Greater than the Sum of our Parts

WIMG_7485hat is ESF? Why should a donor interested in transforming the world choose to invest in ESF? What expectation does she have that ESF will give her a better and different return on investment? We want to provide a great education to our students. What university does not at least make the same claim? We have faculty doing fantastic research and solving problems. What research university does not? So, what is ESF’s story? Do we have a narrative to share that is different from that of any of scores of other universities? I believe that we do, and that is a central thread running through our strategic planning.

Any institution can have a superstar researcher. A better measure of the quality of an institution is the quality of its weakest researcher. An even better measure is of the institution’s overall impact sustained over a long period of time. Good institutions compete favorably for the latest priorities of funding agencies. Great institutions do too, but in the context of their own vision, their own direction, their own goals.

An analogy that will be well known to faculty is the review for a tenure decision. Such reviews not only look at the number and quality of publications but also at whether those publications add up to a clear and definable direction of research. Why do we look for this at tenure? Because experience has shown that the contributions made over a career with a common underlying direction is greater than the sum of its individual contributions. Through a long, productive career, discoveries, lessons learned, and experiences add up to create a richer, deeper insight into an area of inquiry than any single project could ever do. Institutions make a huge investment in salary over the course of a research career and rightfully want some assurance that it will all add up to something more than a bunch of individual opportunistic one-off contributions.

The same is true of an institution. It can be a random collection of very good researchers or it can strategically pull together a diverse faculty that, collectively, add up to something more than a roster of independent researchers. Over its history, a great institution advances an entire realm of knowledge and discovery,  making something more coherent and impactful than random contributions here or there. And investors who truly want to transform the world want to put their funds where they will precipitate such a grand and enduring contribution, where they will be a part of something greater than a single project, faculty member, building, or facility.

While ESF will always be nimble, adapting to unforeseen (indeed, unforeseeable) opportunities and needs, it will do so in the context of a explicit purpose, with small achievements serving as stepping stones toward a greater contributions to society. Through the current visioning process we will tease out our story, identifying our special purpose, our unique direction and overarching goals. In the process we will enumerate all those diverse things we are doing within any single general goal and, more importantly, create a roadmap for ourselves that will guide future decisions and priorities to assure that we are doing something bigger and more noble than a collection of short term opportunistic projects.

This is not easy and is the burden of leadership. That burden, however, is bearable because it is shared by us all. Each faculty and staff member shares the burden to think about what makes ESF special and how ESF can have its greatest impacts on the world over the next century. Each department chair has the burden of leadership to not only summarize what his or her faculty are doing wonderfully today, but to envision where the great challenges and opportunities lie on the horizon and what investments make clusters of faculty greater than a mere collection of individuals. We have scores of faculty and multiple departments so that we, collectively, benefit from such leadership on multiple levels. And the current trend toward transdisciplinarity is a concession to the reality that the scale and complexity of environmental challenges facing us are too great for individual disciplines and require, too, a team that amounts to more than sum of its fields.

I am excited that a storyline has begun to emerge with which we can tell the world who we are, where we came from, and most importantly of all, where we are going. Not in minute detail, but in the broad strokes that allow space to continually re-imagine, assess, and adapt ourselves to changing circumstances.  All the while not losing sight of our core purpose or our inspiring vision that will empower us to truly make the future better. Through this planning process we will embrace changes, yes, but to a greater extent we will seek clarity about our values and vision and the ability to tell our unique story to the world to attract, inspire, and engage the very best students, staff, faculty, and investors. If ESF aspires to be a leading institution — who, after all, aspires to be a mediocre one? — then it needs to be led by a clear vision implemented by faculty and staff who are themselves leaders. Leadership is never needed more than at moments, like this one, when we take a hard look at ourselves, decide what we want to be, and resolve to pursue our dream.

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About qdwheeler

Quentin Wheeler is the 4th president of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry
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One Response to Greater than the Sum of our Parts

  1. “And the current trend toward transdisciplinarity is a concession to the reality that the scale and complexity of environmental challenges facing us are too great for individual disciplines and require, too, a team that amounts to more than sum of its fields.” I agree wholeheartedly. And it is easier said than done, of course. I look forward to see the outcomes of this visioning process.

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