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For the first time in two decades, a new school is in the works for the University of Michigan. The new college, tentatively named the School of Sustainability, Environment and Society, would replace the School of Natural Resources and the Environment. Modifications to the Program in the Environment and the Graham Sustainability Institute are slated to take place within the next year.
In fall 2015, University Provost Martha Pollack asked an external review committee to evaluate the University’s programs in sustainability, leading to the current plan for a new school.
James Holloway, vice provost for Global Engagement and Interdisciplinary Academic Affairs, said the external committee found there is greater opportunity for the University to lead in the field of sustainability by bringing together and integrating its major sustainability programs.
Holloway said programs at the University are regularly reviewed by external committees, but it has been particularly important for the sustainability programs in recent years.
“I think the provost analyzed that this was a really good time to have a look at sustainability programs in this space, because when you look forward to the 21st century, sustainability is a key issue for human societies.” Holloway said. “So it was just good timing to do that review.”
Soon after the external review, Holloway said an internal committee, the Committee on Academic Programs in Environment and Sustainability, was tasked with the challenge of creating a more integrated structure within the sustainability programs and it delivered its recommendations on how to do so in the spring of 2016.
“(The Internal Committee’s) report in the spring of 2016 proposed a structure to create greater synergy and integration among our sustainability work,” Holloway said. “Within that report was the proposal for a new school that would address global sustainability challenges at the intersection of environment and society and that would do research and teaching and civic engagement in that space.”
Arun Agrawal, a co-chair of the Committee on Academic Programs in Environment and Sustainability and professor at the current Natural Resources and Environment School, said currently University faculty work on a wide range of issues on how to achieve greater sustainability, but there is a need for greater coordination between the faculty and students, leading to the desire for a new school.
“Most of this coordination happens in a very decentralized way, and there’s not that much coordination that happens,” Agrawal said. “So one talk would be that if we had a central unit or core location which would both track what was going on around the University and provide information to everybody in it and which could also provide some support for coordination, that would be to the benefit of both the University and its faculty and its students, most importantly.”
Deborah Goldberg, another co-chair of the Committee on Academic Programs in Environment and Sustainability and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said the new school will be interdisciplinary and aims to bring faculty of different academic backgrounds together through the use of disciplinary clusters and sustainability themes.
“We would have these disciplinary clusters that would be a critical mass of people in a particular area that you need. It might be in environmental chemistry, it might be in ecology, it might be in urban development, it might be in environmental engineering,” Goldberg said.
“And then there would also be these sustainability themes, through water, transportation, whatever — again those could evolve — and that you would bring people together from those different disciplinary clusters to work on finding sustainable solutions to those themes.”
She added that this idea would solve many of the concerns about a lack of unity mentioned at town hall meetings held by the committee last winter.
“A lot of what we heard is we need to bring people together, to find mechanisms that would allow people from across campus to work together,” Goldberg said. “Again and again we heard ‘I work on this and I know there are people working on a similar question in another school but I don’t have a good way to meet them.’ ”
In addition to the new school being more interdisciplinary, the committee also suggested the new school, the Graham Sustainability Institute and the Program in the Environment have more synergy.
Goldberg said the Program in the Environment, a current undergraduate program in LSA, will undergo some changes so that it is co-owned by the new school and LSA, as well as any other schools or colleges that would like to participate.
“What we recommended and what my understanding of what the provost is working on is a jointly owned program by LSA and the new school. Students would still be admitted to LSA, they would major in the program and still remain LSA students and have a joint degree between LSA and the new school,” Goldberg said.
She added that if, for example, a student in the College of Engineering wanted to participate in the program, they would have a joint degree in Engineering and the new school.
Don Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute, said the main changes that will take place for the Institute is in its governance structure.
“What we had up until now was a Dean’s Council that had about 10 different deans on it, that was giving advice to the Institute as we were building and growing over time,” Scavia said. “What we’re doing at this point is transitioning that from an advisory group into a governance board. It will be composed of deans or their representatives from LSA, from the new school, Engineering, Public Health, Public Policy, and Taubman and Business. It will be co-chaired by the vice provost and the dean of the new school.”
Scavia said this new format will allow the Institute to work more closely with the schools.
“What this will do is give us a much stronger connection to the schools in general and this board will be overseeing the overall direction of the program,” he said.
Scavia said the changes to the Institute are occurring this fall, and after he steps down as director in December, a new director for the Institute will start in January.
Agrawal said some of the other recommendations in the report are already being implemented, while others may take more time to come to fruition. Currently, a search committee appointed by Pollack is in the process of finding a dean, whih is slated to take up to a year. After the dean is chosen, he or she will have more say in faculty searches, and there will be more progress on the actual curriculum of the programs. Other decisions, such as the new name and the mission statement, should be decided within the next six months.
Holloway said he hopes the University will be recognized as the best in the field of sustainability because of its future interdisciplinary work.
“Sustainability for human activities isn’t about any one discipline, it’s truly interdisciplinary. It’s about bringing disciplines together to look at issues from a science perspective, a policy perspective, a humanistic perspective,” Holloway said. “And so I think what we’re hoping to see going forward is that the University of Michigan will be recognized as the key player in sustainability because we can bring together expertise in so many different areas and so many disciplines.”
Agrawal said while the University cannot focus on every sustainability issue, he hopes UM becomes a leader in the areas the school finds most important and is most equipped to tackle.
“The theme of sustainability is huge and there is no way that any single institution, even one as large as the University of Michigan, can cover this entire field,” said Agrawal. “So what I also hope and think is that we can and we should focus on the issues that are the most important and on which we have the greatest expertise. We should build our strengths in those areas so as to be the place that is known for work in those areas.”