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Feature

Minnesota River

The Minnesota River, here seen southwest of St. Paul, is a focus of efforts to reduce pollution from agricultural runoff.

New college and environmental institute gear up to propel U to the top

Environmental and community leaders express support for interdisciplinary direction of U initiatives

By Deane Morrison

Aug. 22, 2006; updated Aug. 29, 2006

Not long ago, University President Bob Bruininks was talking to students from two of the University's undergraduate colleges, each majoring in environmental science. Both were frustrated by restrictions on what classes they could take. "They wanted to know why they couldn't take more courses in other colleges," recalls Bruininks. The story illustrates one reason the University is creating a new systemwide Institute on the Environment, which will coordinate the University's formidable environmental expertise across all of its campuses and its outreach and its research locations. In addition to providing more opportunities for students, the hope is that bringing the University's far-flung environmental experts closer together will help trigger even greater discoveries and further enhance the University's reputation as an environmental leader.

Input sought for Institute on the Environment

The provost's committee on the Institute on the Environment is due to offer its blueprint Sept. 14. The public is invited to offer suggestions and comments about the institute.

In addition, three public forums will be held:

* Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1-2:30 p.m., 105 Cargill Building, 1500 Gortner Ave., St. Paul

* Thursday, Sept. 7, 10-11:30 a.m., 402 Walter Library, 117 Pleasant St. S.E., Minneapolis

* Friday, Sept. 8, 1-2:30 p.m., 130 School of Medicine, Duluth

If you can't attend in person, you can participate on the Web. For more information, see the Provost's Advisory Committee for the Institute on the Environment.

It's expected that the institute will be operating sometime this fall or early in 2007. No decisions have been made as to where the institute will be located.

The University outlined plans for the new institute at an Aug. 16 public forum sponsored by the Minnesota Environmental Initiative, an organization designed to build coalitions of nonprofit, business and government leaders to find solutions to environmental problems. Representatives from agriculture, industry, government and environmental organizations attended the event at the Science Museum of Minnesota to provide feedback on the U's plans to transform itself into one of the top three public research universities in the world. The creation of the institute is one of many initiatives in the Transforming the U effort. Another initiative discussed at the forum was creation of the new College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS).

Pulling together the U's environmental expertise

While CFANS has many faculty, centers and programs dedicated to environmentally related topics, it is hardly alone. The University is loaded with environmental talent, but it is dispersed on every campus. Helping to organize all this information and expertise is part of the mission of the new Institute on the Environment, an independent unit whose director will report to the provost. Deborah Swackhamer, professor of environmental health sciences, co-director of the University's Water Resources Center and co-chair of the provost's advisory committee in charge of shaping the institute, spoke about the enormity of the task and the need for input from as many people as possible. The institute's purpose, she said, is twofold. "First is to create a world-class research institute--a think tank on the environment," Swackhamer said. "We want to find solutions to global environmental problems. Second, it will be a portal for all things environmental at the University." In his remarks, Provost Tom Sullivan said the institute "will sweep across our entire University." What's clear so far is that it will foster research, new environmental policy and real-world solutions to problems.

"There will be a need for 400 new foresters in Minnesota and Wisconsin over the next decade," said Brandt. "We want them to come from the University of Minnesota."

Swackhamer said the blueprint for the institute is only about half done. "We're asking you to help us engage with the public to meet our goals," she told the audience. As part of its mission to foster research, the institute will form small research teams to tackle real-world problems of global and regional significance. One recommendation the advisory committee expects to make is for faculty participants to be appointed to teams, with selection and renewal based on a rigorous review process. Harvey Thorleifson, director of the Minnesota Geological Survey and a member of the provost's committee, expressed support for that direction. "Competition breeds excellence," he said in an interview. A recurring theme at the meeting was the need for benchmarks or indicators of success in all these endeavors, and Swackhamer identified the search for benchmarks as an ongoing and crucial part of the plan. In a way, the University's strengths embodied in CFANS and the institute are like the 1980 American Olympic hockey team--world-class talents all, but in need of a Herb Brooks to coordinate them and unleash their potential. Bruininks noted that only a few places in the country have "done a good job in this area." But with the University's expertise in energy, global climate change and other critical areas and the institute playing a leadership role, he foresees great things for the U.

A stronger food, agricultural and natural resources college

Likewise, the creation of CFANS, which became official July 1, will make for a stronger and more interdisciplinary college. CFANS comprises the former College of Natural Resources, the former College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences (COAFES), and the department of food science and nutrition, which had been shared by COAFES and the former College of Human Ecology. Interim Dean Kate VandenBosch spoke about the college's strengths, such as the new department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering, a dynamo of research on renewable resources. CFANS also has a new major in environmental sciences, policy and management, and plans for a graduate program in biometeorology. "That program will deal with such areas as carbon dioxide inputs into the atmosphere," VandenBosch explained. She also spoke about the need for faculty from different areas--not just in CFANS but in social sciences, law and humanities--to work together to bring about deep and lasting improvements in society, especially regarding environment-related issues.

"We desperately need a predictable source of support from the state of Minnesota," said Bruininks.

Presiding over a college whose disciplines range from agriculture and biofuels to forestry, fisheries and wildlife, VandenBosch said she has asked department clusters to find points of common interest in order to foster interdisciplinary collaborations. She held up the wind turbine project in Morris, Minn., as an example of the kind of joint effort that can be achieved. In that project, CFANS's West Central Research and Outreach Center and the University of Minnesota, Morris, are collaborating to use wind energy not just for electricity but to make fertilizer. She also praised the college's collaborations with the University's College of Biological Sciences and Institute of Technology in the field of renewable resources and with the Academic Health Center on the Presidential Initiative on Healthy Foods/Healthy Lives. Besides research, of course, CFANS educates students, and VandenBosch asked the assembled representatives of industries that hire CFANS graduates to tell the college what they need in their future employees. Another speaker, Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Forest Industries, was happy to give one answer. "There will be a need for 400 new foresters in Minnesota and Wisconsin over the next decade," said Brandt. "We want them to come from the University of Minnesota." Another speaker, though heartened by Bruininks's comment that the environment would be a central focus at the University, suggested the University could do more to ensure that the next generation of farmers remains on the farm. "The sons and daughters of farmers aren't necessarily choosing farming, and the costs of land and machinery are sky high," said Diane Jensen, executive director of the Minnesota Project, an organization with numerous interests in the realms of renewable energy, farms and food systems. "We need energy independence and food security, but we could be outsourcing most of our food and energy production in the near future if we don't have enough farmers and farms. This shows how important the University can be, not only to make new technologies happen, but on the applied side, to make sure these technologies allow farmers to stay in business."

Nurturing interdisciplinary relationships is key

While the work of both CFANS and the institute will largely involve the forging of interdisciplinary working relationships, Sullivan and VandenBosch underscored the importance of nurturing the individual partners in those relationships. Strong interdisciplinary work requires strong disciplines, and Sullivan singled out the department of chemical engineering and materials science, "the world's premier chemical engineering department," as a model of excellence to be maintained and emulated. But to reach its potential, the University must have a steady flow of support. Bruininks spoke of the need for investment from the state, a source for which there is no substitute. "It would take a $2 billion private endowment to replace a $100 million state budget cut," he said, referring to budget cuts in the first year of his presidency. "We can't make it up with private funds. We desperately need a predictable source of support from the state of Minnesota." Emceeing the meeting was Steve Morse, a board member of the Minnesota Environmental Initiative. He encouraged everyone in attendance to keep the momentum going. "Today's meeting might be called 'drive-by stakeholder involvement,'" he quipped. "We need ongoing involvement."