How sustainable is Denison’s Environmental Studies Program?

Uncommon Ground - How Sustainable - Spring 2006

If there was one word that best characterizes Denison’s Environmental Studies (ENVS) Program, it might very well be “organic.” For nearly three decades, the interdisciplinary program has grown along a seemingly natural course, cultivated by growing numbers of students and faculty with environmental interests (diverse as they may be), and nourished by the enriching generosity of a few donors, studies. Growing student demand for the concentration and the interest of other faculty members influenced the creation of the ENVS minor in 1990. By 1994, the program was strong enough to become a major, and the first dozen ENVS degrees were conferred in 1996. It now has 49 majors and 11 miniors, as well as three full-time faculty positions shared by four professors with a range of academic specialities.

The ENVS program gained its first big foothold and a steering mechanism in 1992, when Anne Powell Riley ’53 endowed a director’s position, which was appointed to Abram Kaplan. Then, in 1997, the program got a new home when a gift from Walter McPhail ’55 enabled the $3.6 million “green renovation” of Barney-Davis Hall and the establishment of the McPhail Center for Environmental Studies. The most recent financial boost occurred in 1999, when ENVS received a five-year, $300,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grant funded annual appearances of several visiting lecturers, conferences, stipends for up to six internships per year, and the position of a program coordinator (which has been held by a rotation of ENVS graduates) who keeps it all flowing smoothly.

Tom Schultz, biology professor and the current ENVS director, says that while financial gifts were essential to molding the program that exists today, the element that defines the broad-based, interdisciplinary nature of ENVS is the involvement of faculty from outside that particular department. Be it geology, history, economics, chemistry, religion, psychology, or other, there is much to be learned and considered when addressing environmental issues. The three full-time ENVS faculty positions provide a solid concentration, Schultz says, but contributing faculty give the curriculum its necessary scope.

Schultz is well aware of the challenges ENVS will face when the Mellon grant ends this year, and he wonders whether the program can sustain its current activity. “When large oaks are removed from a landscape and nothing is left to replace them, the landscape changes,” he likens.

Fortunately, at least two seeds are already planted. One is a five-year, $100,000 pledge from John Hunting ’54, which will partly be used to fund a solar power unit for Barney-Davis Hall. The other is the emergence of a new student group, the Green Team, which will carry out some duties of the program coordinator. But the way Schultz sees it, these seeds will not flourish unless the program’s academic soil remains rich with faculty and student interest, and of that only the changing of the seasons will tell. 

Published March 2006