New institute helping make the University a world leader

Gorham’s legacy is just one example of how the University has and continues to carry out work with global implications.

Early May is one of the best times of year in Minnesota. The lilacs are in full bloom, the fishing opener is fast approaching and the whole summer is before us. It’s a time of rejuvenation.

What better occasion to share details about one of the key recommendations that is taking shape as part of our effort to transform the University into one of the top three public research universities in the world: a new Institute on the Environment at the University.

It’s one of the big ideas proposed by the strategic positioning task force that addressed the integration of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, College of Natural Resources and the Department of Food Science and Nutrition.

Leadership in research and education related to sustaining our environment should represent a distinctive strength for the University of Minnesota. By all accounts, our institution – the birthplace of modern ecosystem ecology – already has considerable expertise in the environmental sciences. From the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories to the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics, from the Cloquet Forestry Center to the Wilderness Research Center in Ely, and from the Cedar Creek Natural History Area to the Center for Freshwater Resource and Policy on the Duluth campus, the University has environmental experts embedded throughout its campuses, colleges and facilities throughout the state.

It was a University Regents professor, Eville Gorham, who first showed that the atmosphere carried acid rain-causing pollutants much further than previously imagined, and that radioactive fallout was concentrating in lichens and mosses in the Arctic, placing Inuit and Sami populations at possible risk.

Gorham’s legacy is just one example of how the University has and continues to carry out work with global implications. Our challenge is to make the whole of this research greater than the sum of its many parts. That’s why the recommendation to create this new institute makes so much sense.

An advisory committee already has been named by Provost E. Thomas Sullivan and is meeting regularly to begin planning what the institute will look like. The committee is a “who’s who” of our environmental scholars, including Regents Professor David Tilman, whose biodiversity research at the University’s Cedar Creek facility has made him one of the most cited ecologists in the world.

Also on the committee is forest resources Professor Peter Reich, who just last month had a paper published in the influential journal Nature, where he showed that limitations on the availability of nitrogen will restrict the ability of plants to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The study could have far-reaching effects on how policymakers and others address how to cope with global climate change as more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

But perhaps the most intriguing thing about this new advisory committee is that it is made up of people from many disciplines and many colleges – from Anne Kapuscinski in Fisheries and Wildlife to Brad Karkkainen in the Law School to Deborah Swackhamer in the School of Public Health – all of whom have expertise in issues related to the environment. The environment poses such a broad and important array of interrelated issues that the participation of scholars from diverse fields will be critical to our efforts to understand and offer solutions to protect our natural world. 

Throughout the summer and the next academic year, you’ll be hearing a lot more about specific task force recommendations such as this one and the steps we’re taking to bring these great ideas to life.

The work of about 500 students, staff, faculty and community members involved with the ongoing effort to transform the University has been truly remarkable. They’ve taken their committee objectives very seriously, consulting widely in the community, studying issues closely and creating innovative recommendations. On May 10 we’ll be holding a special celebration to honor the work of the many people who have contributed so much.

Have a great summer and stay tuned for more important announcements about transforming the University. Rest assured that through our emerging Institute on the Environment the very best minds at the University will be working to ensure that generations to come will be able to enjoy summers as we know them in the great Minnesota outdoors.

Bob Bruininks is president of the University. Please send comments to [email protected].