Group of leaders from UW System schools' environmental programs
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Fostering Collaboration

The First Environmental Programs Meeting of the University of Wisconsin System

Given Wisconsin’s rich conservation tradition, it is hard to imagine, but the leaders of the University of Wisconsin environmental programs from across the state had never met as a group. That finally changed this fall, when we came together with our hosts at the Aldo Leopold Foundation. I had the pleasure of facilitating this historic meeting of eleven of the thirteen four-year colleges in the UW-System, which sponsored the event. Our purpose was to reflect on challenges facing environmental researchers and teachers from campuses and units across the state and to seek common solutions. The result was inspirational.

Things started auspiciously. As I drove up to the foundation, I caught a glimpse through the mist of a swoop of cranes gleaning in the fields, preparing for their migration south. Many of my fellow program leads described similar sightings, and we all agreed that we could not have picked a better spot to meet.  We felt the legacy of Aldo Leopold all around us as we discussed the challenges and opportunities facing environmental programming across the state.

Our programs all train future environmental leaders, scientists, and educators, and we face many of the same challenges: growing our enrollments, creating meaningful learning experiences, raising funds for programming and research, coordinating sustainability on our campuses, and navigating the waters of a changing political environment. Since covering all these topics in depth would have been impossible in just one day, we broke into small groups for a deeper dive and then came together to have a broader discussion.

UW-System Environmetal Department leaders meet at the foundation.

UW System faculty from their respective environmental departments present to each other. Photo courtesy of P. Zedler.

The discussions started with growing enrollment and finding jobs for our students. Most of us now find ourselves demonstrating our value through numbers. Programs across the state are finding ways to work across campus with different departments to offer interdisciplinary programming. To help increase enrollment, UW-Platteville has worked with their admissions office to help with recruiting. UW-Superior offers curriculum from their Environmental 101 course to high school teachers to broaden high school students’ exposure to environmental topics.

We are also finding ways to inspire our students by inviting alums to share their diverse career paths. These interactions provide students with a broader perspective of what post-graduate life might look like for them. Both UW-Madison and UW-Oshkosh have had success with speed networking events and linking to campus career services.

Raising funds for our programs is never easy, and the do more with less mantra is all too familiar.  UW-Eau Claire has had success offering classes during the winter and summer terms to help provide additional funding support.

Listening to presentations

Several UW school leaders listen to presentations attentively along with Aldo Leopold Foundation Executive Director, Buddy Huffaker, who helped facilitate the meeting. Photo courtesy of P. Zedler.

Sal Carranza, representing the UW System, pointed out that creating meaningful learning experiences for our students, also known as “high impact practice,” is a high priority for the System as a whole. Many campuses are finding ways to broaden students’ horizons through study abroad programs or a semester away. UW-Stevens Point has an endowment to do research symposia to connect to the community. UW-Whitewater stresses hands-on learning and placement for its students. UW-River Falls has a strategic initiative to focus on service learning that provides students a stipend to go out into the community. The Wisconsin Idea is a critical part of student learning; connecting beyond campus proved important at each institution.

While we all lead environmental programs, we certainly do not oversee all the environmental and sustainability work on our campuses. At UW-Oshkosh, sustainability is now part of general education requirements, and students take courses through the campus to fulfill this requirement. Many of the campuses have received green ratings that we celebrate system-wide. UW-Stevens Point has recently launched an EdD, a doctorate in sustainability education and UW-La Crosse maintains a minor that touches students across the whole campus.

Group of UW professors discuss in small group with Curt Meinie

Aldo Leopold Foundation Senior Fellow Curt Meinie also participated, facilitating small group discussions. Photo courtesy of P. Zedler.

Finally, we are navigating the changing political waters both on and off campus. Many campuses have found that inter-disciplinary programs inherently break down boundaries and challenge the status quo. UW-Milwaukee has focused on helping students see that economics is more than just Wall Street and that, as Gaylord Nelson famously said, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.” UW-Green Bay integrates environmental themes across the curriculum, including a business institute dedicated to environmental management. Curt Meine, senior fellow at the Leopold Foundation, reminded us that Aldo Leopold’s first appointment was in the Department of Agricultural Economics.

As we look to the future, we see opportunities to work together, perhaps joining together to teach a grand environmental course, statewide. Imagine students from all of the UW schools coming together to travel across the landscapes of Wisconsin and learn in every corner of the state! We plan to meet again next year at the Aldo Leopold Foundation to continue this conversation and further explore our shared commitment to advancing a land ethic. Thanks to the Aldo Leopold Foundation, Buddy Huffaker, and Curt Meine for hosting our gathering.


Feature photo, top, courtesy of P. Zedler.