To many people, the idea that the University of Washington would create a new College of the Environment seems a no-brainer: Some of the...

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To many people, the idea that the University of Washington would create a new College of the Environment seems a no-brainer: Some of the biggest issues facing humanity would get greater academic scrutiny in a city where people seem to care deeply about nature.

But within the UW, details of the plan are sparking intense debate. Many faculty who are in thriving programs have shown little interest in joining a new college. The vision publicly unveiled by Provost Phyllis Wise just three weeks ago — to create the world’s largest environment college — appears to be running into serious problems.

UW regents are due to vote Thursday on whether to create the college. But should the proposal pass, the college would start as little more than an empty shell. It would be up to a new interim dean to persuade faculty to join — and so far, faculty in four out of the six schools and departments that would form the new college have rejected the idea.

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Complicating matters, the two state lawmakers who chair the natural-resources committees in the House and Senate — Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, and Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen — have written a letter to regents urging them to vote no.

“Many units that contain critical environmental disciplines have declined to be involved,” the lawmakers wrote. “The current proposal neither represents the full range of UW environmental capabilities, nor addresses the natural resources and environmental challenges of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.”

The plan for an environmental college has been more than a year in the making and represents a centerpiece of Wise’s three-year tenure in the UW’s No. 2 administrative post.

A new college could make a big impression nationally, attract students from near and far, and entice wealthy donors to give tens of millions of dollars.

“We would be able to do interdisciplinary work in the labs and in the classrooms, in the field stations and in the studios,” Wise said. “My sense is that if we were able to put together a college of the strong core units … it would be spectacular.”

Under Wise’s plan, six academic units would move from other colleges into the new environment college. That would mean the new college would be jump-started with about 100 faculty, more than 1,100 students and a budget of $60 million. The UW would seek extra money from the state, as well as grants and donations, to hire 20 new faculty and 10 new staff members.

The problem is that none of the academic units has fully embraced the idea. Even those two units in favor of the college want to be assured others will join before committing.

Wise said she won’t force any units to join against their will.

“We can start with all of them, and that would be a huge and wonderful thing … the cohesiveness would be there from the first day,” Wise said. “Or we will grow incrementally.”

Vote against college

In an advisory poll, the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences voted by an overwhelming 27-1 against joining the college. In another of the units — the Department of Earth and Space Sciences — the results were even more definitive: 29-0 against.

“Our mandate is to study things from the center of the Earth to the rim of the solar system,” said Robert Winglee, who chairs Earth and Space Sciences. “The environment is that thin layer in which we live.”

Winglee said faculty were concerned that elements of their study wouldn’t fit in with the mandate of a new college. He informed Wise of the vote a month before she released her plan.

Was Winglee surprised, then, to see his department listed on the plan? “Yes,” he replied simply, adding that he doesn’t want to comment further for fear of becoming embroiled in academic politics.

Wise said the plan always represented a theoretical best-case scenario: “All along in the document it is ‘Proposed, possible, potential,’ ” she said. “We have emphasized that at every turn.”

She remains bullish that differences will be ironed out through planning and discussion.

When details of the plans were reported in The Seattle Times on May 15, it prompted Ana Mari Cauce, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to write an e-mail to department heads that same day:

“I have received numerous e-mails from faculty about the implications of this new college … many of our colleagues are widely enthusiastic about the idea, some are fearful about it, and some are displeased. Many more are withholding judgment until they know more.”

Dedicated study

To be sure, almost all faculty involved seem to be in favor of dedicating more academic attention to studying the environment.

Creating a new college, the first since 2001, would signify a major step — and disruption — at the university. Many faculty, along with lawmakers Jacobsen and Blake, have argued the vision should be scaled back to a new environmental institute. That would allow faculty to stay put in their respective colleges but collaborate on certain environmental projects.

But Dennis Hartmann, an atmospheric-sciences professor who has been tapped by Wise to be interim dean of the proposed new college, said it’s important to think big.

“The notion is that if you really want to affect something significantly at the university, it’s important to have faculty more directly engaged in it. To have a dean’s office, resources and a mandate to do things,” he said. “An institute is not as vigorous or robust a structure as a college. The notion is to take this very seriously.”

Outside the UW, the concept has been getting nationwide interest all the way to the top of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, according to Dale Durran, who chairs the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, which voted 18-4 in favor of joining the college.

Durran said that Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy, visited the UW recently and said the college could be a “very strong and influential unit, if put together and run correctly.”

That, in the end, will be the test.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or

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