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Plantations appoints botanist from Hawaii as director

Christopher Dunn

In a horticultural contest between upstate New York and Hawaii, it’s hard to imagine Ithaca prevailing.

But the area’s gorges and seasonal variety won over leading botanist Christopher Dunn, who will become the new Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director of Cornell Plantations April 1.

As director of the Lyon Arboretum at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, Dunn helped revitalize a 193-acre tropical rainforest and botanical garden with a $3 million renovation project, extensive fundraising and the establishment of an ecology research center committed to preserving the biological and cultural diversity of the Pacific region. In a prior role, as executive director of research at the Chicago Botanic Garden, he developed a seed conservation and seed bank program in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and a graduate program in plant conservation at Northwestern University.

He will oversee Cornell’s 3,500 acres of botanical gardens, arboretum and diverse network of 43 nature preserves, its 70 full- and part-time employees, and its $2.8 million operating budget.

Conservation and community engagement will continue to be at the top of his priority list, as well as academic collaboration and partnership development, Dunn said.

“The traditional roles of botanical gardens had a lot to do with collecting and exploration, taxonomy and display. More and more, we are getting into conservation, and the relevance we have in our communities is being driven around 21st-century issues like climate change,” Dunn said.

“If we are all about showcasing plants, we should also be about preserving them, as well as their habitats,” he added. “Gardens have new opportunities to become significant and authoritative voices in contemporary environmental issues if we can continue to seamlessly knit our garden programs together and into the social fabric of our communities.”

Dunn will replace Don Rakow, who stepped down in May to return full time to academia after 20 years at the helm.

“Plantations is an integral part of Cornell, serving as both the largest laboratory and richest classroom on campus, while furnishing the university with a unique botanical character unlike that of other institutions of higher learning,” said Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “I am confident that Christopher’s depth of experience and passion will foster new opportunities for Plantations to enhance its conservation mission while continuing to promote the enrichment and well-being of the entire Cornell community.”

Dunn is no stranger to snow, having studied at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse as an undergraduate, and spending 13 years in Chicago as director of research at The Morton Arboretum and executive director for research at the Chicago Botanic Garden. He received his master’s degree in plant ecology from Indiana State University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin.

Dunn has long been involved in national and international plant conservation initiatives, and held leadership positions – including president – of the American Public Gardens Association.

"Christopher is an excellent match to lead Plantations, one of the nation’s preeminent university public gardens,” said Casey Sclar, executive director of APGA. “He is dedicated to fulfilling the many principles that make public gardens indispensable to their communities. He is an accomplished leader held in high regard among his colleagues nationally and internationally.”

He also continues to contribute to the scientific literature in plant ecology, conservation biology and biocultural studies. He served on the graduate faculty in botany at the University of Hawaii, and previously as associate professor of biology at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Stacey Shackford is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. 

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