By Daniel Schemer, February 2010
While sustainability has had an increasing presence in academics over the last few years thanks to the Minor, online certificate program, and the cross-listing of courses, there has not been any actual department or formal structure..until now. To ensure future growth, development, and continued relevance, the Chancellor of UMass Dartmouth has recently approved the creation of a Sustainability Studies Program Academic Unit (SUSPAU). “Before, it was fairly ad hoc. The committee was based on interested and active people, and academics loyal to their own departments. There was no formal entity they could ally with,” explained Dr. Garry Clayton, Director of Sustainability Studies.
Both the Faculty Senate and Provost’s Office approved the proposal for a formal unit before the Chancellor signed off, so Sustainability Studies officially has its own department. There is no physical space yet for sustainability, but its amorphous essence gives it the same power and influence. “The oddity is that it is a virtual unit. There is no physical presence. The unit will draw from all academics involved in research and development and become a virtual department that will cut across all disciplines,” said Dr. Clayton, who’s also Associate Dean for the Charlton College of Business and Director of CCB Cape Cod.
In the past, most courses had to gain approval from other departments in order to be established. With the exception of the two required courses, the Sustainability Minor is composed of courses from other disciplines that must meet the criteria from the departments they originate. A formal academic unit for sustainability means stand-alone programs and having the capacity to act like other departments, providing a framework for research and a better structured curriculum. Courses will still draw content from other disciplines, but they won’t be restricted by them. “The nature of sustainability is multi-disciplinary. The unit gives us the opportunity to practice what we preach. We can integrate all expertise and disciplines from across the board rather than try to mimic other department structures.”
Having a Sustainability Studies Program Academic Unit means the development of a formal Major. Success of Undergraduate course offerings can lead to Graduate and additional Certificate programs, which are already being discussed. Typical departments have standing curriculum committees that provide academic support and oversight for all taught and proposed programs. With the creation of a true sustainability academic unit, a crucial step will be to establish and charge subcommittees for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs, Research, Faculty Development, and Students. “We will focus on research and programs first because they are the keys to provide interest and influx of students.” Of equal importance will be to review and improve current course and program offerings. The university wouldn’t have to hire new teachers for Sustainability Studies since many have already been involved with the Minor. “More faculties are expressing interest. This shows clearly that the whole thing has longevity,” said Dr. Clayton.
It remains uncertain when the Sustainability Studies Program will have an actual department office and encompassing space. Once the Program proves its demand and quality in sustainability studies, this would lead to a greater physical presence on campus and, somewhere down the line, the building or placement of a school of sustainability. Right now, it’s just small steps. “We can now face the world and say we have a sustainability studies program.”