The Ripple Effect of Endowed Programs

In the academic world, funding a chair or program is a lot bigger commitment than buying a piece of furniture.

February 12, 2013

Red Cedar River in fall 2012

In the academic world, funding a chair is a lot bigger commitment than buying a piece of furniture. And it has a lot bigger impact.

Endowed programs are at the center of outstanding academic programs and their effect radiates across the university and beyond. They are among the highest honors awarded to faculty. As such, they enable the university to attract rising stars. These high caliber professors and programs, in turn, attract the very best graduate students to the university. Additionally, the support from an endowed program provides a funding buffer to enable faculty members to remain current and on the leading edge in their research rather than “following the funding.” Ultimately, their work provides distinguished leadership in research and education that leads to discoveries that touch the lives of countless others.

“In the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), we have endowed chairs who build and foster the visibility of MSU’s programs within specific disciplines and across disciplines, said Patricia Norris, who holds the Gordon and Norma Guyer and Gary L. Seevers Chair in Natural Resource Conservation in the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies (CARRS) . “We have some who build and foster visibility across the country and abroad with groundbreaking work. And we have some who focus more close to home, taking on the difficult social, economic and ecological problems with which citizens of Michigan and the Great Lakes region are grappling.”

William Porter, Boone and Crockett professor of wildlife conservation, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, said that establishing endowed programs is a “forward-thinking investment.” The Boone and Crockett Club worked with its membership to establish and fund the position at MSU and at other universities around the country.

“Successful academic programs require three ingredients that are always in short supply: space, talent and money,” Porter recently penned in a professor’s column in the Boone and Crockett Club’s publication. “Acquiring those resources requires a network of colleagues who can make things happen within large organizations … In the world of science, building large programs that can attract talented cadres of graduate students takes time.”

Porter cites partnerships as the key to establishing effective, lasting endowed programs, Norris said that linear approaches in which research leads directly to solving problems will be increasingly limiting, and engagement between academics and external partners will be needed to make decisions about management of wicked problems rather than straightforward solutions. The value of this engagement is reflected in the goals of Drs. Guyer and Seevers and other donors who envisioned  the creation  of  the Guyer Seevers Chair as a way to foster and build such partnerships.

In that spirit, Norris’ work is an integrated program of teaching, research and Extension focusing on issues of natural resource conservation and environmental policy, and her position carries with it a strong focus on Extension.

“In the CANR, not all endowed chair positions are created equally” she said. “What I mean by that is the desired characteristics identified for each endowed chair search have differed, reflecting different emphases across teaching, research and Extension missions. For example, my chair brings with it a significant emphasis on outreach and Extension, and my interest in engaged scholarship is consistent with that emphasis.”

She said that sometimes funders find it difficult to give to a project that requires a relationship-building phase across disciplines, but it’s a very important key to ensuring success on projects and on subsequent grants.

“I have been able to use resources available to me through the endowment to support these kinds of relationship-building efforts and foster the learning required among participants pursuing transdisciplinary initiatives,” she said. “For many of these complex problems that we tackle, engagement with the public is necessary on the front end of and throughout the research enterprise, which turns the traditional model of Extension and outreach on its head.”

We thought you might like to get to know Porter and Norris, both in the CANR, and their work.

Dr. William Porter, Boone and Crockett professor of wildlife conservation, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

Porter joined MSU in August 2010 as the first Boone and Crocket Chair of Wildlife Conservation.

“Endowed chairs in wildlife ecology and management are rare, and when I visited, I discovered the caliber of people and the exciting program. MSU is just an extraordinary place,” Porter said. He works closely with the Boone and Crockett Club and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) as well as other, national organizations.

“Early on, we formed the Michigan Boone and Crockett Partners to develop a strategic plan that would guide the development of a large research program. That research examines the fundamental forces now shaping wildlife conservation: climate change, land-use change due to energy development and urban sprawl, disease eruptions in wildlife and societal interest in the stewardship of wildlife populations,” he explained.

Currently five doctoral students are exploring population dynamics and the behavior of wildlife in relation to habitat, emphasizing the ecological knowledge to management and conservation policy. Most of their work, Porter said, focuses on large vertebrates, such as moose, wild turkeys, elk and white-tailed deer, but recent studies examine songbird communities.

But Porter doesn’t just work with graduate students, he also teaches courses in wildlife management and policy at the graduate and undergraduate levels.. This spring, he’s working with a colleague and three doctoral students teaching a course focusing on the wolf issue in Michigan and in Yellowstone Park. They will take a group of nine students to Yellowstone over spring break for firsthand  study.

Porter and his team are also developing a Quantitative Wildlife Center at MSU. This group of graduate students and postdoctoral research associates is bringing cutting edge analytical tools to understanding wildlife ecology and informing decisions about wildlife management. The center complements the remarkable asset that MSU already has in its Quantitative Fisheries Center, Porter said.

Dr. Patricia Norris, Gordon and Norma Guyer and Gary L. Seevers chair in natural resource conservation, Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies

Norris joined MSU in 1996 as an assistant professor and Extension specialist. A decade later, she was named to her current post.

Currently, Norris is very interested in whether and how Michigan’s water use plan, developed in response to the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resource Compact, can be implemented. To date, its implementation has been based upon some very good technical and modeling work done by researchers at MSU, the University of Michigan, the DNRE and the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Underlying that work was an assumption that results would be evaluated every five years and the data and modeling framework updated/adjusted to insure that it is achieving the intended results with minimal error, but limited state resources will make this process a challenge,” Norris explained. "Does this mean there are opportunities for groups and individuals external to state government to play a role in meeting these objectives? Also, the program relies on water users to manage competition for water and conflicts that are certain to arise in some watersheds. Yet, our water users have limited experience in managing water as a common resource and making decisions on allocation among themselves. My research right now is focused on how to assess the relative costs of negotiation versus litigation in the event that conflicts arise.”

Norris’ Extension work follows on this research, with the hope that she and her team will be able to provide research results to water users in a way that informs decisions they make about which path is in their best interest as well as how to facilitate one path or another.  Opportunities for greater involvement of Michigan's citizens in prioritizing for natural resource policy decisions and program implementation were the focus of the Environmental and Natural Resource Governance Program that Norris led. Many participants in that program have gone on to provide leadership in different resource management initiatives.

She is also interested in teaching a new undergraduate course for CARRS on theoretical foundations of sustainability.

“I find great satisfaction in working closely with individuals and organizations outside of academia, and this engaged approach to problem framing and the search for effective responses enables stakeholders across the state and region to see firsthand the contributions that our land grant institution can make to greater citizen involvement in seeking a secure quality of life across the state,” she said.

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