University of Vermont

Environmental Program Celebrates 40 Years

Environmental Program students gather at program director Carl Reidel's home in 1988.

In the late 1960s, long-accepted worldviews on environment were being shaken to the core.  Wake-up calls rolled in, one after another -- the oil spill on the coast of Santa Barbara, anti-nuclear protests around the world, the humbling Apollo 8 images of earthrise from space.  Rachel Carson’s urgent words in Silent Spring called out for a new approach to the ecological web of life.

Rumblings of environmental interest were stirring on the UVM campus as well.

In 1972, UVM's Environmental Program was born, and that fall the program's first director, Carl Reidel, laid out the UVM interdisciplinary environmental vision at convocation: “What is required is a new synthesis of scholarship built firmly on the strengths of disciplinary analysis… This will mean tearing down some artificial barriers between disciplines, departments, and colleges; between students, professors, and administrators… It will mean new ways of teaching that recognize experience and involvement in community action as powerful teachers of synthesis and wholeness.”

The program was not created within any one academic unit, but was instead declared by then-president Ed Andrews to be "university-wide" --  a key feature distinguishing UVM from all other U.S. environmental programs. Among UVM’s early peers were University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Oregon, and Middlebury, Williams, Dartmouth, Brown.

Seven students strong in 1973, the program has since grown into one of the largest in the country with close to 500 students majoring in environmental studies. This year, the Environmental Program celebrates its 40th anniversary, making it also among the oldest programs in the U.S. Events are planned in celebration of the occasion during Homecoming and Reunion Weekend, Oct. 5-7.
"Throughout the last four decades, the mission of the Environmental Program has remained remarkably consistent," says Stephanie Kaza, program director. In part, she credits the directors who have come before her:  Reidel and his successor Ian Worley oversaw the program for a combined 35 years.

That interdisciplinary character remains a foundation of the program, with recent faculty partnerships added in plant and soil sciences, history, ecological economics and political ecology. With a round of new faculty appointments in the early 2000s, the program's existing expertise in Vermont and national environmental issues was complemented by international connections in Pakistan, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Australia, Ukraine, and the Philippines.
Among other concepts central to the mission of the Environmental Program over the years are a dedication to "high-impact learning" and "creative teaching."

One endeavor, dating back to the early days of the program, embodies both of those values. In 1974, Reidel and Tom Hudspeth, then-assistant director, proposed that UVM take the lead on protecting valuable ecological study sites for future research and education. The board of trustees established a system of natural areas to be “preserved to the greatest extent possible in their natural state, and for educational and scientific purposes insofar as such uses are compatible with the preservation of their natural character.” The trustees charged the Environmental Program with bringing these nine reserves together under a single program: Centennial Woods adjacent to campus; East Woods, Redstone Quarry, and Colchester Bog in the Burlington area; Shelburne Pond and Pease Mountain to the south; Molly’s Bog and Concord Woods farther afield; and the Mount Mansfield alpine zone. The natural areas have since served as powerful tools for teaching and research in the program.

In the 90s, Hudspeth developed the first environmental studies travel study courses to gain access to third world perspectives, and college curriculum committees approved a number of popular courses including ENVS 197 "Students Teaching Students." During this time, Professor Jean Richardson received a major Kellogg Foundation grant to distribute seed grants to build resilience in Vermont’s rural communities.

Concurrent with the growth of the Environmental Program has been a growth in environmental culture at UVM. In 1997, a major in environmental science was created. In 2002, the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics took up residence at UVM. In 2006, students flocked to the new GreenHouse, a 400-bed residential community featuring the theme of sustainable living.  A student Eco-Reps program was launched and the new Office of Sustainability established.  In 2008 spirits were hopeful, and dozens of students joined up to send the largest campus delegation to Power Shift in Washington, D.C.

All of this activity, it can be argued, is rooted in the creation of the Environmental Program 40 years ago, which first harnessed faculty and student desires to be a catalyst for change in the stewardship of the environment.

"The story of the program is the story of the people who have made it what it is."  Kaza says. "We have strong confidence in the human capacity to meet the concerns at hand. This spirit will be crucial across the next forty years as we take up the daunting environmental challenges facing our global community."

Faculty, alumni and students will share their stories at the 40th anniversary gathering this weekend. See the full schedule on the Environmental Program website.