Problem-solving au naturel

Luce Foundation grant to bolster environmental studies program

By Greg Scheiderer

A major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation will strengthen environmental studies at the university and offer benefits well beyond the borders of the campus. Puget Sound will receive $560,000 over the next four years in support of a visiting scholar whose work will focus on environmental policy and decision-making. The grant also will support the university’s work with regional environmental organizations—framing research, creating roundtables for faculty and community leaders, and hosting regional conferences—and it will aid in establishing co-curricular and residential programs on campus.

Professors from a variety of disciplines teach in the Environmental Studies Program at Puget Sound. The notion of putting a teaching emphasis on decision-making came when three of them—Karin Sable, assistant professor of economics; David Sousa, associate professor of politics and government; and Peter Wimberger, associate professor of biology—teamed up to teach a salmon recovery class.

“When the three of us sat down together and started talking about the course, we recognized that science, economics, and political considerations all are part of the equation,” said Wimberger, director of the environmental studies program. “We found that melding many different disciplines into the course made it a lot richer. The collaboration resulted in the idea for this grant proposal.”

Sable said the grant will help get students out of the classroom so they can apply their learning to real-life problems.

“We envision students, faculty, and citizens collaborating on new approaches to complex environmental issues,” said Sable. “It’s an interesting area to focus on because the scale of environmental problems in the Northwest and the necessity for sophisticated scientific understanding is such that traditional democratic approaches to decision-making tend to get bogged down in conflicting information and uncertainty.”

The new professor will help create opportunities for student and faculty involvement in the community. While as many as 75 percent of Puget Sound students do volunteer work in the community and many classes include a service component, the grant will provide resources to formalize that in environmental studies.

“It takes time and effort to establish a good working relationship with a community group or agency and then produce something that’s useful for both students and the community,” said Sable. “The grant will allow us to put the framework in place. It will give us structure, a formal approach to integrating student learning with community service.”

Wimberger added that the grant would advance the university’s partnerships with regional environmental organizations.

“I see our role with the community as being a collaborator and a resource,” he said. “We will be able to do research, facilitate discussions, and the grant will provide funds for round-tables or regional conferences.”

Wendy Church, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Bay in Tacoma, welcomes the opportunity to increase collaboration with the university and recognizes the potential benefits of the work the grant will support. Church said education is a major component of her organi-zation’s mission. “How do you get people to understand about how decisions are made and how they can affect them?” she said.

The environmental studies grant is the third major award to the University of Puget Sound from the Luce Foundation in the last four years. The foundation also had funded the first three years of a new tenure-line professorship in the political economy of Southeast Asia and a second tenure-line professorship in Asian Islamic societies. The former was the prototype for a new Luce program funding Asian studies positions at national liberal arts colleges such as Puget Sound.