Ethos: Tomorrow's College

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Ethos - The underlying and distinctive character, beliefs or spirit of a community

Robert H. Giles, Jr.

A document sent to the faculty of the College shortly before retirement, October 1996.

The faculty of the present College needs to re-conceive itself and take action to make major changes toward that new concept within the next 10 years. This is the period of two national elections, several state elections, two graduating under-grad classes, and three graduate classes. It is the period of loss of about one-third of the present faculty. It is likely to be a period of rapid change in available energy supplies, widening of the range in affluence, and perturbations in available supplies of phosphorous, nitrogen, and fossil energy for conventional wildland operations.

The present environment is one of an eroding local culture, dysfunctional and demoralized university leadership, and great uncertainty by faculty. Faculty uncertainly is partially a reflection of their professional groups but it is also one of social and political forces that attack educational systems and the university itself. Uncertainty grows in the face of forces in society that produce new problems and topics far beyond those classically addressed by "scientific" faculty. The problems, some long-standing, can make a long, perplexing, complex list such as:

  1. Unusual, seemingly unpredictable student numbers
  2. New educational technology
  3. Concern over teaching time and performance
  4. Unqualified students
  5. Reduced public agency employment potentials
  6. Extreme diversity within the college -- reflecting interests ranging from preservation to exploitation and recycling
  7. Unmet needs in the wildlands
  8. Shifting agency identity (e.g., SCS) and policies (e.g., ecosystem management)
  9. Extreme ranges of public attitude
  10. Large shifts in awareness of College topics (70% urban population)
  11. Agricultural intensification
  12. Land reversion to forests
  13. New law (fire, herbicides, land use taxation)
  14. New industrial standards
  15. Public land use intensification
  16. Students with low field experience (50% broken families; 50% single- parent families, usually maternal childcare)
  17. Shifting attitudes to individual laws and law enforcement.
  18. New resource losses and threats (e.g., at the resource level, deer, once a goal of work throughout the U.S., are now a major forest pest.)

Any few of these items constitute a situation needing more than continued work by faculty along the lines of the past.

"Naive" and "optimistic" are often used in a pair when I write about the future. Herein, I deny both, suggest pessimism, and assert that the following is a realistic appraisal of the situation if we are to survive for the future. By "survive" I do not merely mean "exist" but to have the vitality of the College of the past. More importantly, there are problems beyond those of the above list that need work and, if they are not addressed, can damage the future College.

"Strategic planing" has so many meanings that I dare not attempt to define it or to suggest a plan. I write to communicate my thoughts in the absence of any medium within the College (e.g., timed meetings, and limited seminars). I also write since I perceive a current pattern of administration that relies upon faculty if anything is going to be done. Perhaps that is as it ought to be, but alternative strategies may be required in an environment clearly (to some of us) hostile to university teaching and university procedures (e.g., recent U. Minnesota attacks on tenure). The environment is one of a College with few linkages to other Colleges, and mere presence within a university within which another college (with assurances of continuance) was recently summarily dispatched.

The changes that have occurred in the citizens and state, students, curriculum, university ... and the growing list of problems and challenges have no simple, singular solution. If a solution exists it will be unique. I believe there is no solution, only a new procedure, and a new culture to be created. Not gradual evolution, but a radical new procedure is needed. Gradual changes of the past, simple course adjustments, will not work by the time they are needed. They have not worked (and I have seen them tried for 30 years); the time of need is now. A colleague once suggested that I and some others want change too rapidly. I have been patient, too patient, since 1966. The argument has been as sketched:

I prefer A or a more rapid rate. Others suggest B. The rationale is that with failure of A, the achievement may be longer delayed than in B. I continue to contend that the expected present net value of benefits to implementing A are likely to be greater than B. Now, I argue, that some B-like strategy is no longer even a realistic option for change for the College.

Analyzing problems is fairly easy relative to suggesting solutions. Criticizing alternatives is even easier. The new college environment, a new culture, is only possible because of the strengths now present here. Hardly any item on the following list is new. The newness is in the aggregate and in the synergism of components.

Buckminster Fuller once asked "When is 1 + 1 + 1 = 4?" His answer: When each 1 is a triangle and they are configured as a tetrahedron. I imagine new unions that develop the equivalent of new triangles ... just because of the planned relations, the planned synergism. The synergism potentials exist for the full College (see the figure). I do not like the solutions I suggest, but I like even less, much less, the consequences I see as a result of failing to take them. I operate on several assumptions such as "you can't be everything to everyone." Thus, selective work seems reasonable. I also assume that "leadership" when problems exist does not mean, "doing what everyone else is doing" (based on questionnaires, data, and regressions of past data.) I also assume that evidence from the mainstream of universities and similar colleges has little bearing on what is needed when an opportunity is seen, problems abound, current action is not working, and random programs seem to be about as useful as crossing ones fingers. There has to be more than hope. I shall be glad to discuss the following stratagems. Here they are listed to suggest the areas (together; this is not a "pick-any-five" proposal) that can be the components of a new College.

Stratagem 1: Objectives for Products and Services

Through with pious statements about excellence and ability to meet agency needs, I suggest that we need emphasis, simultaneously, on weighted performance, in 8 exclusive areas, namely:

  1. Employees in key positions in companies and agencies
  2. Personal satisfaction and happiness scores of graduates
  3. Research conclusions demonstrably in practice
  4. Change in a regional (Virginia and contiguous states only) resource-standards or benchmark score
  5. An operational comprehensive computer model of the region, descriptive of the likely consequences of major proposed point, line, area, and volumetric changes over 50 years
  6. Production of over 25 college-related products and services for profit
  7. Operation of a system of management of lands and waters for profit
  8. Operation of a program of post-graduation education and training.

Stratagem 2: Scope

"Forestry" has served well as a banner under which the many interests of the college have worked. "Wildlife" has been a banner, but a poor one for it variously includes (or not) fish, mollusks, invertebrates, and wild plants including wild trees. We have at least as great interest in many other departments on campus as within the college (e.g., statistics, soils, computer science, chemistry, physics, geology, and organizational psychology).

I once thought "wildland" was a way to communicate my interests and sought an American Indian word or an Arabic word for it. There is no such word, thus no such concept, in these cultures. The work of the College now (and especially as conceived for the future) has no word with adequate meaning. Every word suggested is either too limiting or over-generalizing and thus both inadequate and stress producing for other departments and colleges. We as a new College need no such stress or limits. A new word is needed, coined for its ability to lead the world in the direction of a College that sees the potentials of meaningful, rationally robust management of the outdoors, all of its elements and components, all of its products, functions, and services optimally, cost-effectively, for humans forever. It is possible to create such a word, define it, and then get to work. It is merely a banner under which we may rally as we do our own good work. It can provide a symbol of bold leadership.

Our scope is related to decisions about structure. Rather than a solid, fixed organization, the future needs are for an eclectic, ad hoc, dynamic form -- expanding today in geology, relaxing there and expanding tomorrow in rooting structures, relaxing there and expanding into fire management economics tomorrow. Fixed positions in a dynamic almost chaotic society do not serve us well; we cannot teach well what we do not practice well.

The scope of our work may be hidden in the tetrahedron replacing the triangle that is now part of boring administrator speeches:

Stratagem 3: Structure

Some faculties in some colleges have unusual employment status. A great variety now exists. This difference needs to be exploited fully but with new emphasis on part-time employment, adjunct status, guests, consultants, joint appointments, and alternative modes of education. In part, this dispersed, amoeboid-like, tentacled structure negates the need for structural and polity losses incurred with efforts to expand to include elements of entomology, botany, mammalogy, ornithology, geology, soils, mathematics, computer science, library, chemistry and many other areas.

The conventional college is not as relevant as it once was. A new structure is needed, one more closely related to "centers" and "institutes", one not unlike the interest in genetics that now interpenetrates many departments on this campus. There are no examples; we need to create a structure to meet our unique needs. The likely structure may be depicted as a neural synapse; it may be somewhat like an ecological community with diversity and change.

Stratagem 4: Medical College Parallels

The human is not "mastered" by students in 9 years in medical school. The trees, soils, water, animals, and other topics of the present College cannot be mastered in less time than this but we presume to do so (by our actions.) We need a full four years, preferably six, to create a person with a new status. The product, perhaps with a name related to the name of a new college: a graduate with new levels of excellent knowledge, problem-solving ability, social skills, technology, and attachment to a knowledge base with adaptive techniques.

Because a quality post-graduate school within the natural resource realm does not now exist, an independent program needs to be developed to meet self-imposed requirements for membership in a select, lasting, dedicated group -- the faculty and graduates.

Stratagem 5: Intensive Work

Seven to nine years (as in medical school) is infeasible in "forestry" and related fields. As in Berlitz language training, as in Special Forces military training, there is need in our field for an intense training and education program. Highly exclusive, housed together, training together, the group may emerge as unique, highly sought employees linked in an international team for the next century.

Beside "training" there is a full-scale involvement with the great books, communication, team dynamics, and the development of personal resources. Capability with at least one foreign language will assure potential for NGO work and for engaging the problems and society now faced.

Students may live in a dormitory together; an extended national field trip may be included; there may be regular meals together; frequent socials; intense committee work; and entrepreneurial experiences together.

Stratagem 6: Model

University-wide involvement may allow a large computer model to be built progressively over many years. It would be part of an adaptive strategy, one of automated learning. The system would be designed to be used by corporate executives, agency heads, legislators, and owners of large tracts of land. Research results would flow into the model. Students would use it. Papers would describe innovations and conferences would depend on its results. Legislators would consult it. Hypotheses (chaos, artificial intelligence, and optimum yield) may be tested and evaluated. It may include spatial and temporal components of esthetics, economic, and ecological systems. Unique access may be available by the Internet and components are developed for products and services.

Stratagem 7: Products

A catalog of for-profit items offered for sale would be available and changed regularly. It may include publications, photographs, software, field clothes (cooperative with Human Resources), Nature Folks (a membership), local tours, newsletters, international eco-tours, consulting teams, translations, computer maps, plans, field tools, etc.

Stratagem 8: Dynamic Planning System

Part of a for-profit operation, a computer system under continual improvement can produce a planning document. It would include geographic information system maps. Under continual editing, results of the State model would be included along with research details and descriptive work. The system would include all of the 5 E's -- economics, ecology, esthetics, energetics, and enforcement. The computer system would enable updated versions of an alternative "plan." The "dusty book on the shelf" would be replaced by output from a planning system.

Stratagem 9: Studies

Creating a knowledge base is the alternative to classical highly-inductive research. It would include new interplay with the philosophy department, science-in- society studies, epistemology, and alternatives in the post-science era. A for-profit report-writing and data analysis unit would be developed. Studies may be strongly related to potential patents and to profitable software. Profits in all areas are largely directed to studies -- in a not-for-profit mode.

Stratagem 10: Scholarly Works

Publications are now in question, electronic media advance, affordable library space is scarce, maintenance and retrieval costs are high, and rates of use are minimum. Realistic scholarly work, thoughtful creative problem analyses, synthetic work, and reasoned proposals and recommendations for solutions are expected from taxpayers and clients -- and needed.

A variety of regional, at-cost, multi-media presentations characterize the future college scholarly outputs. Educational media, regional influence, and profit potential are selection criteria.

Stratagem 11: Benchmarks

Descriptive ecology, community ecology, resource information systems, components of a research museum, and operation of a network of wilderness descriptive sites are all part of this stratagem. Research, monitoring, teaching, and tours are suggested components of these benchmark sites of the new College.

Stratagem 12: Land and Waters

Lands and waters are managed by staff for profit. Under contract, private lands are managed to the highest possible levels of long-term, diverse productivity. They are demonstration areas. Faculty and expert students advise staff. They ensure local employment, build a nationally prominent non-industrial private forestry program. Economics of scale are achieved and leading edge research done. Students may make tuition equivalents by work for experience. Profits support expansion of service, monitoring, research and international work.


Contrary to some commentary, the above is not a fantasy, not fun, not an extreme. I regret the feeling of having to write it because I perceive a real, compelling need. I have no confidence in survival of the present system embodied in the College. I believe that there are now real stresses within the College produced from outside. These are not trivial or due to chance. They are organic to forestry, fisheries, wildlife, and related fields. Opportunism in research and its necessary funds persists even though the needs for long-term planned research is evident. Education faces obstacles of un-prepared students, most of them are from cities, preparing for rural work. Agency employment is limited and too improbable to motivate students to excel. Citizens live in cities; they have little understanding of nature; needed understanding or knowledge cannot influence their decisions. Not a summary, the following elements of the concept presented can be seen (and other consequences are solicited):

  1. Contracts for services and products for the College
  2. A dynamic faculty
  3. A new need for special community-building within the group
  4. Initial investment
  5. Reduced future investments of taxes etc.
  6. Greater emphasis on synthesis, integration, application of knowledge, and practical functional managerial systems development and support
  7. Great independence, thus pressure from professional groups and societies
  8. Emphasis on measured performance (e.g., 80% of students with 80% mastery of a unit of instruction)
  9. A continually-related alumni group, a membership in a professional sorority/fraternity
  10. A regional emphasis, which, if excellent, will provide a world-class demonstration of potentials and a vortex of interest for professionals and land/water managers worldwide
  11. Continued excellent performance in the specialty areas of present faculty with re-orientation of approximately 6% of the time of each, the equivalent of 4-person-years devoted to College building and re-orientation ... in addition to proposed foundation/state/university support for $1 million to achieve the new College
  12. New specialty enterprises will be created
  13. Some enterprises will be more profitable than others. Total system performance, stability of profits from the total needs to be the emphasis.
  14. Where possible, successful funding and research needs to be continued with an eye on probable future funding. Trends in agency, corporation, even taxpayer withdrawal from the university and college suggest prudent attention to conservative investments in the good of the College compared to exclusive project-specific investment.
  15. Flexible space for flexible staff and projects is needed. Alternative strategies can be created for short-term intensive studies and projects in rental and cooperative-use space.

Taxes that once supported the College seem less and less likely to change, incapable of supporting a long-term planned research program with highly probable useful results. Education is demanded by more students but they are less well prepared, less motivated, and have fewer likely employment opportunities than in the past. Funds for new educational media and its maintenance seem scarce. "Extension" has a mixed history, both of objectives and practice. Rather than re-enter the debate with likely confounded resolution, the proposed new emphasis is on providing profit-oriented advice and knowledge that may produce benefits---products, service, status, and reduced risk over time.

It won't take much to prevent the above new College from occurring. It will take much effort for it to occur. The potentials are great and so significant that both the University and foundations are likely to fund the work, re-directing present funding.

Discussion seems needed. Skepticism needs to be voiced, then replaced by reasoned solutions ... unless the argument is that the future will be like the past. Some will want to collect data, presuming the odds of the past will persist. Risk taking is badly needed for the data from the nation, state university, or department are not available for the ethos of the new College.

Ethos - disposition

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Last revision January 17, 2000.