State of the School

It was my great honor to address our community on August 20th with our annual State of the School report and reflect on the accomplishments, momentum, and challenges ahead.  The words of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead certainly came to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Truer words couldn’t be spoken about the Rubenstein School community.

We are a School on the move.  Our incoming class of undergraduates includes 152 first-year students and 22 transfer students, well beyond our admission targets.  They hail from 20 states, Canada, China, and Tanzania, including 12 new Honors College students and 29 Aiken Scholars.  This is the most diverse incoming class in our School’s history, with 16% ALANA students.  And 1 in 4 accepted students arrived in the fall, the highest applicant yield among UVM colleges and schools, with selectivity metrics well above campus averages.

This fall our graduate program welcomed 22 new students, joining a group of 52 masters and 45 doctoral students.  To fund graduate education, our School leveraged 28 partial teaching assistantships from the Graduate College with external funding for 36 additional research assistantships.  We also awarded the first Rubenstein Graduate Fellowship and are revamping our McIntire Forestry Research Program to further invest in doctoral research.

Our new students join a growing community of faculty and staff. In the last few months we’ve welcomed thirteen new colleagues, appointed our first Rubenstein Professor of Environment and Natural Resources, and launched a national search for our next Dean.  We have underway three new faculty searches, including a research assistant professor in behavioral economics with the Gund Institute, a tenure-track hire in forestry, and the newly endowed David Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy.

We’re on the move, and we’re not slowing down.  To increase our applicant yields and improve our selectivity, the Rubenstein School has undertaken a curriculum-wide review of our undergraduate programs with an eye towards enrollment pressures and the ever-changing landscape of environmental careers.  To compete for the very best graduate students in the world, we are revamping our masters program, investing in new doctoral fellowships, and focusing our research infrastructure and investments in core areas of excellence.  To elevate the impact of our work, we are doubling down on our commitment to service-learning, student internships, and partnerships with state, advocacy, and community stakeholders.

Check out our School in action.  Land Stewardship interns fanned out across the state this past summer to inventory urban tree canopies, survey UVM Natural Areas, and manage invasive species.  The George D. Aiken Center received LEED Platinum certification with the highest number of LEED points of any building in Vermont.  Our 30th Annual Graduate Research Symposium this month featured the cross-cutting work of our second-year masters students on the leading edge of environmental science, policy, and management.  We continued a series of meetings with senior leadership of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources on collaborative opportunities.  And our faculty hosted visiting professors and speakers from around the world on topics ranging from mainstreaming natural capital and Baltic Sea ecology, to tropical biodiversity and the blood ivory crisis.

These examples are just from the last few months.  Over the past year our School managed over 150 funded research projects and submitted over 85 new proposals.  Over 500 students worked on 130 service-learning projects with 80 community partners.  We tallied 125 Rubenstein undergraduate internships, including the third year of our perennial internship program.

We enter this new school year with pride of our accomplishments – a belief that the state of our school is strong – but also the humility and hope to do better.  Imagine what the future holds for our “small group of thoughtful, engaged citizens” with the intellect and optimism to change the world for the better.

Thank you for all you do to make our community strong and reach still higher.

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

Dean’s Commencement Address

Congratulations to everyone. You’ve got your diplomas, I know, but please humor me for one last opportunity to wish you well and do good things. One last chance for some words of wisdom to a class I happen to know MUCH better than you may think.

Sure, I’ve had some of you in class, as advisees, or worked with you on theses or internships. But so have my colleagues. However, I know you better than you think – at least the 20-somethings who just crossed the stage – because I have a son your age.

I remember when many of you were born at the beginning of the 90s like it was just yesterday. When Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a hit and you entered the world alongside grunge music.

I remember watching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls win the first 3 of 6 NBA championships with you bouncing on my knee. I remember the Power Rangers backpack, then the Pokémon cards, and of course the Harry Potter books.

I won’t lie, the middle school years were awkward, and coming out of high school during the biggest economic downturn the world has known since the 1930s made me (and many of your parents) wonder if college was in the cards.

Since landing at UVM you’ve witnessed the Arab spring, Occupy Wall Street, and this month graduate into a world that’s just crossed a planetary milestone of 400 parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere. You’ve always known a country at war, and a nation in denial about our climate crisis.

So, I’ve watched you grow as a parent, mature as a teacher, and now stand proud as your Dean trying to leave you today with some words of wisdom to live by.

Well, as much as we’ve told you otherwise in your classes, the story of this century, of humanity, of all life on earth … isn’t written yet. But time is not on our side. The parts per million clock won’t slow down because we wish it so.

The famed science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin wrote, “There are no right answers to wrong questions.” Graduating from this fine land grant university, from this School of Environment and Natural Resources, with an education grounded in the realities of the physical world … you have the responsibility to ask the right questions, even if they lead to answers that no one wants to hear.

This diploma in your hand isn’t just a reward for a job well done, it’s a responsibility to rewrite our story.

You are now 1 in 15 on this planet with a college education. But within this 6 or 7% of the world’s population, you, the Rubenstein School’s Class of 2013, are a small minority who understand the gravity of our environmental and social challenges, and yet hold that magic combination of hard-won knowledge and eternal optimism.

We look forward to watching your careers and lives evolve. And we know you’ll ask the right questions and champion the brave answers that will bring a new age of restoration, resilience, and love for one another and all life on earth.

Congratulations. We wish you all the very best.

Jon Erickson
Interim Dean
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources

Graduating Class of 2013

May is always a month of milestones at our university. Diplomas, awards, and promotions recognize accomplishments and break new ground in the lives and careers of our students, staff, and faculty. Graduation is among the most memorable of May milestones, and this year’s 211th UVM Commencement presents to the world over 3200 graduates from 47 states and 17 countries.

Every graduating class hears how they are entering into a brave new world. A world unlike their parents, filled with new challenges and opportunities. This May’s class is no different, with one major exception. On May 9th the planet officially crossed the milestone of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The last time the earth hit this mark was in the Pliocene, over 3 million years ago, when as National Geographic notes, “horses and camels lived in the high Arctic [and] seas were at least 30 feet higher.”

The Class of 2013 graduates into the Anthropocene, the unofficial geological epoch marked by the beginning of the industrial revolution and measured by the ticking of the parts per million clock.  At 280 ppm, the Class of 1813 graduated into a young country still warring with colonial powers and rapidly expanding westward. At 300 ppm, the Class of 1913 entered a society on the brink of the first of two World Wars and a globalizing economy.  At 400 ppm, this year’s graduates step beyond human-made boundaries of country and economy, and into an uncertain future of surpassing planetary thresholds. At current rates of emissions we’ll be at 450 in two decades, a level with a 50/50 chance of stabilizing global temperature increases to 2oC, a climate thought to be within our abilities to adapt. If we blow past 450, all bets are off.

How are we preparing our students for this future? As passive observers or active change agents? As 19th century foot soldiers, 20th century factory workers, or 21st century consumers? Or will the Class of 400 write a new, post-industrial narrative? A narrative that leads to an age of action that bends the curve and redefines progress. A story that moves away from exploitation and externalization, to one rooted in restoration and resilience.

The famed science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin wrote, “There are no right answers to wrong questions.” We have the responsibility to ask the right questions, even if they lead to answers that no one wants to hear. Our University’s land grant mission demands an education with social purpose. Our School’s environmental ethos compels us to practice what we preach. Graduating the Class of 2013 is a milestone in our evolution, not an endpoint in our advances in education, research, and service to society.

I hope to see many of you this weekend to celebrate our May milestones together, and I look forward to right questions, brave answers, and new milestones in the school year ahead.

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

Envisioning Environment at UVM

As maple taps run dry, snow turns to mud, and daffodils point to the warmer weeks ahead, March in Vermont reminds us that the only thing constant is change. Perhaps more than most springs, change is in the air at the Rubenstein School, and our community is ready for the opportunities and challenges ahead.

The completion of the study on Envisioning Environment at UVM is ushering in a wave of change across campus. A multi-disciplinary faculty work group recently finished an inventory of our University’s environmental activities and comparison to our peers. Their conclusions point to an incredible breadth of research, teaching, and outreach on the environment at UVM, but also a lack of coordination and focus in key areas of strength. As our School has worked this semester to better coordinate and focus our own curriculum, research enterprise, and community engagement (outlined in the December newsletter), we are ready to collaborate with our colleagues around campus to do the same. Change is upon us.

With the work group’s study complete, the School’s role in leading change is more important than ever. Last week President Sullivan announced plans to begin an international search for the next Dean of the Rubenstein School, an opportunity to tell the world who we are and where we want to go. A search committee will be charged this spring, and we plan to have candidates on campus early in the fall semester. Change is on the horizon.

Change can also be frightening, but I have been reminded over and over again during my few months as Interim Dean that our community has the vision and courage to change the world for the better. I’ve met with alumni in Boston, New York, and Washington who are leading change in industry, government, and non-profits towards a more sustainable future. I marched with our students on President’s Day weekend with 50,000 strong to press for political change in DC during the 11th hour of our climate crisis. I’ve talked with foundations, state and federal agencies, business leaders, and environmental advocates who want to partner with our faculty, staff, and students to tackle complex problems and design bold solutions. Change is opportunity.

In the faces of these alumni, students, and community partners are glimmers of hope that we can pull this off. We must develop the curriculums that will prepare our students for careers that don’t exist yet. We must double-down on our commitment to interdisciplinary research, to explore those undiscovered borderlands between the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. We must weave together our teaching and scholarship with our mission to serve our state, nation, and planet. Change is inevitable.

From all of us at the Rubenstein School, thank you for spending some time clicking through our latest e-newsletter and supporting our community. We hope your spring will be as eventful as ours!

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

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