Drawing on its strengths as a leader in environmental research, education, and engagement, the University of Connecticut has launched the Institute of the Environment to help chart a course to a greener future.
The new institute will facilitate the University’s portfolio of environmental research along with community-wide activities related to sustainability and related efforts, according to Michael Willig, executive director of the institute and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
“Sustainability is arguably the biggest challenge we face in the 21st century,” says Willig. “Until the establishment of the Institute of the Environment, UConn didn’t have a formal organization that facilitated a cross-fertilization of these disciplines across the University, or that created formal bridges between the academic and operations side of the University.”
The Institute of the Environment will weave in four organizational units: the Center for Environmental Sciences & Engineering, the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, the Office of Sustainability, and the Natural Resources Conservation Academy. In addition to many majors that have an environmental component, UConn offers two undergraduate degrees in this area – environmental sciences and environmental studies – as well as a master’s degree in energy and environmental management.
Interdisciplinary collaborations are increasingly important given the rate of transformation in the world, from land use change to climate change, invasive species, and pollution, says Willig. All of the challenges facing the environment require decision-making that weighs costs and benefits from multiple perspectives. This is where an initiative that brings together science, the humanities, and social science is so valuable.
“To understand and foster our relationship to the natural world requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves the entire university and engages the broader community,” says John Volin, vice provost for academic affairs and professor of natural resources and the environment.
“Our evolving relationship to the environment is an expression of our competing human values,” he says, noting that every aspect of culture – the ways we work, our recreational activities, spiritual and aesthetic lives, political and economic structures, and technological advancement – is shaped by the physical and biological processes happening around us.
UConn is no latecomer to this awareness, with a slew of plaudits and recognition in recent years for the University’s sustainability efforts. These include appearing on the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” list, sending faculty and students to the annual United Nations Climate Change summits, participating in the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), and committing to the Paris Climate Accord.
“Probably the most important questions we have to answer are, not if a system is sustainable, but if it is desirable,” says Willig. “We have many paths we can take in our stewardship, but science doesn’t tell us which of those paths to take per se – it’s human values that guide us. I don’t think that each of us fully understands how we might marshal those perspectives and ways of knowing to the common good.”