Nelson Institute professor Steve Ventura retires

After nearly four decades, alumnus and longtime Nelson Institute faculty member Steve Ventura retired in 2020. During his time with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ventura’s roles have ranged from student to director of the Nelson Institute Land Tenure Center and Chair of the Land Resources program (now Environment and Resources). His many contributions have earned him several awards which include being named a distinguished alumnus in 2020.

Steve Ventura

Ventura began his career in the late 1970s after completing an undergraduate degree with a focus on ecology and integrated pest management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His first job was working as a field technician for an environmental engineering consultant.

“This provided a great opportunity to build environmental monitoring skills and see first-hand some immense challenges in land and water management,” Ventura said of his first job. “It was also a bit frustrating. Consulting companies stay in business by providing their clients solutions that may not be the best for the environment, or in some cases, may not entirely comport with what I observed in the field. It was a combination of learning more about the challenges and wanting to help generate truthful solutions that inspired me to return for graduate degrees in environmental studies.”

Ventura applied to the University of Wisconsin – Madison and in 1983 graduated with his MS in Environmental Monitoring. Shortly after, he returned for his PhD in Land Resources (now Nelson’s Environment and Resources program). When Ventura graduated, he worked as a lab manager of the Land Information and Computer Graphics Facility (LICGF), a GIS research and outreach unit within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) before he was hired at the Institute for Environmental Studies (now Nelson Institute).

“At the time, IES did not have the right to provide a tenure home for its faculty, so the hiring process included finding a tenure home. For various reasons, this ended up being the Department of Soil Science, though I was not trained as a soil scientist,” Ventura said.

Despite not being a soil scientist by training, Ventura found the transition from student to faculty easy.

“As LICGF facility manager and a long-term student, I already knew many of the players in both CALS, Nelson Institute, and Letters & Science,” Ventura said. “I had developed and delivered GIS workshops and done some classroom teaching, and was able to continue research already underway as part of my dissertation. I did have some fun on my first official day as a young professor – I sat in the back of the classroom until a couple of minutes after the bell then got up and said, ‘oh yea, I guess I have to teach this class.’ ”

Ventura enjoyed teaching and quickly became involved in a number of projects and leadership positions within the Department of Soil Science, contributing to resource management, environmental protection, land records modernization, and recently, the study of urban agriculture and much more.

“Steve has been a highly productive scholar and great instructor in the Department of Soil Science,” said department chair, Vilas Distinguished Achievement, and M.T. Beatty Professor of soil science, Alfred Hartemink. “His work has been truly interdisciplinary and well-funded which is, as we all know, not easy. Over time, he developed research that focused more on human aspects and he was ahead of all of us in studying and promoting urban agriculture. Steve has been a great colleague, we miss his careful thinking, and his good heart for people, soils and the global environment.”

Ventura also become involved in a number of projects and programs outside of his basic research within the Department of Soil Science and the Nelson Institute. For example, he was a founding member of the Environmental Studies and Environmental Sciences majors, the Sustainability Certificate, and the Food Systems Certificate. He also helped with the transfer of the Land Tenure Center from CALS to Nelson Institute and the integration of Extension back into UW-Madison. Additionally, he served on several campus level committees including the University Committee, the Campus Planning Committee, and the University Academic Planning Council.

Within Nelson, Ventura noted, “As Director of LTC, I served primarily in a caretaker role. I do truly appreciate my affiliation with the Center through the years prior, giving me the opportunity to work in Trinidad & Tobago, Taiwan, Ethiopia, Spain, and with tribal governments in Wisconsin.”.

Whether international or local, Ventura focused on community engaged scholarship. Through his teaching and leadership, he encouraged students to consider community impacts, engage with people living in the areas being studied, and look at challenges from an interdisciplinary point of view.

“Being an interdisciplinary scholar takes real work; you have to build bridges, speak multiple languages, and build networks and communities of diverse people. Steve has done all this and more,” said Nelson Institute Dean, Paul Robbins. “He has stitched together soil sciences, environmental assessment, food, and maintained the wonderfully productive relationship the Nelson Institute has with folks all across campus and around the state. He can’t be replaced.”

In addition to Ventura’s personal research and accomplishments, he also helped students to reach their goals through his role as an advisor. Over the years, Ventura mentored more than 30 PhD students and 70 Master’s students. In fact, the students and his colleagues at the Nelson Institute are what he will miss most and what brings him the most hope for the future.

“The interdisciplinary mission and the underlying organizational structure of the Nelson Institute are special and unique, not just at UW but across the country,” Ventura said. “The staff that make it work are special, dedicated, and fun. For me personally, by far the best aspect is the students. I feel like I learned far more from them than the knowledge I dispensed to them. They are special, unique, dedicated, fun, inspired and inspiring. They are hope for the future!”