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Sustainability Task Force Reports

Fall 2013

Sustainability — of our air and water, of our farms and fisheries, and of our cities, economies and societies — has become a watchword of human development in an era of globalization, climate change and rapid technological advancement. Successfully negotiating today’s environmental and societal challenges may be humanity’s most pressing task, one that calls for the application of our best minds and most creative efforts. The disciplinary swath of sustainability is wide, encompassing scientists who study the structure, function and complexities of our natural systems; psychologists and philosophers who study the behavior, motivations and ethics of individuals and societies; and historians, economists, sociologists, and political scientists who analyze development, conflict and cooperation at local to global scales. The most advanced sustainability academic programs integrate broadly across these disciplines, emphasize mechanistic relationships and predictive capacity, and seek innovative solutions that advance human capital and natural assets.

With its broad mandate and considerable strengths in the natural and social sciences and the humanities, the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences is the logical epicenter for a sustainability initiative within USC. The strong underpinnings of an initiative are already in place. In the natural sciences, internationally prominent scholars conduct cutting-edge research on our most pressing environmental problems, including: the global carbon cycle and carbon dioxide mitigation; ocean acidification, marine food webs and sustainable aquaculture; biodiversity, population dynamics and organismic responses to environmental change; alternative energy technology, material life cycles and sustainable material development. In the social sciences and humanities, sustainability and environmental conflict resolution are explored in myriad ways, including: linkages between development, material consumption and human behavior; the intersection of knowledge, values and politics; the moral foundations of sustainability and the concept of environmental justice; the role of international relations and negotiations in the resolution of global environmental problems; the importance of global development in emerging economic powerhouses such as Latin America and Asia.

USC Dornsife also supports two units that cut across environmental themes. The USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, an organized research unit, unites diverse perspectives on the environment through sponsorship of graduate, undergraduate and outreach programs; direct support of marine and terrestrial research via the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center; and through acquisition of external support for faculty recruitment, research activities and infrastructure development. The Environmental Studies Program (ENST) has created a highly successful and rapidly growing undergraduate interdisciplinary sustainability major with a new and very promising natural science heavy major that adds sustainability elements to a pre-health curriculum. Combining elements of the natural and social sciences and appreciation of the humanities, ENST is a template for further growth of interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship.

As noted above, the hallmarks of superior academic programs in the environment and sustainability are disciplinary strength and cross-disciplinary integration. USC Dornsife has significant strength but, from a sustainability perspective, collaboration and integration across units is weak, hampering our competitiveness in environmental research and education. The Task Force asserts that greater prominence in sustainability research, superior instruction in our classrooms and labs, and new solutions to complex problems will result from a concerted effort to stimulate broader collaboration among faculty, centers, and departments within USC Dornsife. The recommendations below reflect a task force consensus to enhance our sustainability portfolio through capacity-building actions that foster broad collaboration, and strengthen participating units and departments. Finally the task force recommends several ‘transformative hires’ that fill critical gaps and enhance cohesiveness across existing disciplinary strengths.

Capacity Building Recommendations:

(1) We recommend that USC Dornsife create an umbrella for sustainability for external branding purposes and internal administration of capacity-building activities. It could include a website for branding purposes and a commitment that task force members continue to meet to further evolve a sustainability vision for USC Dornsife. Under this scenario, there would be no loss of autonomy by units that self-affiliate with this overlay, which could exist for purposes of development and administration of distinguished speaker series (see item 8 below) and shared resources such as postdocs or graduate students (item 4). Individual units could be encouraged to leverage modest umbrella initiatives with unit or disciplinary-specific sustainability lectures.

Outcome:  Stimulate Collaboration

(2) We recommend approval of departmental strategic plans that include sustainability positions at the junior or mid/career level. Only by a significant influx of junior sustainability colleagues in various units of USC Dornsife can we assure the growth of a community of sustainability scholars that also are aligned with the health and strategic goals of individual departments. Units with strategic plans that include possible sustainability hires are biology, Earth sciences, the USC Wrigley Institute, international relations, History, environmental studies, spatial sciences, psychology, chemistry, and philosophy. We support all of these proposed hires.

Outcome:  Build Strength

(3) We recommend that graduate program development in sustainability proceed through multiple pathways, including adoption of sustainability themes in existing programs; a new interdisciplinary doctoral program in sustainability, centered in social sciences; and other innovative, cross-cutting programs with demonstrated faculty commitment to secure resources.

Outcome:  Stimulate Collaboration and Academic Placements  

(4) We recommend investment in cross-disciplinary graduate student and post-doc support, i.e. creation of a sustainability junior scholars program. The program would focus on students and postdocs who bridge disciplines and promote faculty engagement in sustainability themes. As often noted in Sustainability Task Force discussions, graduate students and postdoctoral research associates can be collaboration drivers, uniting faculty from different disciplines to focus on a common set of problems. This action would strengthen and nurture a ‘sustainability community,’ and promote positive feedbacks for the faculty.

Outcome:  Stimulate Collaboration and Academic Placements

(5) We recommend that USC Dornsife re-tool significant elements of USC Dornsife General Education offerings to include laboratory and field components connected to the Los Angeles experience and the connections between food and water security, air quality, energy and transportation to a diverse population working and residing in a complex urban and natural environment. This would include reformulation of existing courses by adding laboratory and/or field components, development of new courses, and investment in laboratory tools for students to investigate water quality, air quality, energy, and other environmental phenomena in the context of Los Angeles.

Outcome:  Build Strength

(6) We recommend that USC Dornsife promote and support intensive cross-disciplinary workshops or symposia (1-2 days) that foster novel faculty and graduate student clusters that advance cross-cutting research and education in sustainability themes. Workshops may include outside distinguished scholars as participants, who may also be asked to serve as distinguished speakers and provide a public seminar on the University Park campus. Defined products or outcomes may include proposals to funding agencies or foundations.

Outcome:  Stimulate Collaboration

(7) We recommend that USC Dornsife provide seed funds for nascent collaborative projects. USC Dornsife’s and the VPR’s office have provided seed funding for several ongoing sustainability clusters (2020 Climate Change, Sustainability Research Network, Biodiversity and Environment) that are contributing heavily to the task force. These tremendous successes should be rewarded and amplified.

Outcome:  Stimulate Collaboration

(8) We recommend the USC Dornsife support a distinguished lecture series that features speakers of broad interest to the sustainability task force and the USC community. Departments also may wish to use their lecture series to promote sustainability-oriented speakers that will attract campus-wide attention.

Outcome:  Stimulate Collaboration

(9) We recommend using sustainability as one means to better engage USC Dornsife in university initiatives and priorities such as programming in Asia and innovative master's level education.

Outcome:  Build Strength

Transformational Hire Recommendations:

We endorse the hiring of a highly visible transformative hire in the area of “environmental economics”, i.e. a distinguished scholar who incisively applies the methods of economics to sustainability problems that overlap with the interests of some natural and social sciences. Non-exclusive examples of problems that a scholar of this sort would work on would include energy and carbon emissions, climate impacts, fisheries, food and water security, transportation, and coastal planning. This person ideally should be highly respected in other areas of economics but must first and foremost be a sustainability scholar who can work effectively among natural and social scientists to expand and transform opportunities for funded research in sustainability. This individual could provide significant cohesion between the natural and social sciences, as the economics of natural capital bridge nature’s resources and human behavior, with immediate implications for policy and development.

Outcome:  Build Cohesiveness

We endorse a senior hire in the area of environmental justice (EJ). EJ is an area that intrinsically bridges the natural and social sciences via relationships among environmental modification, environmental health, economics, and community development. USC Dornsife already has a recognized strength in this area, with a focus on air resources. An expert in water resources would compliment existing strengths in coastal sciences and create yet another bridge between the natural, social, compuational and health sciences. A typical EJ research project might deploy dozens or potentially hundreds of students to use chemical and/or biological methodology and survey methodology from the social sciences to encode vast data bases of spatial, temporal, social and health-related empirical data that can explored to understand issues central to the urban Los Angeles experience. An additional senior EJ scholar would allow us to claim national preeminence in a subfield of sustainability that connects directly to the urban context of Los Angeles.

Outcome: Build Cohesiveness