IonE narrows to three for director search

by Nick Wicker

Three finalists from all over the world are running to lead the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Since former director Jonathan Foley left last August, the University has been searching for a replacement to head the institute, which addresses climate change, species loss and other environmental issues.
Interim director Lewis Gilbert has been holding the position in the meantime.
In recent weeks, the final candidates — Josh Tewksbury, Jessica Hellmann and Peter deMenocal — presented their cases for the position to University community members. 
The directorial hopefuls all spoke on common themes that included connecting the institute with other organizations, capitalizing on its fellows program and their ideas for transitioning to the school. 
Opening up the institute
Tewksbury, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Luc Hoffmann Institute in Switzerland, said while the IonE is well known to outsiders, it needs to ramp up its partnerships within the University.
“It’s a mature institute, a mature part of the University’s structure, and now it needs to collaborate explicitly with the other departments to add value to the entire University,” he said.
Beyond the school, Tewksbury said the IonE needs to increase outreach to businesses and policymakers.
Hellmann, associate chair of the University of Notre Dame’s Biological Sciences Department, also said the institute should focus on strengthening ties with University departments and others in the private sector.
“IonE is about translation. It’s about taking research and education and having an impact on the world,” she said. “IonE is a very strong program, but to sustain it … value [needs to be added] to existing [University] units.”
DeMenocal, vice chair and professor of Columbia University’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, said at a public presentation April 29 that the institute should take advantage of the University’s status as a research institution.
He said IonE should work with researchers in fields like engineering to complete their individual work more efficiently.
“The … thing that a really big research university can do is to mobilize the brain trust, and there’s a huge one here,” he said at the presentation.
The director’s role
Contenders for the director position all agreed that if selected, they’d need to be cautious when transitioning into the leadership role.
When he visited the institute, Tewksbury said he was impressed by how well employees have adapted since Foley’s absence.
If chosen, he said he would want to further the positive working environment by hosting listening tours or similar events to introduce himself to faculty members and their goals.
Hellmann shared apprehension and said she’d spend time listening and familiarizing herself with the institute’s practices before making any changes.
While she said she wants to increase productivity, Hellmann said she doesn’t want to disrupt the institute’s current momentum.
“A good leader shouldn’t come in with all the answers already figured out,” Hellmann said.
During his presentation, deMonecal said he would steer the institute away from “pure academics” to find solutions to human problems caused by climate change.
However, he said he wouldn’t want his long-term goals to disrupt any work that’s already in process.
“The role of this position is not to be telling people what to do,” deMonecal said to the audience last week. “The more layers of administration you add, the longer it takes to get things done.” 
Shifting focus to fellows
Candidates also emphasized prioritizing the role of the institute’s fellows.
Hellmann said the new director should be a “champion” for the fellows and look for new ways to highlight their presence and bring new members to the institute.
deMenocal said he has interest in recruiting more fellows to the organization from different departments within the University.
Tewksbury said the institute hasn’t yet sufficiently engaged with fellows within the institute.
He said paying more attention to the Resident Fellows program would help IonE connect with the rest of the University.
“That’s the biggest resource of the institute — the people who are now engaged in sustainability issues, who know each other across institutional boundaries and are willing to work together,” Tewksbury said.