University of West Florida Department of Environmental Studies
by Matthew Schwartz
The University of West Florida's Department of Environmental Studies (EVR) is based on a core of four faculty positions from a Geography background and one faculty member with a Geology/Oceanography background. These five faculty positions make up the academic and research core of the department; several adjuncts teach core courses, including those at the introductory/general education and upper-level undergraduate level. An undergraduate B.S. degree in Environmental Science is offered with three tracks: Natural Science, Geography, and Environmental Policy. A graduate M.S. degree in Environmental Science is offered with both a thesis and non-thesis option; the majority of graduate students choose the non-thesis option.
The primary strengths of the UWF EVR program are an academically diverse set of faculty specializations that enable the program, as a whole, to meet a broad spectrum of interests associated with the general field of environmental studies: soil science, aquatic science, meteorology and climatology, biodiversity, and coastal land-use. The department also benefits from the presence of the UWF GeoData Center, a suite of hardware and software that facilitates the learning and application of Geographical Information Science and Systems (i.e., GIS). Finally, the program, as a whole, is established to take advantage of a continuing and rising level of student interest in the environmental studies, including such topics as sustainability and environmental assessment and remediation.
Furthermore, UWF EVR has made certain efforts to offer courses across the continuum of the environmental studies and via an expanding number of media, including online offerings and distance learning technologies. The graduate-level Environmental Science degree was established to be easily accessible to non-traditional students, including members of the local professional workforce. This has facilitated a continuing connection between the town (Pensacola) and broader region (Northwest Florida) with the program.
It is the opinion of this reviewer that the major challenges faced by the EVR program are a lack of coordination of academic effort that has led to a failure to define a focus for the academic program. Environmental Studies is, by nature, a fairly broad interdisciplinary program and, as such, does not lend itself well to a core academic mission of UWF. Because the program has been established as Environmental Studies, rather than Geography or Geology (or even Environmental Science), it necessarily depends on prerequisite courses from other "classic" academic programs, such as Biology and Chemistry, while contributing three courses to the UWF general education program: Environmental Science, Physical Geography, and Physical Geology. The Environmental Science course is marketed as a less-rigorous science course and thus serves mainly to meet general education requirements for majors from outside of the physical and natural sciences. Physical Geology is offered as an introductory course to EVR majors, who are inclined to follow the Natural Science track within the EVR major; however, there is not an opportunity for students interested in Geology to pursue other courses (except for Environmental Geology, which is offered as an upper-level elective). Physical Geography is offered as a course between Environmental Science and Physical Geology: perhaps less scientifically rigorous than Physical Geology, but of more use to science majors than Environmental Science. It also serves as the introductory course to the Geography track specialization within EVR.
The majority of the EVR faculty are geographers; however, it appears that the academic programs have been developed to attract students to a range of tracks, rather than focus on the Geography core experience of the faculty. The Geography track is the second- or third-most populated major track. The Environmental Policy track is currently the most popular major track, but is a poor match for the existing faculty specializations, as none of the faculty have academic specializations specific to natural science policy issues.
The EVR program at UWF is currently undergoing an external program review that will be completed by the end of May 2009. One component of this review was a quantitative assessment by the College of Arts and Sciences Dean's office. That assessment issued lower-than-anticipated rankings for the EVR department in terms of Faculty Quality and Association with the UWF Mission. This assessment is being appealed. Early word from this assessment process has indicated that it may be necessary for the Environmental Studies department to merge with an academic program closer to the core curriculum of the College of Arts and Sciences (e.g., Chemistry) to maintain viability through the current period of state budget cuts and associated program management by the University and College.