FALL 2017

Returning from Thailand with Renewed Optimism for the Environment

Dean’s Update
by Jeffrey Vincent, Stanback Dean

My research and professional service have focused mainly on Asia since my PhD fieldwork in the mid-1980s. I first worked in Thailand in 1990, as a member of a USAID-funded Thai-U.S. scientific team that evaluated the country’s biodiversity conservation needs. We started with meetings in Bangkok, at the time a gray city choked by smog and traffic. A short cross-town taxi ride could take half the morning and leave one’s throat scratchy and eyes stinging.

We then toured various locations around the country, including coastal areas where intensive shrimp farming was just taking off and felling large swaths of the country’s mangrove forests. Cheap farmed shrimp was a boon for consumers, but it came at a high environmental price. I’ve been back to Thailand many times since, including this summer, when I again split my time between Bangkok and the field. Although some things haven’t changed—Bangkok traffic can still be awful—much has, including some environmental trends.

At the window of my hotel room in Nonthaburi, I was struck that I could easily see the Bangkok skyline, which would have been obscured by haze 30 years ago. Bangkok’s air is clearer today, thanks to cleaner fuels, more fuel-efficient vehicles and expanded public transportation.

Environmental progress also is evident in rural Thailand. At Ranong Biosphere Reserve on the Andaman Coast, I saw the impressive rehabilitation of mangroves on sites that had been cleared for alluvial tin mining, which entails completely removing the trees and dredging the soil for ore. It’s hard to imagine a more disruptive land use, but those sites are now green again.

I came back from the trip with renewed optimism that we humans can successfully address the environmental messes we’ve made. Thailand’s progress didn’t just happen. It resulted from scientific and technical knowledge being applied in response to public pressure, with government agencies introducing new policies and programs and the private sector acting on the new, more sustainable business opportunities they created.

It happened because leaders in multiple sectors, including local communities, took action.

The role of leadership relates to another reason I’m optimistic about environmental prospects: an increasing number of young people are interested in environmental careers. Last year, we put forth extra effort to learn more about the market for our Master of Environmental Management program. This is our largest educational program, and the only one that draws instructors from across all three of our faculty divisions.

We learned many things. Nationwide in the United States, the number of undergraduates majoring in environmental studies or natural resource fields has increased by 10-15 percent annually in recent years, and the number of students pursuing master’s degrees in these areas has grown at nearly double-digit annual rates. And for good reason: the U.S. Department of Labor projects robust job growth for environmental and natural resource professionals over the next decade.

We also learned that we are competing for professional master’s students with many, many more universities and colleges than when we were formed in the 1990s. I’m pleased to report that we are competing very successfully. This fall, we welcomed our largest-ever entering MEM class, nearly 200 students.

We owe this recruitment success to several factors. None was more important than the long hours and dedication of the large team of staff, faculty, alumni, and students who participated directly or indirectly in the recruitment effort.

In addition, we worked hard to make a compelling case that a Nicholas School education is worth it. We highlighted alumni accomplishments, which offer proof that our MEM and MF programs put students on a path to careers that are rewarding and make a difference.

Thanks to the generosity of contributors to our Annual Fund and our new $25 million Forging Future Leaders aid initiative, we tripled the amount of financial aid we offered across our merit-based and need-based programs.

This put our program within reach of more applicants, and it enabled to us to recruit a class that is more talented and diverse than usual: the average GRE scores of the entering class exceed those of last year’s entering class for all parts of the test (verbal, quantitative, writing); first-generation college students account for more than a tenth of the class; and the percentage of underrepresented minorities in our student body will exceed 10 percent next year. The infusion of resources into our financial aid program had an immediate, positive impact, and it demonstrates why financial aid is my top fund-raising priority.

These students enter with a lot of promise, and they have high expectations for the educational experience we will provide. Those with marine interests will have their experience enriched in their second year by courses and field trips that take advantage of our new research vessel (see Dukenvironment story).

Those intent on careers in the private sector, which employs more than half of our graduates, will benefit from our new Business & Environment concentration, whose first cohort begins this fall. They will also benefit from activities stemming from our recent invitation to be the first environmental school to join the United Nations program on Principles for Responsible Management Education.

Those with international interests will have opportunities to interact with counterparts in Duke Kunshan University’s International Master of Environmental Policy program, which also has its first cohort beginning this fall and is a joint initiative involving us, DKU, and the Sanford School of Public Policy.

This year is going to be unlike any previous one at the Nicholas School. Follow along as our faculty, staff, students, and alumni investigate and address environmental problems both close to home and in distant places like Thailand.

You can stay in touch by visiting our website, which now has a “Research” tab and has my school-wide Weekly Updates on the news pages; or by following us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. You’re an important member of our community, and we want to stay connected with you.