Faculty committee appointed to plan transition to new school of sustainability

Tuesday, October 18, 2016 - 8:49pm

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Last week, a new school faculty transition team was appointed to plan the transition from the School of Natural Resources and Environment to a new School of Sustainability.

An internal faculty committee proposed in September 2016 that the University of Michigan create a new school of sustainability to replace the School of Natural Resources and Environment and increase interdisciplinary collaboration across various sustainability and environmental programs. The school is set to be created by the end of the next academic year.

University Provost Martha Pollack said in an interview the recommendation for the new school, outlined in a November 2015 report, was created after an external committee reviewed the University’s sustainability programs — including SNRE, the Graham Sustainability Institute and LSA’s Program in the Environment — last fall. The external review concluded that there was strength in the current programs, but a need for greater synergy between them. In response, the internal committee proposed the new school of sustainability as one of the solutions to this problem.

“The idea of the new school is to think of new ways to bring these people together, new ways to involve students, really whole new ways to do education and research in this topic,” Pollack said.

The internal faculty committee that initially made recommendations for overall changes is no longer in operation, and the new faculty transition team have been charged with creating specific recommendations to give to the new dean of the school once he or she is appointed.

Interim SNRE Dean Dan Brown, a professor of natural resources and environment, oversees the transition team. He said the team has five main tasks starting with increasing faculty involvement across different schools at the University and focusing on identifying faculty — those who are currently affiliated with SNRE and those who are not — who might be interested in being part of the new school.

“One part of the vision for this is that faculty in units from around campus will keep their positions where they are, but take partial positions in the new school and so the faculty transition team is tasked with thinking about how that might work,” Brown said.

The other tasks deal with the inner and outer workings of the school, focusing on the development of the program’s structure. The committee suggested organizing the new school around themes, or problem areas in environment and sustainability, Brown said, adding that the faculty transition team aims to “implement a process for identifying themes” and define function and governance.

“The fourth thing is to identify opportunities and proposals for curricular innovations in the new school — make recommendations, essentially — for what kinds of programs the new school should be offering, and thinking about that very innovatively and creatively in terms of online, living laboratories, undergrad and grad combined programs, potential changes to the professional program,” he said. “The fifth thing is to identify the administrative and governance processes for the new school: For example, coming up with some bylaws that would help launch the new school.”

Fifteen faculty will serve on the transition team, which will start meeting Thursday. Bill Currie, chair of the New School Faculty Transition Team and School of Natural Resources professor, said there are plans in the works to add two student members and the team will create additional mechanisms for student input in the future.

Pollack emphasized that faculty from a wide array of colleges and programs at the University have been included in the committee, in alignment with the multidisciplinary approach of the school.

“The whole goal of what we’re trying to do is to bring together people from across boundaries from across campus,” she said. “Sustainability and the environment are areas in which you need to have multiple perspectives. You need not just the perspective of science and social science, but you need the humanities, and you need engineering and you need public health and on and on.”

Currie noted that while the school may faces some issues in integrating different backgrounds, current issues in sustainability need to be tackled through the lenses of many different disciplines.

“The problems that we face in sustainability — things like clean energy, food security, climate change, land use change, water quality — these environmental issues have gotten to the point where they cannot be solved in just one discipline,” he said. “In fact, sustainability deals with something called ‘wicked problems,’ which the definition is that they are large and complex and across disciplines, and people don’t even agree on the statement of the problem. So these are really challenging problems to work on, and we need people from different disciplines.”

He added that the most difficult task the transition team will have is figuring out how to get the campus community to think about sustainability and the environment differently than they have before, emphasizing the importance of fostering innovative thought within the discipline.

“Professors and administrators at the University tend to be really accustomed to working in their own disciplines, and getting them to think in bold and innovative ways, what can we really do differently, (is) going to be a big challenge,” Currie said. “But everyone that I’ve talked to on the committee is excited about thinking about what we can do along those lines. So we’re excited about it, but it’s still going to be a tough job.”

Brown said he hopes the new school can bridge together the different sustainability and environmental programs that currently exist to establish the University as a leader in the field. Currently, the University has programs including conservation ecology and sustainability systems.

“The biggest goal is that we, as a university, pool together the dispersed assets that we have for scholarship and education in environment and sustainability, coordinate those more carefully, and collaborate more closely around campus to elevate our ability to provide ongoing and stronger leadership … and ultimately to become a category leader in offering environment and sustainability programs,” Brown said.