Eco-major, programs in demand

Jessica Allen

When Melissa Riepe transferred to Northwestern from the University of Miami last year, she said she hoped to find a strong environmental education program.

One year and one major change later, the Weinberg senior has become one of many students advocating for an increase in environmental academic programs.

“The programs are really weak,” Riepe said. “They don’t compare to other peer schools.”

Because of widespread concerns like these, the Associated Student Government has formed a joint committee with the Students for Ecological and Environmental Development, ASG Academic Director Muhammad Safdari said. The Environmental Education Committee will ensure students’ perspectives are included in reforming NU’s environmental curriculum. But many students said while the committee will be an important addition to the green initiatives already established at NU, it is just a piece of the puzzle. The University at large is also tackling its own interdepartmental conflicts, making a unified sustainability effort difficult.

What NU Has The number of environmental courses, and the students who enroll in them, has doubled within the past four years, Riepe said. For example, the Environmental Policy and Culture program within Weinberg has increased course offerings from only three last year to 11 this year, said Prof. Yael Wolinsky, director of the program.

But Safdari said this increased interest is proof the University needs to allocate more resources to environmental education.

“If you want a career in environmental policy, it’s unclear what you should major in at NU,” the Weinberg senior said.

NU offers a minor in Environmental Policy and Culture, courses through the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern – which is in its second year – and a major in Environmental Science.

Communication senior Ben Singer took his first Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern course last spring. He said he learned a lot, but was surprised there was no comprehensive effort at NU to create a major in environmental policy.

“Why don’t we consolidate EPC and ISEN and offer a major?” Singer said. “People want that.”

Safdari said he thinks NU will eventually address the lack of an environmental policy major, and how to make the existing programs more cohesive. He added that getting undergraduates involved in revamping NU’s environmental education is important so students – not just professors and administrators – have a say in the changes.

Communication junior Elisa Redish, a SEED co-chair, has been working since last spring with co-chair Sam Eckland and Safdari to form the Environmental Education Committee, which is still in the process of being created.

Redish said the committee hopes to pick out a chair within the next week and ideally come up with a proposal to present to the University within the year.

Joining the committee will be similar to joining any other ASG committee, Safdari said, adding that anyone regardless of major or background can show interest. However, the makeup of the committee will be more precisely determined once the chair has been chosen.

Safdari described the committee has a “think thank,” and added that the committee will evaluate the environmental education NU offers, determine what students want and research what other peer schools are doing.

“It’s hard to tackle what needs to be done because there are so many problems,” Riepe said. “There’s the fact that they’re all separate programs.”

FragmentationRedish described her experience matriculating as a freshman interested in environmental issues as a “wild goose chase.”

“The programs are very disconnected,” Redish said. “It’s not like there’s one building – which would be nice – where everyone can connect.”

Riepe said at the administrative level, there has been significant resistance to combining programs or collaborating.

“(Administrators) want to change the programs the way they want to, not the way the students want,” Riepe added.

But Wolinsky said she thinks there has been more coordination and communication recently between the different programs.

“It’s a challenge because we are a program, not a department,” Wolinsky said. “There’s not faculty primarily in the program apart from me – that is difficult. It has some limitations in advising.”

Wolinsky added that the different faculty involved with the programs are beginning to connect through faculty committees, such as the committee for Environmental Policy and Culture, which includes a co-director of Environment Science. But there are still issues, like resource allocation and professor retention, out of the program’s control.

“We’re not only having problems with classes and curriculums, but we’re losing faculty – and that’s a problem,” Safdari said. “We have a situation where people just happen to be teaching about the environment.”

The faculty for the Environmental Policy and Culture program, Wolinsky said, comes from different departments throughout the University. She added that the program has faced difficulties as several faculty members in the social sciences who both researched and taught environmental issues have retired and were replaced by faculty who do not specialize in this area.

“We’re feeling pressure,” Wolinsky said. “We’re trying to offer more courses, but important faculty are retiring. There’s a pretty big hole that’s not being filled.”

NU & the Future Redish said compared to its peer institutions, NU is lagging behind. Other universities, from Loyola to Yale, offer more unified programs and relevant environmental majors.

But Wolinsky said comparing NU to other schools is an unstable calculation.

“There is a lot of variation among schools partly because different universities have different histories of environmental studies,” Wolinsky said. “Some like Michigan or Yale have curricula they’re expanding from. Other schools, like us or the University of Chicago, have no such history. We have a different starting point, more to build.”

Prof. David Dunand, co-director of the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern , has a different perspective of NU’s progress. He said he thinks NU is doing well compared to its peers, and that NU has done “extremely well” in environmental research across the country. He added that the initiative is able to offer classes across all of NU’s schools, something few universities offer.

“Because we’re cross-cutting through schools, students from six different schools were in one class last year,” Dunand said. “We were proud to have such diversity.”

Still, students continue to voice concerns over how to create a unified, cohesive, comparable environmental program. Students acknowledge that change won’t happen overnight, but still hope NU will eventually have more to offer.

“There is progress,” Riepe said. “It’s just frustrating for a lot of students because we’re only here for four years so we feel like not a lot is happening. It’s really frustrating that other schools seem to be ahead of us.”

[email protected]