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State Agency, Rubenstein Continue Collaboration Talks

By Joshua Brown Article published May 23, 2006

Don DeHayes, dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, turned to Tom Torti, secretary of Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources, and asked "what does a Rubenstein graduate need to know, be able to do, and stand for — to be competitive in our ever-changing field?"

This is a question DeHayes has been asking his faculty recently as the school continues to grow, bucking a national trend of declining enrollments in natural resource programs. But his faculty is not the only group he wants to hear from. Which is why, on May 18, he invited leaders from Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources to lunch at the Aiken Center.

"Good science is at the heart of our decisions," Torti replied a few minutes later, "But in dealings with the public, our staff need to be able to educate, not just give information. They have to grab people, make them want to care."

The free-wheeling, three-hour conversation that followed was the next step in a process that began last fall when a day-long retreat brought together fifty people from both the school and agency to identify ways they could work together more closely (see Rubenstein School to Work with Agency of Natural Resources for more).

This meeting put top staff from several divisions of the agency around the table with seven faculty members from Rubenstein — over turkey sandwiches and Coke. The professors listened more than talked as the agency staff described their needs and perceptions of a UVM graduate. The comments varied:

"Having good grounding in the physical and chemical systems, which are proxies for biological systems, is a great place to start," said Larry Becker, state geologist. "I'm looking for passionate people who are critical thinkers."

"Environmental issues change all the time," said Barry Cahoon, rivers program manager, "and so the demands on science to develop public policy have to change all the time too. They have to be quick on their feet."

"I'm looking for employees that are multidisciplinary, and have a core foundation in forestry," said Steve Sinclair, state forester. "But it's not all science based. In our department a lot of our decisions are based on social factors."

"We work in a fishbowl," said Mike Fraysier, director of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, "students need good experience in communication and public speaking."

In the last hour, conversation turned toward the agency and their current effort to rethink their work and organization. "Air, forest, land, people, are all connected," DeHayes remarked. "What if the agency was more integrated around the issues that affect all of these, and was less segregated by resources?"

The meeting concluded with both ANR staff and Rubenstein faculty noting the value of service-learning opportunities where student research connects to the work of the agency, and the hope for more partnerships — and conversations — in future years.