From the President

By Christina Paxson / September/October 2014
September 3rd, 2014

How will we prepare future leaders to understand and manage complex social and environmental systems? What innovative approaches to research will lead to solutions to such pressing matters as climate change? And, fundamentally, how can the University, by carrying out its mission, contribute to sustaining life on earth?

Frank Mullin
A state-of-the-art greenhouse sits atop the Building for Environmental Research and Teaching. 

Brown has long been a leader in teaching, research, and service to promote environmental sustainability. The creation of the Center for Environmental Studies in 1978 provided a strong foundation for progress that evolved over subsequent decades: the 1991 formation of the campus environmental stewardship initiative, “Brown is Green”; the 2003 approval of the Environmental Change Initiative; the 2007 commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by ten to fifteen percent below 1990 levels by 2020—a goal we are well on track to achieving.

Most recently, we have established a new institute dedicated to research and education on environmental issues. The Institute for the Study of Environment and Society (ISES) combines and builds on the Center for Environmental Studies and the more recent research program, the Environmental Change Initiative. ISES is emblematic of Brown’s characteristic approach to scholarship. It draws on faculty expertise from diverse disciplines to explore environmental processes that will shape the future of the planet, and it integrates research, education, and outreach. Through the work of the Institute, we are cultivating collaboration in areas ranging from ecology and geology to sociology and public health, with the goal of advancing knowledge, producing viable and creative solutions to pressing problems, and providing students with valuable experience working alongside their professors in the field. Our expectation is that the Institute will drive discovery by identifying specific ways in which we can respond to and mitigate negative environmental factors and encourage positive action.

ISES is located in the newly renovated Building for Environmental Research and Teaching, formerly Hunter Laboratory. In May we christened both the Institute and the state-of-the-art facility, complete with its glimmering rooftop greenhouse. ISES Director Amanda Lynch, Deputy Director for Research Leah VanWey, and Deputy Director for Education Dov Sax shared their compelling vision for the Institute, centering on the themes of Natural Systems, Food and Water, Human Health and Wellbeing, and Equity and Governance. Architect and Brown parent Toshiko Mori discussed how the building’s design supports the Institute’s mission.

Already we have witnessed inspiring activity on environmental issues. Recent research by ISES Fellow James Kellner reveals clearly how climate change is altering the landscape in the United States. He and his colleagues showed that mangrove forests are expanding northward along Florida’s Atlantic Coast as the number of very cold days in the region decreases. In a recent issue of Nature Climate Change, Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology and ISES Fellow J. Timmons Roberts outlined a four-step plan to break the international impasse on reducing worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

More locally, a group of undergraduate students worked with Professor Roberts and state legislators to research and promote the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014. This legislation, which passed both chambers, provides extensive measures for climate change adaptation and mitigation in Rhode Island. The work under way at Brown is also international: Leah VanWey from the Department of Sociology and ISES fellow Jack Mustard from the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences are leading a cross-disciplinary effort that tracks agricultural intensification in Mato Grosso, Brazil. They’ve shed important light on how changes in land use are influencing deforestation in the Amazon biome and in economic wellbeing for Brazilian citizens.

Brown’s newest Institute is an example of the work supported and advanced through Building on Distinction, the University’s strategic plan. The integrated approach to education and scholarship is designed to address complex questions, cultivate future leaders, foster dialogue and cooperation, and contribute in meaningful ways that help with our most fundamental goal: sustaining life on earth.

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Related Issue
September/October 2014