Letters from CSUS faculty: Dr. Chuck Nelson and Dr. Doug Bessette

Dr. Nelson reflects on his 50+ years at MSU as he approaches retirement, and Dr. Bessette shares his unique perspective as an alumni and now professor in our department.

Portraits of Drs. Chuck Nelson and Doug Bessette
Dr. Chuck Nelson (left) and Dr. Doug Bessette (right)

A letter from Dr. Chuck Nelson

As I write this we are in a time of some turmoil with the University just cancelling face-to-face classes due to concerns about COVID-19. This is impacting 45,000+ students plus thousands of faculty and staff. As you all know from your personal and professional lives, we live in a dynamic world and some of that change is not what we seek. Yet in this evolution, we need to honor the past, excel in the present and plan for the future.

I look back on over 50 years at MSU, where I started as a 17 year old in 1971 and completed my first degree (BS in Resource Development) in 1977. As you can see, I didn't meet the desired 4 year graduation hurdle. But, MSU was in my blood as I met Dr. Milt Steinmueller (in the RD department), who opened my eyes to the challenges of environmental policy making. I then took a great class from Dr. Lew Moncrief, who encouraged me to get involved in the political process and join the MS program in the Department of Park and Recreation Resources, both of which I did. As the 23 year old legislative chairperson of the Michigan Duck Hunters Association, we spearheaded user pay legislation that was enacted that required every Michigan waterfowl hunter to buy a Michigan Duck Stamp. To date in 2020 this has generated more than $20 million dollars, with the majority of that money being used to provide permanent public ownership for more than 10,000 acres of Michigan wetlands, many along our Great Lakes coasts. My education became more than "academic": it was real. When Dr. Moncrief went on sabbatical leave, I began my MSU teaching career in 1978 teaching Park and Recreation Policy.

Upon graduation with my MS in 1979, I was hired as an Academic Specialist by then chair Dr. Louis Twardzik, to continue teaching in the Department of Park and Recreation Resources. I then began a PhD program "down the hall" in the Department of Forestry with Dr. Lee James as my guidance committee chair. I was hired on tenure stream by chair Dr. Betty van der Smissen in 1991 and tenured under chair Dr. Joe Fridgen in 1997 in the Department of Park, Recreation and Tourism Resources. Through all this, my greatest joy was to help students forward on their journey to rewarding professional careers and a fulfilling life.

In 2004 there was significant change as the university merged the Departments of Resource Development; Parks, Recreation and Tourism Resources; and Agriculture and Natural Resources Education and Communication Science as well as the Michigan Travel, Tourism and Recreation Resource Center to form a new unit, Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies (CARRS). This was an unsettling time for faculty and for many stakeholders and alums of the former programs and majors. People felt their connection to MSU and our programs weaken.

However, the faculty, stakeholders and students persevered and continued to evolve to our place today as Community Sustainability. As I lead up to my retirement date in September, I am still thrilled to be able to teach about national parks and public lands, natural resource and environmental policy, conservation, recreation and environmental enforcement, to help solve natural resource recreation management, planning and policy challenges of our stakeholders, and to lead the undergraduate internship program. I say with confidence, I have faith in the future because I know the young people who will be our leaders and they are GREAT! As you may have heard from me before, keep up the good work!

A letter from Dr. Doug Bessette

I’m a bit unique in that I was not only a graduate student in this department when it was Community, Agriculture, Recreation, and Resource Studies, or CARRS, but am now an Assistant Professor in the department that is—I think more affectionately—known as Community Sustainability, or CSUS.

The acronym has changed, but many of the faculty remain, as does the spirit and focus of the department and its students. We still put communities first, stakeholders’ interests first, uniting the best available science with the traditional knowledge and concerns of local residents first…that’s a lot of firsts! But those priorities are important because the challenges facing us are as much local as they are global, especially in my field of clean energy system transitions.

These systems are rapidly evolving and extraordinarily complex, and no one discipline can tackle their development and deployment alone. That sort of work takes what we’re beginning to call “transdisciplinary” or “convergent” research – research that doesn’t just rely on bringing together multiple perspectives and schools of thought, but is itself an entirely new way of seeing and examining the world.

Convergent research requires understanding systems and people’s role in those systems. While engineers and economists can improve the performance and cost of wind turbines, solar panels and biofuels, they increasingly face publics that are unsure of or even antagonistic towards deploying these technologies.

This is where CSUS, and my own work, comes in. My students and I combine the study of socioecological systems with the science of decision-making, focusing not only on articulating what the tradeoffs are, but how people make tradeoffs—or more often avoid making them. Our goal is to help folks find those options that both perform best and are most in line with their values and goals. It’s difficult work, but also crucially important. CSUS remains one of the few departments that allows for and elevates this work.

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