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Interdisciplinary Earth Systems program approved
STANFORD -- Students in the interdisciplinary Earth Systems program will be able to earn bachelor's degrees beginning in June.
The Faculty Senate on Jan. 9 approved a request from the Committee on Undergraduate Studies to give the program degree-granting status on a three-year trial basis, despite some concern that existing programs would be jeopardized in the funding quest for the new major.
The senate steering committee last year delayed consideration of the proposal, seeking additional information on Earth System's size and soundness and assurance that it had sufficient resources.
Earth Systems, an interdisciplinary program begun in 1990, pulls together such fields as geology, engineering, biology and economics to study large-scale environmental processes and problems, Prof. David Freyberg, chair of the committee on undergraduate studies, told the senate. The committee endorsed the proposed major last year and again this year.
The program grew out of the scholarly interests of faculty and students, and parallels society's interest in such broad problems as ozone depletion and global climate change, Freyberg said. It is intended for students who plan to pursue graduate study in environmental aspects of a traditional discipline, interdisciplinary environmental programs or professional studies such as law.
Freyberg told the senate that the program provides breadth in introductory courses and depth through a system of five tracks and a final senior project. The program's tracks are geosphere, biosphere, anthrosphere, land systems management and environmental technology. Courses are taught by faculty from the schools of Earth Sciences, Engineering, and Humanities and Sciences, with Earth Sciences providing especially strong backing.
Program organizers expect the major to grow to approximately 45 students in three years, said Prof. Jonathan Roughgarden, who holds appointments in biological sciences and geophysics, and who chairs the program's executive committee.
Responding to art Prof. Al Elsen's concern about sufficient long-term faculty commitment, Gary Ernst, dean of the School of Earth Sciences, predicted sustained interest because of possible funding for research in global change by NASA, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, among others.
He told the senate that his school is seriously committed to the program and that he plans to step up fund-raising efforts this spring, initially from oil companies. Funding should be available, he said, "because this has become an international political problem."
Ernst so far has secured $305,000 for the program to cover its $100,000 per year incremental cost for the three-year trial. He told the senate he hoped to raise enough to make a faculty appointment in environmental studies in the next year or so.
Prof. Ron Rebholz, chair of English, and history Prof. Peter Stansky expressed concerns about funding.
Earth Systems is an example of "Stanford as it should be, moving forward in nontraditional ways," Stansky said, but he questioned why the program could not be operated with existing resources.
Rather than use incremental funding for Earth Systems, Stansky suggested spending the money on "Freshman English, the performing arts or traditional parts of the university that are so under siege."
Rebholz worried aloud that if the program succeeds, long-term funding would compete with programs that already are financially "in jeopardy."
President Donald Kennedy labeled the program's start-up costs "modest compared to others," and said funding opportunities were unique to Earth Systems, not in competition with existing programs.
Responding to Rebholz, he said it was "unreasonable" to suggest that a program had to prove it had long-range, non-competitive funding to receive academic approval from the senate.
English Prof. George Dekker said he shared concerns about decreased funding for other programs, "but this is a terrific proposal - the kind of interdisciplinary program Stanford does uniquely well."
"I don't want us to go into a period where we're no longer willing to support really important curricular innovation," he said.
In the course of discussion, Ernst discovered a potential new collaborator for Earth Systems. Warning her faculty colleagues that "we must be very careful not to stifle faculty initiative in a period of budget crisis," political science Prof. Terry Karl publicly told Ernst that he might find additional support from other parts of the university.
She said that the Institute for International Studies has identified the environment as a priority area of study, and its research centers, including the program she directs in Latin American studies, regularly bring visiting experts to campus for teaching and research.
The geologist and political scientist were observed enthusiastically introducing themselves to each other after the meeting.
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