Natural resources school to meet ecological challenges

The heart of the matter was expressed by the implementation committee’s introduction to their draft proposal last December: “In looking to an uncertain and challenging future, the Faculty at Washington State University would rather lead than follow. We are asking the WSU Administration, our Colleagues, and the University community to help us break down institutional barriers to progressive growth and change. We are asking for the opportunity to self-develop and implement a cornerstone of the WSU Strategic Plan and our future land grant mission by creating a School of Natural Resources and Environment.”

Review of the proposal has been on for a couple months in the colleges, Cooperative Extension and the administration. When the proposal is in its final form, it will go to Dean James Zuiches of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics, administrative directors and the Faculty Senate. If all give their consent, as is expected, the School of Natural Resources and Environment will become a reality.

“Developing the school proposal has been a challenge, but rewarding,” said Rod Sayler, associate professor of natural resource sciences, who has spearheaded the faculty effort.

“We’ve had good feedback, most of which has been positive. The only negative comments have been that we should be saying or doing even more to unite the environmental sciences.

“This has been a group effort,” he added. “We’ve been discussing it for about 10 years. Crises and state budget problems, have delayed the proposal. But CAHE and WSU must have this school if they are to grow.”

Regional, global need
And now is the time to acknowledge a need for growth in expertise of ecological sciences, according to Sayler.

He says environmental problems are coat-tailing agricultural progress; the future calls for land management that demonstrates “sustainability.” Therefore the proposal states the following as a goal for the school: “…a strong and balanced emphasis on applied ecology and the social sciences. The school’s fundamental mission will be to contribute to the conservation of the earth’s environmental and natural resources and the achievement of a sustainable and equitable global society to meet future human needs on a sustainable basis.”

Sayler says state land management agencies are showing interest. They like the concept and are looking for the details, relying on typical WSU expertise and for the benefits to come from the interdisciplinary approach.

“This is a national trend, and many universities see the need and are doing something,” he declared. “We’re not alone; we can look at what others are doing and learn from it.”

A problem of efficiency
Actually, WSU already has much of this ecological expertise, but it’s scattered. According to the proposal’s executive summary, there are numerous programs and disciplines pertinent to the proposed school that are “fragmented,” organizationally, across WSU, “…to the detriment of WSU’s future growth as a major land grant university.”

The new school’s programs and participants will reach across colleges and campuses in an intentional effort of interdisciplinary instruction and thus pull the curriculum together into more efficient academic offerings. “This is a foundational principle,” said Sayler.

And the new school should reduce duplication in programs and competition among the colleges, even help “eliminate academic stagnation” and those institutional barriers that could stand in the way of success.

The proposal committee wants to see the program in environmental science and regional planning and the Department of Natural Resource Sciences collaborate with the School of NRE. “Working together, we are far stronger than if we work alone,” the proposal asserts. The aim here is to improve efficiency, condensing some current degree offerings into something broader, more progressive, with, as the proposal states, no new internal funding.

Working together makes sense in these economically strapped times. There’s a cost to being competitive in research, in a technologically driven society, declares the proposal, and those costs are rising.

Enrollments in WSU’s ecology and environmental programs would be higher if there was a better integration and coordination among the disciplines, such as the new school would provide. Teaching efficiency would rise and the cost of competing for the same students would be reduced. Therefore, Sayler and the faculty committee believe that existing funding, used more efficiently within the school, should be enough to get the new entity underway.

If the school becomes reality, as Sayler hopes, it will rely on existing facilities and labs, with a future goal of being mostly in one building. For now, Johnson Hall is scheduled for remodel, and the new school might be able to take advantage of that situation. But Sayler admits lab equipment and technology needs for this field of study could be a bit of a problem. “Labs are expensive, so shared labs will be important.”

And they will be looking for grants. Sayler says that bioterrorism and biotechnology research might send some money their way, as could work with endangered species.

Concerning the money, Sayler says, “Let the administration worry about the budget. We’re working on pulling this program together and moving forward.”

Please see print version of WSU Today for the rest of this story.

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