The University Record, January 11, 1993

Task force finds high faculty interest in environmental studies

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

Although environmental studies is one of the University's most visibly growing strengths, faculty face barriers to interdisciplinary teaching and research in that area.

That is the opinion of most of the U-M faculty who are conducting research and/or teaching on environmental topics. Their views were solicited through a survey that forms the basis of the final report of the Task Force on Environmental Studies.

The report, "Research and Teaching in Environmental Studies at the University of Michigan," is now under consideration by faculty and unit heads, but has not yet received official endorsement from the Provost's Office.

The study looks at faculty's perceptions of the present status of environmental research and teaching at the University and the emerging trends in that area. The task force defines "environmental studies" as teaching and research that have some direct connection to the interaction between an organism and its physical environment.

The task force surveyed 477 environmental faculty and scientists in August, 1992 and received responses from 323. The high (70 percent) response rate "tells me that there is tremendous interest in environmental teaching and research at Michigan," says James A. Teeri, chair of the task force and director of the Biological Station.

"I also was surprised by the high degree of unanimity in the responses," he said. "Many questions about the need for more interdepartmental collaboration showed 60 and 70 percent levels of agreement. This reveals a widespread feeling among the faculty that we need to become far more interdisciplinary than we are with regard to teaching and research in environmental studies."

While many different units include environmental studies in their curricula, few faculty members are collaborating across units on that instruction, according to the survey. Almost 80 percent of the respondents say they are engaged in some form of environmental teaching, but 77 percent report no or very little involvement in co-teaching with instructors in other departments, schools or colleges. Yet 64 percent believe that collaborative teaching in environmental sciences is growing in importance.

The task force notes this "great disparity between the perception of the future high level of importance that respondents attach to collaborative teaching and the current low levels of such collaboration."

Respondents identified three major obstacles to collaborative teaching of environmental studies:

---Lack of time to participate in activities of other academic units such as seminars (67 percent).

---Institutional procedures that keep a faculty member from receiving credit for multidisciplinary teaching (67 percent).

---Pressure on untenured junior faculty members to work within their disciplines (63 percent).

Respondents in the School of Natural Resources, the unit with the highest percentage of faculty involved in environmental teaching, report the highest perception of obstacles to collaboration.

The task force recommends that:

---Each dean or unit head articulate a clear policy regarding the value of interdisciplinary teaching, including its relationship to promotion, tenure, merit salary increases and other factors influencing a person's career path.

---Academic units receive credit and institutional recognition for interdepartmental instruction.

---Curricula be revised to reduce the number of required courses for a major, enabling students to take more elective courses in other areas.

Responses to a question on the degree of centralization the University should provide over environmental studies indicates that the faculty is generally satisfied with the current structure but would like to see more coordination in the sharing of information about environmental studies, research, funding opportunities, employment opportunities and speakers.

To answer this need, the task force recommends the establishment of a permanent Universitywide Coordinating Committee on Environmental Studies. Such a committee would establish an environmental studies information center that would catalog and disseminate information on environmental studies to faculty, staff and students and publish a monthly newsletter.

The majority of the faculty surveyed expressed as great a need for increased support of interdisciplinary research in environmental studies as for teaching. About 50 percent of the respondents reported high or very high levels of involvement in such research, while 55 percent reported little or no collaboration. However, 73 percent stated that collaborative research is important to the future of environmental studies at the U-M.

Thus, like teaching, the report notes, the actual level of research collaboration does not reflect the importance faculty attach to such teamwork.

The top-ranked obstacles to collaborative research are: 1. Lack of time to participate in activities of other units.

2. The pressure on untenured junior faculty to work within their disciplines.

3. Bureaucratic complexities of inter-unit relations, such as fiscal matters and credit for activity.

Elaborating on these problems, the report says: "The U-M academic environment is characterized to some extent by competition at the school/college level, and the level of the individual faculty/researcher... This structure does not lend itself easily to cross-unit collaboration.

"Multidisciplinary research that involves collaboration across academic units appears to be organizationally under-supported and largely dependent on the strength of motivation of the faculty who find it important," the report concludes.

Among the lowest ranking barriers to both collaborative research and teaching was the absence of colleagues at the University in specific specialty areas, notes Teeri. "Clearly, our problem is not lack of faculty expertise in environmental studies," he says. "The problem is how to facilitate interaction across units."

Asked to identify the most important emerging areas in environmental research, faculty named environmental protection and remediation, global change, and environmental conservation and preservation.


The 12-member Task Force on ENvironmental Studies was appointed in winter term 1991 by Provost Gilbert R. Whitaker Jr. to assess both the present status and the emerging trends in enviornmental research and teaching. The assessment was to be conducted across all units of the University and in relation to its external constituencies.

Task force members, in addition to chair James Terri, were: J. David Allan, professor of conservation biology and ecosystem management; Alfred Beeton, Great Lakes Enviornmental Research Laboratory; Jonathan W. Bulkley, provessor of civil and environmenta engineering and of resource policy; Harold K. Jacobson, interim director, Institute for Social Research, and the Jesse Siddal Reeves Professor of Political Science; Theodore C. Moore Jr., director, Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences, and professor of geological sciences; Ivette Perfecto, assistant professor of natural resources; Walter N. Piper, professor of toxicology and of pharmacology; Barry George Rabe, associate proessor of public health policy and administration and of political science; Beverly J. Rathcke, associate professor of biology; Stanley Robinson (not in directory); and John F. Vesecky, professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences.