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UW fighting to keep forestry school alive

When the Clinton administration decided to scale back Northwest logging to end the spotted-owl wars, it tapped professor Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington old-growth expert.

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 month, 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.

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 month’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.

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.

“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.

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 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.”

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 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.

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.

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.”