Sagging enrollment, faculty war threaten UW forestry college
Seattle Times staff reporter
Several years later, when congressional Republicans sought to boost logging in the West, they turned to UW professor Chadwick Oliver, a forestry expert and long-time Franklin rival.
Not only did the high-profile professors clash over national policy on managing forest lands, but their opposing roles epitomized the longtime turmoil within the UW's College of Forest Resources.
In the heart of timber country, in a state with 20 million acres of trees, the venerable school should be at the forefront of forestry. But by many accounts, poor leadership and an entrenched and divided faculty have failed to adapt to dramatic changes in forest practices and have pushed the college to what some say is the brink of irrelevancy.
Infighting has ravaged the college. Enrollment has shriveled so much some faculty members believe the college is overstaffed. Faculty-student ratios are so low that undergraduate programs cost the UW twice that of most programs. And some professors say students are losing out.
Four times in eight years, outside experts or college faculty members have conducted exhaustive audits and recommended wholesale changes in structure and curriculum to reflect sweeping changes in forestry here and abroad.
Overhauls faltered and fell flat.
Now, as the UW faces its greatest budget crisis in years, the College of Forest Resources is scrambling to revamp undergraduate programs, boost research and prove to administrators it can be a leading force in 21st-century forestry.
Just last week, the faculty voted to pare down the number of majors it offers — from seven to two — in an attempt to streamline course offerings and provide a sharper focus.
Whether that change is enough to win over skeptical UW administrators remains to be seen. Administrators have suggested in the past the best approach may be to close the college and parcel out relevant programs to other parts of the university.
Curt Smitch, Gov. Gary Locke's former salmon-policy expert, who sits on an advisory board at the forestry college, said the school's future is at stake.
"I have been skeptical — and remain so today — of the college's ability to fix itself," Smitch said. "The faculty, right now, will tell you they get it. But I'm not sure they do. They're still fighting about what the name of the college ought to be."
Today, as the UW's population soars, the College of Forest Resources attracts only 250 undergraduates — down from a high of 800 in the early 1970s. The graduate school has 200 students.
One entire undergraduate-degree track — forest engineering — drew 12 students this fall.
The college has 55 professors, though 17 are paid in whole or part through research grants or endowments.
Until last week's vote, the college offered seven undergraduate degrees, which cost the UW $20,000 a student compared to the university average of $9,000.
"Given the current level of enrollment, we do have an awfully high number of faculty," said Franklin, a forest ecologist.
Some programs have been so narrowly focused, with such complex requirements, they scared off students.
"If you discovered the college in spring of freshman year, you'd already graduate in five years instead of four," said graduate student Edie Sonne, now interning at Weyerhaeuser.
Meanwhile, the college generates less money than some programs.
While the rest of the university brings in an average of $300,000 per faculty member in research funds, the UW administration contends only seven on the forestry school's faculty exceed that amount.
The dean, Bruce Bare, says that comparison is not fair. He contends the amount of research dollars pulled in by his faculty places the forestry program about in the middle of all 16 UW colleges. He also argues that the number of student credit hours taught by the forestry faculty is competitive with other UW programs.
"We don't look as bad as they seem to think," Bare said.
Still, of 18 programs at the UW, forestry ranked 14th in 2001-2002 in attracting private grants and gifts. Weyerhaeuser, the region's signature-timber company, gave the college only $30,000 this year — less than half the $75,000 it gave Auburn University, and a fraction of the $325,000 it spent to endow a University of Alberta chair in 1998.
The company did have an executive, Bill Corbin, serve on a special committee appointed by then-UW President Richard McCormick to review the college. Corbin declined to be interviewed.
Portions of that committee's assessment issued in December 2001 were blunt. The college "has a large proportion of senior faculty, some highly productive, but some with expertise in areas that are no longer in high demand, and many who are not active in research and scholarly endeavor."
Few disputed the findings.
"Any college with the long history this college has, you get to a season when things are out of balance," said former Provost Lee Huntsman, now acting UW president.
For example, as the forestry profession splintered into specialties in road-building, timber-harvest timing and quantitative analysis, the school followed suit.
"Some specialists in forestry started inventing their own subfields - — forest statistics as opposed to regular statistics, forest economics as opposed to regular economics," said Oliver, who left UW last year for Yale University.
Faculty members taught remarkably similar courses under different titles. It seemed each had "his own little curriculum," said Oliver, a specialist in forest management.
"Some faculty did get disinterested and lazy. But when no one's putting any interest or money into your specialty, what's a faculty member to do?" Oliver said. "Plus, when you're running a big program like that, you need time to sit and think. You need to say, 'I'm going to take a breath and think about the next area I'm going to explore.' "
Internal reports in 1994, 1995, 2000 and 2001 recommended substantive changes — from merging the college with other programs on campus, to creating a school primarily dedicated to natural resources.
Other universities, from Duke and Yale to the University of Florida, have incorporated the environment or natural resources into their schools' names to attract students and reflect the broad array of studies within forestry. At the UW, even attempts to rename the college led to acrimony.
"People still look at us as people with suspenders and chainsaws that produce wood," said professor Robert Lee, a sociologist in the college. "There are legitimate questions about how in some ways we appear stuck in the past. Are we leaders? Are we charting the territory?"
The answer is clear to some: In an April 2001 e-mail to McCormick, former researcher Toby Bradshaw complained the school "never entirely embraced the 20th century."
Some bright spots
Despite years of tumult, the college maintains a solid national reputation among forestry schools. A few professors, from old-growth guru Franklin to wildfire expert James Agee, are internationally recognized. Its paper-sciences degree is among three in the country prepping students for pulp-and-paper-processing careers. Its urban-horticulture program is growing, and the college runs several well-regarded field laboratories.
Dean Bare and others contend the challenges the college faces reflect the national debate and paralysis over forest management. Timber harvesting — - once a staple of the Northwest — is now a fraction of what it was. Forestry schools everywhere struggle to attract students. The University of Oxford recently disbanded its forestry school.
Even the Society of American Foresters, an association of forest managers that accredits forestry schools, including the UW's, sees the profession in a "Cold War" with environmentalists.
Discord at the UW's college can be traced at least to the mid-1980s, when the traditional school, centered around logging, and wood and paper products, morphed into one also offering degrees in wildlife, horticulture and conservation.
The college split into two warring divisions — described by faculty and students as the ecosystem-based "greens" and the timber-oriented forest-management "browns."
"More and more and more students want wildlife, more environmental courses — the traditional forestry curriculum simply couldn't support itself," Smitch said. "The only way the college kept up enrollment was by expanding into nontraditional areas. At the same time the traditions of the college, its alumni, were pretty strong. So the pressure kept building and building."
Conflict raged, by some accounts, far too long.
Internal memos, documents and e-mails, obtained through public-records requests, reveal an organization that has been locked in old ideological battles over forestry.
In an e-mail to then-President McCormick, Franklin said the college, "which as a unit in a large metropolitan university, should have easily accommodated and been a leader in the paradigm shift (in forestry), has not dealt with it well; in fact, CFR has been, in my opinion, the most polarized academic-forestry unity in North America.
"... clearly, neither the students nor the profession have been well served by this division."
Interviews with students, faculty members and administrators reveal division so deep that some professors refused to speak to one another. Others, at times, discouraged students from taking classes from those with opposing views. Some found ways for students not to participate in field work sponsored by faculty members they didn't trust.
Hostilities were so high by the late 1990s that a group of students visited McCormick to complain. "The students felt somewhat caught in the middle between their professors," McCormick said.
Students warned one another about the potential for acrimony if they chose graduate-committee advisers who didn't get along.
"In the past, the tension really affected people," student Sonne said. "We're dealing with problems that are very contentious. There's no right answer. If you're a professor, and you're good, that's what you're going to say."
The university hosted facilitators, retreats and even an intervention.
Animosity reached a peak in 2001, when then-Dean Kristiina Vogt was forced to resign after just nine months. While she had supporters, including Franklin, most staff and faculty members complained vigorously about her aggressive management style.
A May 2001 internal review asked faculty and staff members to describe their work environment. The responses, as summarized in the report: "Deceit, lies, depressing, dysfunctional, unhealthy, stodgy, traditional, backbiting, paranoid, abusive, wounds, cliques, divisive, bewildering, leaderless, ruthless, splintered, no strong sense of team ... people did not give positive words."
"I didn't get the support to make change," said Vogt, who remains at the college as a tenured professor but declined to talk about her resignation. "I think the system was not ready for change."
By late last year, faculty members was so inured to calls for reform that when McCormick's committee reviewing the college called its initial all-faculty meeting, fewer than half showed up.
"The college has really contributed to the situation by not aggressively seeking change, or changing itself in response to clear signals from society," Franklin said. "The pressure was not sufficient. The leadership was not here to do it."
Steps toward change
In 18 months as dean, Bare has hustled to make changes. He has warned professors to expect deep budget cuts because their costs have been high. He has demanded faculty members increase grant funding by 25 percent in two years.
Still, changes have been slow.
"Unlike a company with a new CEO, no one can come in and fire everybody," said professor Lee, the sociologist. "Some people are fixed in their ways and don't want to change."
Bare talks of a new mission of environmental, economic and social "sustainability." After a half-year of bartering over undergraduate programs, he presented the faculty's reformed curriculum to Acting President Huntsman earlier this fall. It recommended reducing the seven degree programs to four, and adding one new one.
The response: Try again.
"We said, 'Are you sure? It doesn't seem very ambitious,' " Huntsman said. "It doesn't seem to be much of a transformation.
"What we've told the leadership and the faculty and students is, 'Tell us how you see the future, and what do you think your contribution to that future ought to be?' "
"This is proving to be difficult. All I know is that a forward-looking vision hasn't emerged."
Last week, the faculty took another crack, voting to pare the college to two undergraduate programs — one in paper sciences, and one merging basic forestry and the environment. Next they'll turn to the graduate school.
Vogt, the former dean, agreed the college must redefine itself. "The world is changing," she said. "Weyerhaeuser makes more money in Washington on real estate than timber. I look at global warming, and 70 percent is coming from fossil-fuel burning, but do we talk about that? No. We should."
Even Dean Bare acknowledges the depth of the problem. "We must not underestimate ... the current perception of our lagging performance and contribution," he wrote in an all-college memo in October. "We may not have another chance to demonstrate the value of (the college's) contributions to the University."
Craig Welch: email@example.com or 206-464-2093.