Vassar Today

New Major in Environmental Studies

A new major program in environmental studies will commence at Vassar this fall. The program is both multidisciplinary-the 39 participating faculty listed in the new catalog come from departments as diverse as religion and political science, English and chemistry, Hispanic studies and psychology-and discipline-based. And it is rigorous; students are required to pursue indepth studies in both the natural sciences and nonscience curricula, including at least four courses at the 300 level.

Program director H. Daniel Peck, John Guy Vassar Professor of English, says the program's objective is to have students develop breadth in their understanding of environmental issues and at the same time give them a solid anchor in a discipline. A basic understanding of science is considered essential. "We believe you can't have a good understanding without a good grounding in science, so everyone is doing a fair amount of science."

Requirements include five courses in one discipline (at least one at the advanced level), or in a coherently organized field such as law or policy; three courses offered by the program, including the sophomore-level introductory course "Environmentalisms in Perspective"; three courses, at least one at the 200 level, in geology, chemistry, or biology (if one of these is not the disciplinary concentration), or in a nonnatural science department if the concentration is one of those disciplines; one full unit of field work; a senior seminar; and a senior thesis. 

Peck notes, "Typically, environmental studies programs are at universities and are science or policy oriented, and sometimes both. There is very little of the humanities or arts involved. We wanted to develop a liberal arts orientation."

The major has been five years in the making. An Environmental Studies Development Project (ESDP) was funded for four years by a grant from Priscilla Bullitt Collins '42, who also funded development of Vassar's Environmental Sciences correlate sequence and, in honor of the 50th reunion of her class of '42, environment-related projects at the Vassar Farm. ESDP supported a faculty seminar on environmental topics and the development of some early courses. Over those years, the seminar hosted lectures by Vassar faculty who were exploring the relation of their disciplines to environmental studies and also hosted a series of visiting speakers, including Robert Bullard, William Cronon, and Vandana Shiva.

Peck notes that program planners wanted very much to ensure that Vassar's major would encompass more than "backpacker" notions of the environment; urban ecology, women's issues, as well as environmental justice issues relating to race, gender, and class are all critical to the major. "We want to involve the whole range of human issues as they involve the environment," he says.

Vassar has the faculty and geographic location to pursue such an ambitious agenda, Peck points out. "We're beautifully situated, in one of the largest watersheds in the world, close to both natural and urban ecologies. We feel our location here in the Mid-Hudson Valley positions us to do a wide range of things."

The multidisciplinary program was approved by the faculty in December 1999 and received New York State certification early in 2000. The program is the second new major approved at Vassar this academic year. A Jewish studies major was approved last fall (see Spring 2000 VQ).

As of early March, Peck said he had already interviewed 18 students who were potential candidates for the new major.