FALL 2018

DEAN’S UPDATE: Tackling the Big Questions – What Do We Do About Our Rapidly Changing Environmental Future?

“We have no slides in our deck for this.” The California fire chief was saying to me that nature was outstripping his own knowledge. When that knowledge is based on 30+ years’ fighting and managing wildfires, that is troubling. Over the past several years, it has been increasingly common to hear from those on the front lines that they are seeing fire behavior as never before. These men and women know that their working environment is changing and that they, and we, need to adapt.

I think it is fair to say that wildfire is not the only place that is experiencing a crisis in what to anticipate from the future. Our ability to predict what may come next is growing more fragile. The big questions are: Why and what do we do about it? I am in my first few months of leading the Nicholas School and these are the questions the school’s leadership is pondering. How should we be thinking about our future and what should we be doing to train and educate our students to tackle these formidable challenges? Are we thinking far enough ahead? Are we humble enough to admit what we don’t know? Can we rethink our approaches so we can prepare the next generation to see and manage this new complexity we all are increasingly experiencing in our world? What do we have to contribute that allows us to stand out?

Over the first few months of my tenure I am taking time to get to know the faculty, staff and students. I will be meeting with the Board of Visitors and alumni. I am taking time to get to know my operating environment so I can make informed decisions the school will need to adapt to the changing world in which we find ourselves.

We are no longer the only School of the Environment on the block. We face competition for top students from a variety of colleges and programs. If we are to put distance between ourselves and other undergraduate, masters and doctoral programs, we need to sharpen our own focus and distinguish ourselves among our many competitors.

As part of my research, I job shadow the elite of the elite in the wildfire world to learn how they manage catastrophic wildfires. This means not only the operational and technical aspects of managing fire, but the social, economic and political challenges that come with the job, like evacuating Yosemite National Park in the middle of high tourist season.

As part of this process, they need to take in multiple sources of information, integrate it, make sense of it and decide, sometimes within minutes, what may have life and death consequences. Luckily, the Nicholas School does not operate in such a high stakes environment. But the principles are the same.

Build a leadership team that you can rely on and trust. Create processes that provide you the information you need to succeed. Listen. Lose the ego. Rely on the people around you. Delegate. And be decisive.

To this end my leadership team, in partnership with the faculty and staff, are working hard on developing a plan to be released in early 2019 for moving forward. In the meantime, I am honored to hold the position of dean and struck by the day-to-day professionalism I’ve seen in our staff and the expertise and insight I witness daily among our faculty, as you will read about in the rest of these pages.

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