The ax falls at the University of Washington

Environmental institute is chopped; other programs cut

  • Jim Karr

    Neal Herbert/Washington Free Press
  • David Thorud

    Mary Levin/University of Washington
  • College of Forest Resources, University of Washington

    Mary Levin/Univ. of Wash.

Note: this story is one of several feature articles in a special issue about the West's forestry schools.

SEATTLE - As another academic year begins, the gracious University of Washington campus is deceptively calm. You'd never guess at the academic carnage that has recently taken place behind its ivy-covered walls.

Hidden in the bowels of the university's mechanical engineering building, Jim Karr's rambling office is lined with books on tropical forest plants and freshwater ecology. It is a few days before the start of fall term, but this year the Institute for Environmental Studies (IES), which he's headed since 1991, won't be offering courses.

Even though five academic departments here are courting him, Karr is still angry about the demise of the institute.

"The decision to eliminate IES came based on what IES had been in the past," says the balding, imposing biologist, whose credentials include a stint at the Smithsonian Institution and an endowed chair at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. "The people who made the decision didn't want to be disturbed by the facts of the situation."

The facts as Karr sees them go something like this: Former forestry dean David Thorud was looking for an excuse to kill the institute. When three senior institute staff members quit last year in protest over some of Karr's personnel decisions and his attempts to sever the institute's close ties to Seattle environmental groups, Thorud got his excuse.

The institute, created in the post-Earth Day euphoria of 1972, was unique in the Northwest. It offered interdisciplinary programs in atmospheric sciences, conservation biology, and public health and the environment, drawing faculty and students from across the university.

For most of its history, it was controlled by four staff members: three respected scientists plus an assistant director who was active in Seattle's environmental community.

Karr shook things up. In a strong symbolic act, he cancelled the program's Sierra Club membership. "Our philosophy has long been that environmental studies is less an environmental major and more a discipline to encourage interdisciplinary thinking," he says. After ties to the environmental groups were severed, "We found faculty across campus interested in teaching who would not have touched it before."

Karr believes he was beginning to turn things around in other ways as well: The number of majors increased from 12 to 60 between 1991 and 1995, and two-thirds of its courses last year had waiting lists. Last year the institute received its first positive internal academic review in many years. Karr was making plans to expand evening courses so the institute would reach the wider Seattle community.

But Karr's institutional support evaporated in 1994 after three university administrators who backed his leadership left their posts and forestry dean Thorud was promoted to acting provost. In October, Thorud and acting graduate dean Dale Johnson informed Karr the institute "no longer had a purpose." It would be eliminated; the decision was final.

A wave of appeals protested the decision. Typical was a letter Oregon fisheries biologist Dan Bottom wrote to Thorud: "By choosing to abolish (the institute), University of Washington is eliminating the kind of collaborative learning experience that society most needs to foster a more positive relationship between nature and culture."

A review committee called for the preservation of the institute, which it called "a unique resource for the University and the region." But the administration ignored the committee's findings. And in May 1995, an appeals board upheld the administration.

Thorud maintains it was a budgetary decision forced by cuts in state funding. "The institute had a huge amount of money," he says. "A lot could be recovered - at least $1 million" over two years. But Karr contends, and the review committee agreed, that the savings would amount to about $350,000 over two years. He calls the university's decision part of "a significant and systematic effort to disenfranchise those with a non-conventional approach toward the forest."

Working with industry

What political motive would the university have for killing a popular and growing program? Perhaps this: Karr has taken a strong stand on environmental issues in the Northwest. He was the lead signatory among more than 125 scientists who urged President Clinton to implement "comprehensive watershed and salmon habitat restoration" in his Northwest forest plan. More recently, Karr joined seven other scientists in a strongly worded critique of post-fire salvage logging. David Bayles of the Pacific Rivers Council calls the institute's work "one of the most important things that has helped shape the debate over streams and fisheries in the Northwest."

Karr's high profile may not have set well with Thorud, who built a record of strong support for the timber industry as a member of the Washington Board of Natural Resources. As forestry dean, Thorud had an automatic seat on the state board, which decides the management of 2 million acres of state-owned land. In 1985, Thorud voted to increase logging on these lands.

Thorud has supported research that some timber executives didn't like (see sidebar this page). He insists the school is changing, with its research focus shifting to the study of forest ecosystems. But he adds that the school "works with the timber industry. It's still a $9 or $10 billion industry in our state."

And critics contend he has a built-in conflict of interest while serving on the board. He is married to Ann Goos, a lobbyist for Boise Cascade Corp., which buys timber from state lands.

Thorud says he hardly thinks the institute's elimination will silence Karr. "Jim Karr has a national and probably an international reputation. I'm sure he'll continue to practice his profession."

Some say the story is far more complex than the warring environmental politics of two powerful men - it includes workaday realities like cash flow, administrative structure and academic culture. The state of Washington has slashed funding for higher education, although the institute was the single largest victim in UW's recent history. The institute had no structure to capture any of the research money brought in by its faculty - faculty which it shared with their home departments. And research funding is becoming the lifeblood of a university that now ranks second in the nation only to Johns Hopkins in attracting competitive grants.

"The culture at UW is very entrepreneurial," says forestry professor Margaret Shannon. "It's a grant-producing, research-producing university that's got a very competitive culture."

It's a different kind of school than the land-grant universities that host most of the West's forestry programs - places like Oregon State, whose agricultural roots and extension service foster a sort of countrified collegiality on campus and a connection to communities off campus.

But there is a new effort afoot to promote interdisciplinary thinking on environmental issues at the University of Washington. Last month, the university's president formed a task force to investigate how to strengthen ties among students, faculty and departments involved in environmental studies - ties that wouldn't necessarily be formed around an institute, center or school.

"I think the administration basically decided to let the existing structure fall and start all over again," says one professor. "The task force has been very well chosen. I feel pretty positive that they'll say what now, today, needs to be done."

Karr feels differently. "They're essentially setting about doing what we proposed to do a year and a half ago, and would have completed a year ago," he says. "I feel betrayed by a university that asked me to do something, and when I did it they eliminated the program."

Déja vu all over again

The institute is only one of several recent casualties among environmental education projects at the University of Washington, which one researcher calls "phenomenally hardball behind a thin veneer of respectability."

In 1993, while still dean of the College of Forest Resources, Thorud removed Jerry Franklin, an internationally known "new forestry" expert, from the Olympic Natural Resources Center, based in the isolated town of Forks. Also given the boot was director Gordon Smith. The Washington State Legislature and the College of Forest Resources had created the project to conduct forestry and ocean research on the Olympic Peninsula. Forks, a hotbed of wise-use activism, had resisted the project.

This year, acting forestry dean Dale Cole cut the budget of the Center for Streamside Studies by $115,000, or 36 percent. The highly regarded research program absorbed 56 percent of the forestry school's entire budget cut. Cole said there was no place else to cut after the forestry school sustained a 20 percent budget reduction two years ago. "We just couldn't cut our undergraduate program further." (See sidebar linked below.)

But the university's most recent and perhaps most telling episode came in July when it attempted to undermine the state's innovative proposed plan for Washington trust lands. The proposal aims to avoid future endangered species gridlock by designing timber sales to protect spotted owls, marbled murrelets, salmon and more than 80 other sensitive species. It is the most far-reaching plan of its sort in the nation. It has already proved its worth; last year, after the state reduced its timber sale program while conducting extensive surveys for threatened species, it sold 607 million board-feet of timber from trust lands - more than any other public agency in the Northwest. The habitat plan, if accepted by the federal government, will allow sales from state trust lands to continue at that level indefinitely.

Nevertheless, the UW Board of Regents said it would withhold support for the new plan until State Public Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher responded to an economic critique prepared by four university forest economists. They had questioned the decision to sell timber from state lands on an even-flow, sustainable basis, rather than capitalizing on fluctuating market conditions by selling more when the market is hot. But Belcher said she's required to keep the flow of timber steady by state law.

Thorud says the regents are just being fiscally prudent. "We're talking about the state entering into a 100-year contract with the federal government," he says. "I think it is reasonable to ask what is the impact on the income of the schools and universities."

Belcher says that position reveals a lot about the university's vision - or lack of it. "If the university is going to let faculty make recommendations on what we do and don't do, you would think they would put together a broad-based group of faculty," she says. "They didn't work with their environmental faculty or their wildlife faculty. That's interesting, since this is a habitat plan. I'm disappointed that the university does not see its role on the board more broadly."

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- Silencing science at UW: one researcher's story

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