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Adaptive management

Now five years in, Robbins looks to his next term as Nelson director

Fall 2017 | By Meghan Lepisto

Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins

In March, Paul Robbins was reappointed as director of the Nelson Institute after a comprehensive review of his first five years of tenure. On the heels of many recent successes, and with continued growth and innovation on the horizon, Robbins shared his vision for the Institute and reflections on his first term as director.

 

BRING OUR READERS UP TO SPEED. WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF THE INSTITUTE ACCOMPLISHING SINCE YOU BECAME DIRECTOR?

The past five years have been great. First, when I came on board we had an undergraduate major in its infancy. We knew there was demand for training in this area, and the credential, but I don’t think anybody could have guessed how many majors we would get – now in the hundreds. And our educational model champions the humanities and the sciences, from arts to engineering. That’s incredibly unusual.

Second, we’ve maintained excellence in students going on to major educational institutions, while at the same time producing a professional graduate program. The new Environmental Conservation program is innovative and it works – people are getting jobs in their field.

Third, the institute’s research profile is only increasing and we’ve been able to cultivate an entirely new generation of scholars and leaders. And that leadership is filled with diverse perspectives, backgrounds and voices.

 

IS THERE ANYTHING THAT HAS SURPRISED YOU ABOUT THIS ROLE OR THE INSTITUTE?

I will say this: A campus of this size with such high-quality faculty who are so autonomous and independent is a really good thing, until you try to focus on a particular set of problems or urgent questions. Coordinating all those independent actors is surprisingly hard. We’ve learned how to focus talent on the big questions of our time through new kinds of collaborations, like the UniverCity Alliance and Native Nations-UW Working Group. We’ve innovated and led initiatives that help reach across campus and bring the campus together.

The other thing I’ve learned is how sensitive environmental questions are today politically. The Nelson Institute’s job is to be a neutral arbiter, to convene diverse constituencies who don’t always agree. Learning how to do that in this atmosphere has been eye-opening.

 

YOUR ROLE AS DIRECTOR TAKES YOU ACROSS THE STATE, THE COUNTRY AND EVEN THE WORLD. WHAT TYPES OF CONNECTIONS HAVE YOU MADE IN THESE TRAVELS?

My visits with tribal constituencies around the state, getting to know the leaders in those communities, has been incredibly exciting. There’s a huge amount of innovation going on in Native communities.

Seeing different parts of Wisconsin is a great part of the job. I love dairy farmers; they are super smart and very innovative. I’ve enjoyed visiting small municipalities around the state – Appleton and Bayfield were both incredibly interesting – and seeing what’s happening at the colleges and universities in the system has been really helpful. I think we need to do a lot more with our UW System partners. Soon we’re going to hold a workshop in Baraboo with the leaders of all the environmental programs from every major system school.

Nationally, it has been our alumni who I’ve enjoyed meeting most. They’re doing great things and they provide an opportunity for me to see institutions that I wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to visit.

 

LOOKING AHEAD, WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE MOST IMPORTANT PRIORITIES FOR THE INSTITUTE?

Three things: One, continue to expand opportunities for environmental education. That means growing the undergraduate major, but it also means creating more platforms for summer environmental education. I would love to be working more with K-12 teachers in ongoing environmental education opportunities.

Two: Professional programs. Right now, we have 25 students in Environmental Conservation, by next year we’ll have 50. Within the next five years, we should be well over 100 annually, putting Wisconsin on the map as the place you come to do this.

Three: Engagement with the private sector. I think we’ve turned a corner there. We now have really good partners in the School of Business and we’re cohosting a symposium on supply chain sustainability in February. But we could do a lot more.

Those are big priorities and they can all be managed in ways that are financially sustainable. That’s not why we do these things, but it’s an added benefit – we can grow without having to ask for anything.

 

IN RELATION TO THE LARGER CAMPUS, HOW DO YOU SEE THE INSTITUTE’S CONTINUAL GROWTH ALSO BENEFITING THE UNIVERSITY?

This has to be a sustainable enterprise. If you provide the kinds of educational opportunities people actually want, instead of what you think they want, they’ll be willing to help you resource it. It’s critical we flow those resources out to campus partners and help a rising tide lift boats across UW. Supporting partners across campus is critical.

At the same time, you only succeed if you can reach a broader constituency than we’ve historically reached in environmental studies. This means working with new campus partners – from the American Indian Studies Program and the Institute for Research on Poverty to the Center for Supply Chain Management.

This campus as a whole should be a top five global destination for environmental research and education and it has a lot to do yet to raise its profile. I see the Nelson Institute’s job as helping to elevate everybody on campus to be a source on the environment. Getting this university out in front is the highest priority.

 

FOR ALUMNI AND OTHER READERS OF THE MAGAZINE, HOW CAN THEY ENGAGE WITH THE INSTITUTE?

In the last few years, we’ve had an increased presence of alumni on campus – in our classes and in workshops with our students. We’re always looking to connect students with alumni, either digitally or in-person, to support our educational mission and each other as role models.

Our alumni can also connect us with folks around the world who want a particular problem solved that might be in our wheelhouse. The alumni network should be thinking about UW and Nelson when they see problems that need solving, because we can help.

Alumni should also not hesitate to support us in material terms. Small gifts to this institute really go a long way.

For our broader constituency, bring us in to your communities – we’d be happy to talk to people anywhere around the state or country about where the science is on biofuels, what’s happening in the Amazon rainforest, what causes the air quality or water quality problems they’re facing, and more. We can help answer those questions and connect communities to the campus knowledge base.

 

IS THERE ANYTHING READERS MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT THE INSTITUTE THAT YOU’D LIKE THEM TO?

We have undergraduate and graduate students and alumni; we have faculty who hold tenure lines within the Institute, as well as our many affiliates; we do outreach and communication; and we do service. That basically makes us like a school on this campus. We’re not just another research center. Think of us as a cross-campus support for interdisciplinarity, but also as a strong freestanding unit.

People value what we do on this campus now more than ever. We have a tailwind, the question is: what are we going to do with it?



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