Beginnings of a Strategic Plan

Every new semester feels a bit like being shot out of a cannon. This Fall’s launch has taken me a bit further than most. I was appointed Interim Dean of the Rubenstein School on October 1st and I’m still looking for the net. Thanks to the hard work and due diligence of now Emeritus Professor Mary Watzin, the unending patience of Associate Dean Allan Strong, and the warm welcome of our faculty, staff, and students, the transition was without a hiccup. I’m up in the morning excited to represent such a talented and dedicated group. And I lay awake at night humbled by the tremendous obligation we have to each other, Vermont, and the planet, to do better.

Being shot out of a cannon does feel like flying – at least on the way up – and my view from two months out looks awfully exciting. Our new president has lifted morale and brought clarity to our common purpose, including a recommitment to the core environmental mission of UVM. In October we embarked on a campus-wide Envisioning Environment process that includes a thorough assessment of environmental research, teaching, and outreach, and promises to help organize, focus, and distinguish our collective environmental work.  Other initiatives around campus include a revamp of our Business School’s undergraduate and graduate curriculum around sustainability, and recommendations from the Governor’s higher education advisory group are taking shape around a renewed relationship between the state and UVM.

With change comes opportunity, and from the School view it’s clearly a time to lead, follow, or get out of the way. The Rubenstein School community went through our own envisioning process last spring that helped to identify our strengths and define our teaching, research, and service mission. A strategic plan is coalescing around three broad themes of investing in integrated research, streamlining the curriculum, and committing to community engagement. If we are to lead, it’s time to put pen to paper.

The first theme is a recommitment to advancing integrated approaches across the disciplines to solve environmental problems. While our School was recognized as a leader in integrated research and curriculum development a generation ago, now is not the time to rest on our laurels. We have new resources from the School’s naming gift, ongoing commitments of federal dollars, and significant research infrastructure that can be focused around strategic areas. Our tendency has been to spread resources thinly across a lot of activities; a “we must do everything” strategy. Imagine what we could accomplish if we identified key research synergies, assembled interdisciplinary teams, and partnered with entrepreneurial decision-makers who put research into action.

We’ve also spread our teaching resources thinly across an ever-widening curriculum. Our students and faculty certainly value options, but not at the expense of balanced workloads and quality programs. Our majors and class sizes have grown substantially over the last decade, and it’s time to step back, reassess, and design a curriculum aligned with our capacity, expertise, and obligation to a generation who wasn’t yet born when the last curricular overhaul took place.

The third strategy requires solidifying recent commitments to community engagement and experiential learning. Investments in developing community-university partnerships through service-learning courses, new internship opportunities, and action research projects are developing the skills in our students and impact from our scholarship that society is demanding. Since moving back into our greener Aiken, we’ve also been intently developing our own community through activities of the Rubenstein Stewards, Diversity Task Force, Graduate Student Association, Student Advisory Board, School Affairs Committee, and a new graduate-to-undergraduate student mentoring program. Our service mission is not an afterthought; it is helping to clarify and focus our teaching and scholarship.

It’s time to clearly define our research synergies, to streamline our curriculum in the name of quality and sanity, and to solidify investments in community outreach.

In this newsletter, you’ll find many pieces of the puzzle to implement this three-fold strategy, and ultimately to deliver on our obligation to the future (that I’m sure keeps more than just me up at night). Enjoy reading about the great things, accomplished by great people, towards even greater ends. I wish you all soft landings from your own cannon shot, and look forward to reloading this Spring!

Jon D. Erickson
Interim Dean and Professor
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources

Published by Jon Erickson

Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy University of Vermont

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