Letter to the editor: The status of the Environmental Studies major

Gary S. Wihl

Dear Editor,

On April 16, I was visited by six students enrolled in our Environmental Studies Program. As reported in a previous edition of Student Life, the status of the major has become an issue of concern. Our meeting gave me the opportunity to tell the students directly that Arts & Sciences is committed to providing undergraduates with the opportunity to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies of very high academic quality. At the conclusion of our meeting, the students invited me to write directly to the student body in order to express our shared commitment to the development of an excellent major in Environmental Studies commensurate with the standards of Washington University. I invited the students to provide some guidance about the content of the letter. In a subsequent e-mail, Kady McFadden, on behalf of her fellow students in the program, suggested several questions. I promised to answer those questions for all the students and submit them to Student Life.

Why are we contemplating improvements to the Environmental Studies program now?

The program has grown to one of the largest majors in Arts & Sciences. The time has come to put the major on a solid foundation. The departure of three faculty members this year who are core members of the program has triggered the need for the faculty to regroup and rebuild. A normal, cyclical rotation of leadership is also due. Taken together, growth, changes in the faculty and leadership and the importance of the field of study all point toward a reinvigorated planning effort.

What is the time frame for making decisions? Who is involved? What is the timeline for key decisions?

There is a sequence of decisions, each with its own time frame. The most time-sensitive decisions are maintaining the curriculum for our current majors and freshmen. Courses must be staffed and offered for the upcoming academic year. Decisions about assigning faculty to ensure the stability of the curriculum are being made now. Going forward, faculty in Biology, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Physics, Chemistry, Anthropology, Economics, Political Science, Philosophy and the Environmental Law Clinic are in preliminary discussions about exciting possibilities for the curriculum. Associate Dean Dennis Martin and Dean Jim McLeod are leading these discussions. The work of the faculty is promising at this stage, and my hope is that when students return in the fall we will present the students with a progress report. At that point it will be valuable and important to include the views of the students. I am optimistic that larger, strategic initiatives about the major will occur during the course of the coming academic year. Given the range of disciplines involved and the interests of the faculty, significant changes to the major will take time, but it is in everyone’s interest to put in place a stimulating, strong academic program.

Student input

While key decisions must remain with the faculty, I believe student input throughout this process is very important. I have been impressed with the passion and commitment our students have shown and with their efforts to build a strong program in the study of the environment. I also know that our students have many good ideas, and I welcome these contributions.With this in mind, we have established a dedicated e-mail account to collect student input: [email protected] Comments collected will be routinely reviewed and constructive suggestions will be included in our deliberations. Looking ahead, I think students should participate in some of the discussion. I will ensure that students have a voice in how to strengthen the undergraduate study of the environment.

Gary S. Wihl
Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences

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