Virginia Tech Board of Visitors approves proposed School of Environmental Security
Virginia Tech
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The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors’ Executive Committee recently approved a resolution to establish a new School of Environmental Security.

If approved by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the school would be housed within the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) and sited in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area. The school will leverage Virginia Tech’s ongoing presence and reputation in the capital region to build partnerships, expand experiential learning, and facilitate research and development opportunities.

The concept of environmental security has emerged as perceptions of natural resources and their interconnectedness with human well-being have evolved. Once considered boundless, natural resources began to be viewed as finite entities in need of management and conservation and then as part of complex, adaptive systems in which humans are ultimately entwined.

These systems are now facing unprecedented challenges — many as a result of human activity and choices — like climate change, pollution, drought, natural disasters, wildfires, species extinction, and disease transmission that place nations, infrastructure, supply chains, utilities, health, and our day-to-day existence as human beings at risk.

Now, more than ever, a systems perspective is required to understand and manage these challenges and to mitigate the threats to nations, institutions, and communities. This is the call to action and the space in which the School of Environmental Security will operate.

“The school will be the first of its kind in the nation, showcasing both CNRE’s and Virginia Tech’s leadership in this arena, as well as the value of our established presence in the Washington, D.C., metro area,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the college. “Leveraging decades of success in the nation’s capital with our existing center and degree program, we are strategically building the school and its portfolio of degrees, research focus, and innovative engagement model to address the myriad challenges brought forth through the lens of the environment and the implications to security.”

The School of Environmental Security will include the college’s existing Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). CLiGS will operate as a “think tank” to advance the discussion and debate the meaning and practice of leadership in an era of extreme polarization, fake news, declining trust in American institutions, and the post-pandemic re-evaluation of globalization.

To tackle the complex problems in the new frontier of environmental security, the school will integrate instruction, including the implementation of new graduate degree programs, with an applied research hub and an innovation and design studio, which will help facilitate decision-making among stakeholders in resolving complex issues.

CLiGS has been offering graduate education and professional development opportunities for aspiring leaders in environmental sustainability in the D.C. area for more than two decades. The center also provides research and consultation assistance for partners and projects around the world in the area of sustainable development.

Between 2011 and 2019, online enrollment in the current Master of Natural Resources (MNR) degree administered by CLiGS increased by more than 600 percent; the program currently enrolls 175 Online MNR students and 35 Executive MNR students.

MNR enrollments are expected to continue to increase over the next five years as the program transforms into a new Master of Professional Studies in global sustainability.

New graduate courses are currently in development to support a Master of Professional Studies in environmental security as well as a Master of Professional Studies in climate leadership. Possibilities also exist for a future professional doctoral degree focused on environmental security and experiential learning opportunities for undergraduates.

“The school is fortunate to be able to stand on the shoulders of the successes we’ve enjoyed in the D.C. area, particularly over the last decade. It’s a natural evolution of the work of CLiGS, and it will cement Virginia Tech’s role at the critical intersection of environmental sustainability, security, and human well-being,” said Michael Mortimer, director of CLiGS, who will lead the new school.

Complementing the instructional focus, the proposed School of Environmental Security will offer two additional features: a research hub and an innovation and design studio.

Environmental security challenges are large, complex, and boundaryless, and solutions will require a sophisticated set of tools such as data analysis, leadership, and innovation. The applied research hub will provide increased collaborative research opportunities for faculty members from CNRE and other colleges, paving the way for expanding the college’s and the university’s sponsored research grants.

The proposed innovation and design studio will also provide opportunities for faculty to engage with a diverse set of stakeholders in the D.C. area who need innovative solutions for real-world, real-time problems in areas related to environmental security, such as federal agencies, the military, and private corporations.

It was the college’s ongoing research agenda and its work in areas like sustainability, water, weather, forestry, big data, and remote sensing that provided the impetus for the new school and inspired alumnus Mike Melo ’79 and his wife and business partner, Kathy Gravely Melo.

The Melos’ generous giving to the college helped lay the groundwork for the new school, including sponsoring an Environmental Security Forum in 2019 where representatives from government and industry, as well as Virginia Tech academic leaders and faculty, met to begin a conversation about operationalizing data for evidence-based decision-making in relation to environmental issues.

That conversation about environmental security has continued between Melo and Winistorfer, finding fruition in the current proposal before the Board of Visitors with its expanded educational and research possibilities.

“Although Virginia Tech and the college function within higher education and the public sector, and the Melos and their company, ITA International, are working in the private sector, we agree on the mutual goal of creating a secure, stable, and sustainable world through our combined efforts and the launch of the new school and its programs,” Winistorfer said.

“Environmental security is a critical part of the solution for managing the environmental threats that impact people, communities, states, nations, and the global community,” he added. “Environmental security as well as the new school represent complex and difficult undertakings, but both hold great promise for bringing solutions forward.”

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