In remembrance: Jonathan Bulkley

Jonathan Bulkley
Originally published: 
July, 2019

Jonathan W. Bulkley, Peter M. Wege Endowed Professor Emeritus of Sustainable Systems, died peacefully on July 14, 2019, at home with his wife Trudy and dog Maggie by his side. Professor Bulkley was a beloved member of the SEAS, U-M, and Ann Arbor communities and his presence will be missed by the many who knew him.

During his 43-year career at the University of Michigan, Professor Bulkley educated thousands of students, served on numerous university committees and on state-wide and national scientific committees, and published widely in the areas of resource policy and sustainability in water resources. He is perhaps best known as cofounder and director emeritus of the National Pollution Prevention Center for Higher Education, now the Center for Sustainable Systems.

“Jonathan’s legacy at the University of Michigan is clearly his leadership and commitment to interdisciplinary sustainability research, education and outreach,” said Greg Keoleian, professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Systems, “Jonathan set the bar high on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and service. His dedication to both the College of Engineering and SEAS was truly remarkable. 

“If we had to sum up Jonathan’s career in a few words,” Keoleian added, “I would say Jonathan Bulkley was a true gentleman and a scholar who advanced sustainability through his water policy research, the many students and future faculty that he trained, the policies he championed, and his unwavering support of his colleagues and staff to enable their success.”

All are welcome at a memorial service on Saturday, August 24, 2019, at 10:00 a.m. in the Michigan League ballroom. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Treeline Conservancy, 525 West William Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48103.

The article below, reprinted from the Spring 2011 issue of Stewards magazine, was written on the occasion of Professor Bulkley's retirement to recognize his countless personal and professional achievements.

Words of wisdom about Professor Bulkley

"When I was preparing for my doctoral defense, Jonathan advised me not to get rattled if a clear response to a question did not come to mind immediately. Instead, he suggested I should ask for another question and assured me that my mind would be at work, and eventually the proper response would emerge. He was correct, and I have passed that advice on to countless others."

— Susan MacKenzie, Visiting assistant professor of Environmental Studies, Colby College, SNRE Ph.D. ‘91

"I think it was his basic sincerity, honesty and optimism that have proven to be the most inspirational for me. Some things he said:

  • Do not twist the facts to fit your position. (I remember giving him a poster for his office that was the opposite of his philosophy: “Don't confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up.")
  • Seek the facts through rigorous data analysis and fact-finding.
  • Have a passion for your career choice.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Understand the actors/groups /interests and their interplay.
  • Be persistent!"

— Sari Sommarstrom, Ph.D., Sari Sommarstrom & Associates,SNRE M.S. ‘73, Ph.D. ‘76

Jonathan Bulkley retires

As a volunteer in a work camp in Ghana in 1960, Jonathan Bulkley, who recently had completed four years of a five-year undergraduate dual-degree program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), helped install a water system in a village in the bush. He had never before been to Africa, or in a place with black mamba snakes, mosquitoes carrying malaria, army ants and kids with swollen stomachs who weren't going to make it past the age of 5, he recalled. It was also the first time in his life the Kansas City native had ever been a racial minority.

The program, Operations Crossroads Africa, was a precursor to the Peace Corps. Participating was a “life-changing experience," Bulkley recalled. From Ghana he went to graduate school, completing a master's and a Ph.D. at MIT in civil engineering and political science. 

Bulkley and his wife, Trudy, moved to Ann Arbor in the late 1960s. He held faculty appointments in the School of Natural Resources as well as in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering (and was the first professor to hold those dual appointments).

The Bulkleys soon became active in the community, particularly in the issue of a wastewater treatment plant and controversy surrounding a plan to pump the city's waste into the Great Lakes. “We argued on technical grounds, but the political factors carried the day," Bulkley said.

The interplay between technical and political questions continued to define Bulkley's work as he developed research and teaching and served as a leader on water-related issues around the Great Lakes. “We each have a responsibility to be part of the community—local, state, international, wherever one is most comfortable," he said. “We owe something back."

At U-M, Bulkley witnessed the rise of the environmental movement, the first Earth Day and the increasing complexity of environmental research and planning. “We picked the low-hanging fruit first," he said. “The more we learn, the more technically challenging things become."

In the late 1980s, collaboration with Greg Keoleian, then a recently minted Ph.D. and now an SNRE professor, led to the establishment of what was then known as the National Pollution Prevention Center, which eventually became the Center for Sustainable Systems. Bulkley also was the first faculty member to be named the Peter M. Wege Professor of Sustainable Systems and was SNRE's commencement speaker in 2009.

While spring 2011 has been Bulkley's last semester teaching at U-M, his engagement with the pressing environmental issues of our time will continue. He is part of the Upper Great Lakes Study Board of the International Joint Commission, which is examining regulations for controls in Lake Superior in terms of climate change, and is involved in local efforts like planning a greenway in Ann Arbor.

“I want to emphasize that it's been a privilege to work with so many bright men and women all these years," he said. “It's been a really good run.