The Creation of PoE

Keynote speech by Professor of Biology and founding Co-Director of PoE, Emeritus John Palka at the Environmental Studies Graduation Celebration on June 13, 2013
Dear graduates, families, and honored guests:


John Palka

John Palka

I have to say right at the beginning that helping first to design and then to found the Program on the Environment, and to build a solid foundation for its future, was the most exhilarating single thing I did in my 33 years on the faculty at the University of Washington. For this reason, it's a special pleasure to address you briefly on this great occasion.
In a way, the roots of my engagement with PoE go way back to the years when I myself was an undergraduate. I attended Swarthmore College, a small and very fine institution with a Quaker history, located just outside Philadelphia. While there, I was able to explore many subjects. I became a biology major, but I took courses in the philosophy of science, the history of music, sensory perception, even the history of Western mysticism.
Even within my major I was pretty eclectic – I was equally fascinated by the embryology of plants and by the functioning of animal nervous systems. In the spring of my senior year, I led a series of Sunday morning walks through the college's woods, excited to share with other students what I had just learned in class.
When I graduated, my future wife Yvonne and I took a freighter to India for a year, where I did research in plant embryology at Delhi University in a department that was world-famous for this specialty, and the two of us traveled on our own all over the country. We visited many festivals, places of pilgrimage, schools that had been founded by Mahatma Gandhi, and the country's beauty spots. Yvonne worked in a rural medical clinic. We even got married there. That was in October of 1960, so we have now been married for 52 ½ years!
After that life-changing year, I settled on neuroscience as my academic field, and I devoted all of my years as a professor to it (I came to the UW in 1969). However, in my teaching I remained as eclectic as ever. Of course, I taught a lot of general biology as well as specialty courses for majors, but I also designed and taught courses, intended especially for non-majors, with titles like Brains, Consciousness, and Evolution; Science and Society; Science and Religion; Nature in Scripture; and, with a wonderful collaborator, Sustainability - Seattle and South Africa, a course that featured a video hookup with students and others in Port Elizabeth in South Africa. So, my teaching was always very broadly based.
This brings me to the history of PoE. The core idea of an interdisciplinary environmental program, that would include not only natural sciences but also social sciences and other fields, has a long history at the University of Washington. In the mid-1970s the UW established a pioneering Institute for Environmental Studies whose faculty represented many different disciplines. About twenty years later, in 1995, the university disbanded the Institute. However, it immediately also made a pledge: a new interdisciplinary unit, with a different organizational framework, would be established to take the place of the Institute.
During the academic year 1995-1996, the Task Force on Environmental Education met intensively to meet this pledge. Despite being a neuroscientist, I was asked to be one of the members. We met for at least an hour every week for the entire academic year, which amounts to between 30 and 50 hours of intense group meetings. The outcome was an ambitious design for a new multidisciplinary program with a strong focus on undergraduate education, but with a role in graduate education and research as well. Though a small unit, it was intended to be the hub of environmental education throughout the university. In this sense it was envisioned to play some of the roles that the College of the Environment plays today.
One day, just after the Task Force's final report had been turned in, I was walking across Red Square. Ed Miles, the Task Force Chair caught up to me and took me by the elbow. "Johnny," he said out of the blue, "you've been on the Task Force all year. Now it's time for you to start the new program."
I was truly shocked. I reminded Ed that I had no environmental training or credentials, I had only a very modest amount of administrative experience, and in any case was soon due to go on sabbatical. Ed was very blunt. "You know that none of that matters," he said. "We want you to do it." Ed was a very experienced international negotiator and once he made up his mind, he knew how to get his way.
However, I did get him to concede one point – I would have a companion in setting up the new unit, someone who did have environmental credentials and would be known and respected in the environmental community. That person turned out to be the best companion I could have imagined. It was Prof. John M. Wallace of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, known to everyone as Mike. Mike Wallace was not only an extremely distinguished scientist and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, but he had already led many successful institutional efforts on behalf of the University. Because of his many contributions, the building in which PoE is now housed is named in his honor. In short, Mike and I agreed to be the founding co-directors of the nascent program, which at that point did not even have a name.
We started truly from scratch. We had no faculty and no staff. We were housed in a very obscurely located single room with no windows on the 4th floor of Bagley Hall. Our total equipment consisted of two hand-me-down metal desks and two equally ancient metal filing cabinets. It looked pretty bleak up on the 4th floor of Bagley. But we did have three very important things: we had a vision, as defined by the Task Force; we had a budget, and a rather generous one at that; and we had two incredibly supportive deans, the Dean of Undergraduate Education and the Dean of the Graduate School.
With this foundation we set to work immediately. It took all of the academic year 1997-98 to set up the new unit, settle on a name for it (the Program on the Environment), define the curriculum, establish the courses, find faculty to teach the courses, and hire our first staff. To carry out these steps, Mike and I hewed closely to a collaborative approach. For example, to help us establish a curriculum for PoE we circulated an open invitation to all interested faculty throughout the university, irrespective of their unit, to participate in our discussions. We heard from scientists and historians and policy makers and lawyers, from people in public health and literature and geography and anthropology – you name it. Today's students will recognize the presence of all these many disciplines in PoE's curriculum. That presence dates from PoE's very beginning.
I mentioned earlier that PoE had no faculty, and indeed it has no regular, tenure-track faculty to this day. This was a design decision of the Task Force. Instead, PoE needed to borrow faculty from regular academic units, departments and schools. This obviously was and continues to be a challenge, but many units did indeed lend their faculty, for years on end. Often these same faculty would also join PoE's advisory board and thus play an active role in shaping PoE's evolution. PoE's successive directors, including Clare Ryan today and Julia Parrish before her, first came to PoE in much this way.
I thought you might enjoy hearing a little bit about our first core course, offered during the year 1998-1999. It was based on real-life case studies, typically of situations in which there was conflict over environmental issues, and had two or three borrowed instructors each quarter, deliberately drawn from different disciplines. As a follow-up, the faculty decided to take a group of students, numbering about 20, on an extended field trip along the Columbia River. As they traveled, they had extended conversations with many different stakeholders. In boats and on land they talked with farmers who depended on the irrigation the river provides, with fish conservationists who were concerned about the effect that using water for irrigation had on salmon populations, they talked with people in the recreation industry and with those responsible for power generation and the maintenance of the power plants, and so forth. In short, a reading and classroom analysis was supplemented by personal encounters, and the students loved it. Our courses are far too big for such excursions now, but students continue to approach that experience through the capstone projects that are so integral to the PoE curriculum.
In those early years we made one other really important contribution to environmental education at the UW. While we were not allowed to hire our own faculty, PoE's budget did have a provision for helping other units hire faculty who would strengthen the representation of environmental issues in those units and thus strengthen environmental studies broadly within the whole institution. We participated in nearly a dozen such hires. I do not feel free to mention any names, but if I could, you students would immediately recognize them as faculty who have made a profound mark on the strength of environmental studies at the entire University of Washington. At some point this approach was discontinued, but it was a hallmark of our early days.
Let me close by summarizing my view of what makes PoE's degree program so strong:

  • First, the program is truly multidisciplinary. This reflects the complexity of real world situations and prepares students to deal with those situations effectively
  • Second and simultaneously, it fully respects the depth of understanding available through traditional majors. For this reason it encourages double majors: Environmental Studies plus a traditional discipline, most often though not necessarily one of the natural sciences.
  • Third, it provides hands-on experience through the capstone course. This is invaluable not only for the students' own development but also as an experience to offer to prospective employers or graduate programs.
  • Fourth, it cultivates a deeply felt personal engagement in the field. Perhaps the clearest single example is the international experience that many of our students have. I can tell you from my own life that when it comes to understanding your ideas and life goals, nothing compares with living and working in another culture.
  • And finally, it inculcates respect for others – for their training, for their ideas, and for their ability to contribute creatively to the solution of pressing problems. This is the foundation of PoE's whole approach to education, and for me it is the most fundamental lesson that I want you PoE students to absorb - respect for others. It will serve you well for the rest of your lives.

So now I close. I have told you something about how Mike Wallace and I, two very different people, stood at the founding of PoE, and also something about why this was an exciting and rewarding thing to do. If we have done our job well, you the graduates will go out into the wider world well prepared, with your idealism intact but with your feet solidly planted on the ground. I wish you well!