The clear-cutting of Michigan’s densely forested wilderness was well under way when the University of Michigan began offering courses in forestry in 1881—the first university in the United States to do so. The year 1903 saw the creation of a Department of Forestry, forerunner of today’s School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). Chaired by Filibert Roth in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the Department of Forestry conferred its first Master of Science in Forestry degrees the following year.
A School of Forestry and Conservation
In 1927, the department evolved into the School of Forestry and Conservation—the first such school in the United States. Samuel T. Dana was appointed as professor and dean, heading a faculty of 10. Twenty-five students were enrolled.
Saginaw Forest and Eberwhite Woods were the original outdoor laboratories for U-M forestry and conservation students. But in 1929, the school opened its first forestry camp.
Camp Filibert Roth, where students would do summer field work, was located southwest of Munising in an abandoned logging camp. Neither the land nor the run-down shacks remaining on it were suitable. So in 1935, the camp was moved to Golden Lake in the Ottawa National Forest and remained in use through the 1980s. Today the school’s field training takes place at the U-M Biological Station in Cheboygan County, as well as at a variety of U-M sites in Washtenaw Countu, including Saginaw Forest and Stinchfield Woods, the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, and Nichols Arboretum.
An Expanding Program That Needs More Space
In the early years the school curriculum was limited to classes in forestry and conservation. Starting in 1947, and with help from a Charles Lanthrop Pack Forestry Foundation grant, efforts were made to strengthen the program, broaden the overall curriculum, and add areas of specialization. The school changed its name to School of Natural Resources in 1950 and graduated master’s-level students with degrees in wildlife management, conservation, and fisheries over the next few years.
Enlarging the school and adding programs brought with it a need for more space. The remodeling of the West Medical Building on the U-M campus was completed in 1961. It became the Natural Resources Building and the School of Natural Resources moved in, uniting all its departments under one roof. Four years later, the administration of the Department of Landscape Architecture was transferred to the School of Natural Resources, too. The building was renamed the Samuel Trask Dana Building in 1973.
A Broadening of Curriculum and Research
More courses and programs were added to prepare students to meet emerging environmental challenges in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s:
- An interdisciplinary program in remote sensing, begun in collaboration with the Institute of Science and Technology and still in operation today
- Environmental communications courses
- A Wildlands Management Center linked with several countries and international organizations addressing global environmental concerns
- Concentrations in (1) resource ecology and management, (2) resource policy and behavior, and (3) landscape architecture
Then, awarded a multi-year grant from the Hewlett Foundation beginning in 1983, the school embarked on a further redesign of its integrative interdisciplinary curriculum. Continuing efforts to expand the curriculum reflected a broadening of research interests in faculty and students. “For over 50 years, research on the Kirtland’s Warbler has focused on the organism,” said Burton Barnes, U-M professor of forestry from 1964 to 2006. “Our research in the 1980s was the first of its kind in demonstrating that an understanding of whole ecosystems can explain what areas the warbler colonizes, the timing of first colonization, and the duration of occupancy.”
A Home for Landscape Architecture Students
With the addition of curriculum and programs came the need, again, for expanded space and more diverse facilities. A microcomputer laboratory was installed in the basement of the Dana Building in 1986. Under the leadership of Dean Garry D. Brewer, the school in the early 1990s undertook a $5 million renovation of its laboratories and classrooms and the creation of landscape architecture studios on the third floor of the Dana Building. Landscape architecture students, housed in one campus building after another for nearly 30 years, could finally move into the Dana Building in 1994 and claim it as a permanent home.
"Even though we were part of the School of Natural Resources it is amazing how many places we were housed before our studios were finally placed in the Dana Building,” said Terry Brown, U-M professor of landscape architecture from 1972 to 2005. “We left the School of Art and Architecture to join SEAS. But [many] stops occurred along the way. . . . These different locations proved our endurance and determination to not only intellectually join SEAS but also to physically be part of the school."
A Growing University Presence
The 1990s were years of expansion for the School of Natural Resources, both internally and as a university presence. Adding the word Environment to its name in 1992, SEAS became a leader in cross-campus environmental initiatives and grant-funded projects. With funding from Frederick Erb, the school launched a joint venture with U-M’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business in 1995 under the leadership of Interim Dean Paul W. Webb. The project culminated in the creation of the Corporate Environmental Management Program (CEMP) and the Erb Environmental Management Institute.
In 1998, with Professor Daniel A. Mazmanian serving as dean, SEAS received funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for its master’s program—one of only three schools in the nation to win such an award. The school established the Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS) the following year. A master’s specialization in environmental justice was created to study the disproportionate impact environmental problems have on communities of color and low income.
“Environmental justice has become a topic of widespread interest among academic researchers, students, and policy makers,” said Professor Paul Mohai, founder of SEAS’s Environmental Justice Program. “SEAS has played an important role in making it so.”
Near the end of the century and in the run-up to its hundredth anniversary in 2003, SEAS also embarked on a huge project to renovate the Dana Building using sustainable, green building practices. The 2-phase renovation received a Gold LEED Rating from the U.S. Green Building Council when finished.
Meeting the Environmental Needs of the Twenty-first Century
SEAS dedicated itself to further expanding existing programs and launching new initiatives beginning in the year 2000, with Professor Barry G. Rabe serving as interim dean before Dean Rosina M. Bierbaum began her 10-year tenure in 2001. Early on, the school:
Launched the Ecosystem Management Initiative
Developed four new research themes: the Great Lakes, global change, ecosystem management and conservation biology, and sustainable production and consumption
Adopted two new programs: Michigan Sea Grant and the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER)
Launched the Minority Environmental Leadership Development Initiative (MELDI)
In 2001 the school also adopted a new undergraduate degree program now offered within the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts: Program in the Environment, or PitE.
The changes continued through the end of the decade. SEAS established its current fields of study—seven for master’s students and two for PhD students—in 2006, fully funding its PhD program for the first time that same year. The school also launched three new master’s-level programs: (1) Wyss Fellows, (2) Peace Corps Fellows/USA, and (3) Engineering Sustainable Systems, a dual-degree program with the U-M College of Engineering.
In 2007, SEAS hosted a 3-day summit, Coping with Climate Change—the first national summit dedicated to helping the United States prepare for changes in temperature, precipitation, sea level rise, and species range. Two years later, in 2009, the Landscape Architecture Program celebrated its hundredth anniversary.
SEAS in Recent Years
SEAS launched new grant-funded projects and has undergone changes in leadership. After Dean Bierbaum stepped down in 2011, Professor J. David Allan served as interim dean, followed by Professor Marie Lynn Miranda, dean from 2012 to 2015. During this time, the Kresge foundation awarded the school a large grant to study and make recommendations on a Michigan school siting policy protective of children’s health. SEAS Professor Daniel G. Brown is now serving as the school’s interim dean.
2017: The SEAS Evolution
The University of Michigan is making significant, highly innovative changes to its environmental education and research programs. Building on more than a century of leadership in environmental science, management, policy, and design, SEAS became a new school, the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), as of July 1. 2017. Jonathan T. Overpeck, one of the nation’s leading experts on climate change, was appointed the inaugural dean of SEAS in June. His five-year appointment, effective Aug. 14, was approved by the U-M Board of Regents.
From its inception as a forestry school in early in the twentieth century to the interdisciplinary institution it is today, SEAS has prepared its students to understand and solve the major environmental problems of the day. Thousands of SEAS graduates are now working to create a better environment throughout the United States and in countries around the world.