and recruiting new students with interests in these areas. NMU could create a niche for itself. We live in an amazing place from an environmental perspective. It makes no business sense to ignore that. We need to capitalize on it. A broader umbrella might be the way to do that.”


Leonard said the vision is leaning toward not a department, but an association of partners that would promote clearly defined, shared governance by all participants, advocate for and link all environmental programs and provide a system of oversight.


Turf issues were addressed by a few in attendance. John Anderton (Geography) said, “I welcome a move toward more communication, but the environmental studies program has been in geography for eight years at least. It’s an integral part of our department and it has grown. Is what we have perfect? No. But as you move forward, do no harm. I don’t want the department to whittle down any more. Geography looks at the fusion of physical and social sciences, with a strong emphasis on how humans interact with the environment. I want to see that preserved.”


Dave Carlson (Political Science) said, “We really have an institutional rigidity against interdisciplinary efforts. We need to get around that.”


Williams said the next steps are to hold three community forums in early October, followed by a day-long working retreat on Oct. 9 to draft a plan. She encourages those interested in participating in the retreat to contact her or Leonard. They will submit a report to the provost by January.


The feasibility study is funded by a Wildcat Innovation Fund grant through the office of the provost and the vice president for academic affairs.


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Updated: September 25, 2009

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