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Kaza Welcomed as Director of Environmental Program

By Joshua Brown Article published November 19, 2008

“Barack Obama: he’s on our side,” said Stephanie Kaza, as she was formally welcomed as the new director of UVM’s Environmental Program in a reception at the Fleming Museum on Tuesday evening.

A nationally noted scholar of Buddhism and ecology, Kaza has been a professor in UVM’s environmental program since 1991, bringing a richly diverse education — including a doctorate in biology and master’s degrees in both education and divinity — to her teaching and research.

Kaza is the third director of UVM’s Environmental Program, following Carl Reidel, who founded the program in 1972, and Ian Worley, who led the program for the last 13 years.

To her new leadership post, Kaza brings a willingness to speak directly about the lines of connection she sees between environmental problem-solving and many other realms, including economics, the ecological sciences, and electoral politics.

“We’ve not had teammates at the federal level for quite a while; it’s held all of us back. It’s been really difficult,” she said, speaking to more than 40 gathered colleagues and students. “But now we actually are part of a much bigger team. Environmental studies is part of the green jobs movement; it’s part of bringing a new generation on board to be the team that follows Obama.”

Many UVM students in that next generation paint a portrait of Kaza as a gifted teacher.

“She’s a professor who cares so wholeheartedly,” said Kerry Canton ’09, who has taken several of Kaza’s courses including Religion and Ecology and now is one of her teaching assistants. “Studying the environment can be stressful, but Stephanie always remains positive and looks for solutions.”

“Comprehensive” and “deeply understanding” are the words that came to senior Madison Monty’s mind in describing Kaza. “She understands a lot of different students’ perspectives,” Monty said.

“She really wants people to understand what she is studying. She makes sure you get it,” said Claire Johnson ’09, who noted that Kaza strongly supported student participation in the Powershift climate change demonstrations in Washington, D.C. last November.

The author of five books, including the newly published Mindfully Green, Kaza also co-chaired UVM’s Environmental Council for several years and was a key supporter of President Fogel’s recent decision to create a university-level Office of Sustainability.

“She believes we can fix our problems and wants us to get involved,” Canton said, “she sees strength in youth.”

This praise is echoed by faculty members, including UVM anthropologist Luis Vivanco. He called Kaza a visionary who, through her books and lectures, speaks beyond the academy to “lots of people in their everyday lives.”

In his remarks at the reception, Vivanco called for close connections between the Environmental Program and the newly launched Global and Regional Studies Program he directs, noting that education for sustainability is central to both programs.

Vivanco sees Kaza’s new leadership post as “an opportunity to open the doors of the [environmental] program to faculty in other colleges, like Arts and Sciences.” Kaza affirmed this open-door approach in her remarks, noting that environmental studies is intrinsically multi-disciplinary and needs people from all backgrounds.

Which explains colleague Tom Hudspeth's story about Kaza. He was attending a regional meeting of environmental studies programs when a professor from another university approached him.

This professor used to be scared to “come out of the closet” to say, “I’m a humanities person,” Hudspeth recalled, because, “the people at my college are all ecologists and environmental policy people.” But Kaza made a spirited defense of the role of the humanities in environmental studies and the young professor concluded, “I’m going to stand tall because of my conversation with Stephanie Kaza.”