New Initiative aims to improve UO’s environmental prestige, research collaboration – Oregon Daily Emerald

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The Office of the Provost released a report at the start of April on the university’s progress in implementing its Environment Initiative after 18 months of research and development. The initiative aims to spawn new degree programs, facilitate environmental research and improve UO’s educational profile. It was developed out of a campus engagement process that began in October 2020 and allowed faculty and staff members from all schools and departments to help shape how the UO focuses its future sustainability and environmental education activities. 

The Environment Initiative is a centralized effort to better report the university’s environmental research and educational activities to organizations outside campus and share it within the UO community, Provost Patrick Phillips said. The primary goals, he said, are to facilitate collaboration between schools on sustainability and conservation projects, as well as highlight UO’s reputation as a leader in environmental research and education to the wider community. Through the initiative, Phillips also hopes to make UO more attractive to prospective students interested in environmental issues. 

“I want a high school kid in Kansas to wake up and say, ‘I'm really interested in the environment. I have to go to the University of Oregon,’” Phillips said. “We should be capitalizing on this great work and telling our story to the world, not just to ourselves.”

The Environment Initiative is one of five academic initiatives developed by the Office of the Provost over the past four years, all focused on amplifying UO’s strengths to the wider community and facilitating inter-departmental collaboration in areas of the environment, diversity, data science, innovation and sports and wellness. 

Many of the projects and programs the initiative supports have existed since before Phillips took office as Provost. UO is known for its strong environmental education programs, he said, but after becoming provost — a position also known as chief academic officer — he decided to use his office to help integrate these programs into a single, university-wide initiative meant to spur and share future research and education.

“If you're really going to take on really difficult problems in the environment,” he said, “it really takes the entire breadth of the skill of the university to do that.”

The initiative’s development process began in fall 2019 when Phillips selected faculty members from each school on campus to form a steering committee tasked with establishing the initiative’s guiding principles. The committee also worked to form questions for the campus community to help guide its development.

Lucas Silva, UO assistant professor of geography and environmental studies, sat on the committee, and said that much of the group’s conversations dealt with identifying priorities for the initiative and addressing how to improve UO’s public profile regarding environmental research. 

“I would describe them as open-ended conversations,” Silva said. “We talked a lot about the position of the institution compared to others — wondering why UO’s profile, when it comes to environmental research, doesn’t come to the top very easily.”

Starting in fall 2020, the Office of the Provost launched a series of campus-wide engagement efforts that included brainstorming workshops, informational sessions and a survey. According to the report, 60 faculty and staff members from departments throughout campus were involved in these workshops, and the survey generated 120 responses. 

Through the survey, Phillips asked participants to identify projects and people at UO that exemplified the university’s commitment to fighting climate change and environmental inequities, as well as barriers that may hinder staff members’ engagement in the initiative. 

The initiative has yet to directly spark any specific programs or research projects, but Adell Amos, its executive director and UO law professor, said that there are already a number of ongoing programs that embody the work the initiative seeks to promote and encourage. 

The university received a $4.52 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation in January to fund the formation of the new Pacific Northwest Just Futures Institute for Racial and Climate Justice. The new institute is a collaboration between faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Design and aims to address the intersection between racial and climate justice. While not a direct result of the initiative, the institute exemplifies the collaboration across multiple colleges the initiative aims to promote, Amos said. 

“It represents the kind of amazing work that is already occurring on campus and that the initiative hopes to support and help sustain,” Amos said in an email. 

According to the report, participants in the initiative’s engagement process emphasized the need to address issues of social inequity and injustice as it relates to climate change. Phillips agrees that one of the initiative’s primary focuses should be fostering programs that address the intersection of these issues. He pointed to the UO’s Sustainable Cities Institute — where researchers work to improve sustainability in city planning and building design throughout Oregon — as an example of how this work is already being done on campus, adding that environmental racism is usually most visible in urban areas. 

“The fact is that when you look at the environmental conditions, especially within cities, there is almost always some sort of racial and socio-economic overlay on that,” he said. 

The report also discusses the importance of facilitating partnerships with local and regional organizations — particularly with other academic institutions — in fighting climate change. An example of this, Phillips said, is the TallWood Design Institute, where a team of researchers from the UO’s College of Design and Oregon State University’s College of Forestry work to develop sustainable timber products. 

“We don’t do everything,” Phillips said of UO. “So we need to partner with other groups throughout the West Coast to get these questions going and to start figuring out how to solve these complex problems.”

The initiative is still in its early stages, Phillips said, and is meant to be an ongoing process that may outlive his tenure as provost. To ensure its success, his office will continuously seek philanthropic support from the university’s donors, monitor the number of research grants UO environmental researchers receive, take stock of student interest in environmental studies programs and work to identify areas for improvement. 

Amos said the next year will see the development of new degree programs for students and expanded environmental coursework, as well as new opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in on-campus research. 

“In the next year, as we hopefully gather safely back on campus, our plan is to work directly with students, as well as faculty, staff and existing programs and centers, to explore new curricular ideas and professional pathways for a changing world,” she said in a statement.

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