Environmental Studies forges ties



Halfway up Science Hill lies the main building of an institution that Dean Gustave Speth ’64 LAW ’69 hopes is becoming a more familiar part of Yale undergraduate life.

Sage Hall is the flagship building for the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The school, which was founded in 1900, is independent from Yale College, but in recent years the connections between the two institutions have been growing closer.

“I think they’ve gotten stronger, especially since Dean Speth has gotten here,” said environment school Associate Dean for Student and Alumni Affairs Gordon Geballe. “He has a very deep affection, as do many Yale alumni, for his undergraduate times and the college as it exists now.”

Speth, who majored in political science at Yale, has been the dean of the environment school since July 1999. When he was reappointed to the position last October, he said one of the goals of his second term would be to expand the environment school’s role in undergraduate life.

This presence manifests itself most prominently in the undergraduate Environmental Studies program, but it is also reflected in shared faculty and resources, undergraduate course offerings and campus-wide events.

Environmental Studies, which was designed jointly by faculty from the environment school and Yale College, was designated a stand-alone major in 2001. Jeffrey Park, the program’s chairman, said while the graduate school is influential in formulating curricula, the program maintains administrative autonomy.

Since Environmental Studies is a program rather than a department, all of its professors have primary appointments elsewhere, Director of Undergraduate Studies John Wargo said. Wargo added that this can be problematic, but he noted the commitment of the professors who teach in the program.

“It’s pretty amazing that we’ve got faculty that teach in this program that would require little persuasion,” Wargo said. “They’re working on the issue because they want to; they’re deeply engaged.”

Wargo also said many of the senior advisors for the major tend to come from the environment school, and Park said this was a natural progression because when students choose topics for their senior projects, they are often attracted to the advanced research done by environment school professors.

Students agreed there is a strong connection between the undergraduate major and the environment school. Lucas Knowles ’05 said that while he has not yet taken any classes offered only at the environment school, he thought it would be difficult to fulfill the major’s requirements without coming into contact with environment school professors. Linda Shi ’04, another environmental studies major, concurred.

“My senior essay advisor is a faculty member at the school, and my three readers are all from the School of Forestry,” said Shi, who belongs to the first class to graduate with an Environmental Studies degree. “Within the Environmental Studies department almost all of the 10 students have major faculty advisors who are from the School of Forestry.”

The environment school also offers courses specifically for undergraduate students.

“I think that the school, especially under Gus Speth’s leadership, has developed a suite of courses that are specifically designed for undergraduates in a variety of different fields,” Wargo said.

The school offered four undergraduate courses this semester taught by environment school faculty, which is typical, Gabelle said.

“Our school policy is that we always want to be teaching some courses for undergraduates, but we can’t have all our faculty all of the time teaching undergraduate courses,” Gabelle said.

Gabelle explained that while environment school faculty enjoy teaching undergraduates, it is often difficult for them to teach these courses because the school maintains a demanding student body of its own that requires a rigorous, up-to-date array of courses.

Undergraduate students can also take graduate-level courses at the environment school. They are only allowed to count four graduate level courses toward their degree, Gabelle said, and between 20 and 30 students take graduate level courses at the environment school each year.

Shi has taken eight environment school courses as an undergraduate and will complete her masters degree at the environment school as part of its five-year dual degree program. She said the professors are highly accessible.

“They’re pretty busy people, but they don’t treat you as less worthy because you’re not a graduate student,” Shi said. “Our senior seminar professor was very helpful and always giving advice.”

Connections exist between Yale undergraduates and the environment school outside the formal structure of courses and majors. Shi said she often takes advantage of the school’s guest speakers and uses the resources of its career center.

During his tenure, Speth has provided the infrastructure to make interacting with undergraduates a priority for the environment school. But perhaps even more important to fulfilling Speth’s goal is the friendly atmosphere that Shi attributes to the environment school population.

“The School of Forestry is a very chill school.ÊThey seem pretty cool as cool goes. People go barefoot to class, they go skinny-dipping on field trips,” Shi said. “They’re a very open school, so whenever you would like, whenever you would do so, you would be highly involved [there].”

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