Monday, February 20, 2012

ENVS and its Future Direction

About a year or two ago, ENVS started the wheels turning on the hiring of an "endowed chair."  I must admit that I have not been overly involved in the hiring process, nor am I very much interested outside of the realm of sideline observation, as I am more interested in the shortest and most interesting path between now and Done.  I am ever appreciative of the education that I have received through the program and a handful of faculty that have been influential and kind mentors in this process.

Yet, from the sidelines, I have become intrigued by what I have heard about the hiring process; and I have learned that the overly educated are not immune to the lure of gossip and self interest.  (After all, here I am telling the world about it!)  Indeed, gossip seems to run amok in several departments in varying in shades of malice.

I am inclined to believe that the reason the situation exists as it does in ENVS, is that there has never been a clearly defined goal for the new hire.  And, while no one can say what the hire is supposed to accomplish, most everyone seems convinced that the new hire will determine 'the future direction of the program.'  There are two groups of thought for the goals of the hire.   From my limited experience, it seems that the ENVS faculty are firmly divided in what the new hire should bring to the program.
  1. Roughly half believe it is a means to provide the students with additional advising staff (particular graduate students) and the program with more classes (particularly for the undergraduates).    
  2. The other half believe that the new hire should be a high profile individual thereby bringing notoriety to the program.  Judging by the few names that I heard thrown around from this camp's thoughts on the ideal candidate, the individual should be nothing short of a full-fledged politician.
It is important to note that a faculty position at this University pay grade and title traditionally has minimal teaching obligations tied to it.

The goals of the hire are therefore conflicting.  One way to meet these conflicting criteria, then, would have been to promote a faculty member of high standing to the Endowed position, and hire someone to replace that individual.  If, then, the means to meet these conflicting ends was decided against, then what does it say about the future the program?

One measure of intended direction may be the fields of study of those selected to be interviewed.  There are clear study areas where ENVS could use some bolstering.  For instance, ethics has a relative dearth of faculty representatives.  As well, the study of the social or political process of making decisions about the environment could also use some more representation and schools of thought.  That is to say, that of the three main "core" areas of the program (ie. science, policy, ethics/values), science has by and large the vast majority of faculty representation.  In effect, there is a heavier emphasis on environmental science rather then environmental studies.

One can argue the interdisciplinary nature of nearly all work (for instance, "Of course there is policy and ethical relevance, look at this social problem I have defined with my science!").  However, most of the candidates have a clear emphasis in producing natural science while only a minority of candidates have the emphasis in understanding how (policy) and why or, why we should (ethics/values), manage the environment in some way.  Is this an indication of where power lies in the program and the desired future direction of the program?

In the context of tradition, (ie. faculty positions at this status generally have minimal teaching obligations), it is also worth reflecting on the information being passed around as a measure of future program direction.  I believe that what I have heard - and that I have even heard it - is due to the unresolved conflicts about the hire, where power lies amongst the faculty, and the preference of goals, possibly other than education.

(Updated 2/21/12, again....)

Again, I have not been involved in the hiring process. What I have heard could be a product of the game of telephone where what really happened and what is reported to have happened involves some exchanges of perception or even malicious intent.  However, overall, I think it does give some insight into the future direction of the program, if only, the direction as I perceive it.  

As well, I have learned the value of word of mouth and the rate by which information spreads should never be underestimated... even when the pillars of the community are involved.

UPDATE (a little later today):
  • A grad student pointed these fun facts out to me (thank you for indulging my new hobby!): 
    • Indeed, 14 of the 35 faculty associated with the program are "straight up" scientists. Only 3 seem to be dedicated primarily to the "values and ethics" side of things. The other 18 fall into a spectrum of working on issues related to decision-making...although with very different approaches...some falling into the more "scientific" side even though they are not environmental scientists per se (e.g., economic modelers,etc.) 
    • Of the 47 current grad students, 5 are listed under Biogeoscience, 6 under Water, 19 under Policy, 14 under Environmental Social Science, and the remaining few in a category of their own. 
    • Of the 5 candidates for the Chair position, only 2 are social scientists in the pool. 

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