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Faculty strive to make 'green' cross-campus connections

What do an anthropologist who hunts and traps with an Arctic tribe, a biologist who works with moths and a historian obsessed with the St. Louis World's Fair have in common?

A deep commitment to the environment and a collective mission to build an intellectual community at Cornell centered on environmental issues.

They were three of about 30 scholars who gather May 13 at the invitation of Aaron Sachs, an assistant professor of history, to brainstorm new ideas for creating interdisciplinary collaborations on environmental issues at Cornell. The gathering, over lunch at the Statler Hotel, was sponsored by the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future (CCSF).

"Because problems of the environment are multidimensional, we need to integrate across the Cornell quads, but we have not typically done a very good job of this," said Anurag Agrawal, CCSF associate director for the environment and an evolutionary biologist. "This is a good start."

For several hours, the group of faculty and graduate students engaged in a free-ranging discussion about prospects for future collaborations that would strengthen efforts already under way at Cornell, including CCSF and other institutional activities focused on sustainability and the environment.

The group expressed general frustration that there are few opportunities for broadly defined environmental studies that encompass cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural approaches to addressing some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world today. Because there has been so little coordination across colleges, students broadly interested in environmental studies still don't know where to turn or what to major in.

There was agreement that there has been more notable progress in the environmental "hard" sciences -- for instance through CCSF grant programs that encourage multidisciplinary, direct problem solving, but not with broader environmental studies, which include the arts and humanities.

Many of the junior faculty also cited the pressure to specialize in order to make tenure as creating an institutional bias against the broader approach environmental studies requires.

Seasoned, tenured faculty in the group agreed that making cross-disciplinary connections through academic collaborations took considerable effort, and some provided examples of past successes. Several said a faculty-led group, formed from an organic movement and self-selected, would provide much needed momentum to a university efforts and counter some of the institutional barriers.

"We need new ways of organizing academic pursuits, new ecologies of thought that connect fields like biogeochemistry with analyses of energy economies and political will and cultural belief systems," said Sachs. "It is wonderful to see such enthusiastic support for this kind of cooperation coming from scholars who, in some cases, inhabit not just different spaces in the university but different intellectual universes."

Lauren Chambliss is assistant director for communications of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.

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