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Environmental Odyssey

By Jon Reidel Article published April 23, 2003

Carl Reidel
Carl Reidel, shown here in his 1970's office in the Bittersweet, helped establish UVM's Environmental Program, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. (File photo)

UVM President Edward Andrews was troubled after reading a 1971 report calling the nation’s environmental condition deplorable. He was bothered by the situation, and even more distressed by the apparent lack of an organized effort to improve it.

The document, by UVM researcher Len Wilson, had a dramatic enough effect on Andrews that he started a bold mission to create the first university-wide environmental studies program in North America.

“I personally was concerned with how we [as a nation] were damaging the land, air and water,” recalls Andrews. “People just didn’t seem to care. It seemed to me that universities ought to be the ones leading the exploration of the solutions to environmental problems, and training students to go out and solve them.”

With the Environmental Program celebrating 30 years of mounting success and respect with a week of festivities that began on Earth Day, Andrews’ vision has matured. The program has graduated upwards of 2,000 majors and minors who are now in key environmental positions around the world.

“UVM’s Environmental Studies Program and Earth Day have come of age together since their conception three decades ago… ”, says Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “[The program] has helped make Vermont a nationally recognized incubator for good environmental science and for sound principles of environmental stewardship… I am enormously proud of them...”

Environmental resistance
Building a university-wide program didn’t come easily for Andrews at the time the university was in the midst of a financial retrenchment. He also faced considerable opposition from several academic departments that were considering possible environmental majors.

“There was more than just a little resistance,” Andrews says. “Deans don’t want anything that’s going to impose on their territory. That’s when leadership has to stand firm. And if you do it right, you can win.”

Andrews appointed a planning/search committee to find a director for his new program. The committee asked Carl Reidel, then at Williams College, to prepare a prospectus for a UVM program incorporating the findings of the Wilson report.

But finding a director to start a program in a fledgling field would prove difficult. It would also attract some colorful, albeit wildly inappropriate, applicants from a variety of fields, including one man who showed up at the Burlington International Airport dressed in a red-lined vampire cape.

“We had a lot of laughs on that committee,” says John Ewing, who was on the search. “It was a very new field at the time, so we spent a lot of time talking about the type of person we wanted.”

With the group struggling to find a suitable director, one of its members asked Vermont Gov. Phil Hoff in a Waterman hallway if he knew of any potential candidates. Hoff suggested Reidel, whom Andrews subsequently called and asked if he was “the person who wrote this program prospectus which no one we’ve interviewed so far has a clue how to implement.”

“I was familiar with Carl’s reputation and thought he possessed the qualities necessary to make the program a success,” Hoff says. “He turned out to be the ideal choice.”

Some departments viewed Reidel’s hiring in 1972 as inimical to their efforts to create environmental majors. Aware that this could ignite intense inter-college competition, Andrews declared that the new program — with trustee endorsement — was to be university-wide, with the director having an independent budget and reporting directly to the president through the academic vice president.

While Andrews had the authority to establish the new academic/administrative unit, only the faculties of the various colleges could approve specific courses and a major or minor curriculum. Thus, Reidel’s primary task became convincing the various academic units on campus to adopt the new major in environmental studies. The faculty signed on, and a landmark program began and continues to flourish today.

“We envisioned, and then built, the Environmental Program as a catalyst for innovation, challenging scholars in every discipline to become engaged in the quest to understand and resolve environmental problems,” says Reidel, who retired from UVM in 2000. “It’s exciting now to hear President Fogel talk of UVM as ‘the environmental university in the 21st Century.’ ”

Building the perfect beast
The program’s early staff, many still with the university today, provided the foundation for growth. Tom Hudspeth, now a revered professor of environmental studies, signed on in 1972 as assistant to the director. Hudspeth proved to be a critical addition and key to the program’s mission of bringing students and the community together to solve the state’s environmental problems.

“That was an exciting time,” says Hudspeth, who received a Kidder faculty award in 2002. “Carl was the politician. “He knew how to schmooze with the various faculty politicos to make things happen. I worked engaging the community and building relationships with various environmental groups, which later netted internships and jobs for students. A lot of students were disenchanted with their majors because they were so divorced from the real world. We insisted they participate in the community by doing various environmentally-related projects.”

When the program moved into the Bittersweet building in 1973, it included Reidel, administrative assistant Janette Brown, Hudspeth, and Assistant Director Phillip Wagner, a professor of geology.

Hudspeth and Jean Flack (now Richardson) were the first full-time faculty with primary assignments in the program. Associate Director Mark Lapping, Professors Leslie King and Ian Worley (the program’s current director), and adjunct faculty Justin Brande and Bill Eddy were also crucial to the unit’s early success.

Over the years, the program went from modest growth in the 1970s to a major influx of students in the mid-80s. Despite an enrollment increase of 400 percent between 1988 to 1992, the program received an increase in budgetary support and faculty of just 25 percent, which included the hiring of Stephanie Kaza, who is a founder of the University Environmental Council, which she still chairs.

Five new faculty members have been added in recent years. The hiring of Hector Saez, Cecilia Danks, Saleem Ali, Jon Erickson, and Adrian Ivakhiv has the program at full faculty for the first time in five years.

“We now have a full, wonderful array of new faculty to move us into the new century to continue our mission of the betterment of earth and all her inhabitants,” Worley says.