Nicholas faculty laud $72M gift

Seventy million dollars is a lot of money.

That's the amount Peter and Ginny Nicholas, co-chairs of the recently ended Campaign for Duke, promised to their namesake Dec. 31. Or to put it another way, that's the amount with which the faculty of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences can now dream.

Dean of the Nicholas School William Schlesinger said the specific allocations of the gift will be worked out over the coming months, with a good portion likely going to the creation of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the construction of a new building to house the Nicholas School--two proposals that fell on receptive ears after the Nicholases' gift was officially announced last week.

And although most faculty members deferred to the wisdom of the Nicholases and top University administrators to spend the $70 million wisely, many were also eager to express their views on where the money could be put to good use.

For example, Norman Christensen, ecology professor and founding dean of the Nicholas School, said the school could benefit from extra resources to recruit international students. "There is tremendous demand for our programs abroad, but the costs are often a major obstacle, particularly for students from developing countries," he said.

In additions, others, such as Prasad Kasibhatla, associate professor of environmental chemistry, said internationalization should be considered in discussions about the recent gift.

Paul Baker, professor of geochemistry, said he hopes some of the Nicholases' gift goes toward the endowment of new faculty hires. "At perhaps $1.5 million to $2 million per endowment, a lot of faculty could be hired," he said. Baker advocated hires in the fields of sustainable energy, sustainable water resources and global climate change. "Hiring 15 new faculty in these three fields would put Duke in the forefront of environmental science anywhere," he said.

Lynn Maguire, associate professor of the practice of environmental management and director of professional studies, said there are a few things she would like to see carried out to promote the professional programs. For example, she said more abundant financial aid for professional students would allow the Nicholas School to compete for students on a more equal basis with state universities. In addition, some of the money could be used to fund professional training in areas such as methods of public participation, Maguire said.

Bruce Corliss, professor of earth and ocean sciences, said he hopes the Nicholases' gift can be used to augment the school's commitment to undergraduate education. "One possibility would be to increase the field trip classes that we presently offer and a second would be to fund research grants for undergraduate students to carry out independent research projects on environmental topics with [Nicholas School] faculty," he said.

Some faculty members said they hope some of the money can go toward improving facilities at the Marine Lab in Beaufort, which houses the school's Coastal Systems Sciences and Policy Division. The other two divisions--Environmental and Earth and Ocean Sciences--would be housed together in the new building on the Durham campus.

Interdisciplinarity, which has played a key role in the Nicholas School's rise to national prominence, will also play an important role in the school's future, many faculty members said.

"The need for interdisciplinary research that links the biosphere, atmosphere and oceans is evident in nearly all priority statements issued by societies like the Ecological Society of America, the American Geophysical Union and the U.S. Global Climate Research Program through its global carbon and water cycles in the last decade," said Jim Clark, H.L. Blomquist Professor of Biology. "The emphasis will only increase with the awareness that climate change is now with us, that there are energy and water crises and that new Ph.D.s with the appropriate training are in short supply."

David Hinton, an environmental quality professor and ecotoxicology expert, added that, given the complex challenges environmental toxicologists will face in the next decade, research cannot be undertaken from just one angle. "The Nicholas School should continue to bridge efforts with faculty in the School of Medicine and in the Pratt School of Engineering to create teams that are capable of addressing environmental problems and solutions in meaningful ways," he said.

Kenneth Reckhow, professor of water resources, pointed out one interdisciplinary endeavor already underway. "In recent years, Duke--notably in the Nicholas School and in the Pratt School--has been developing strength in water resources and quality," Reckhow said. "Building on that, I see an opportunity for Duke to develop a center of excellence in water, and the Nicholas gift could allow us to realize that opportunity."

Others at the Nicholas School said the gift should help pay off some of the school's current debts before new initiatives are underway.

"First off, debts need to be paid and the school needs to correct problems in its current programs," said Stuart Rojstaczer, associate professor of geology and civil and environmental engineering.

"Currently the school is deeply in the red and needs about $20 to 30 million in endowment to become financially solvent. Another $20 million is needed in endowment in order to scale back the overextended professional program."

If the Nicholases' donation is being paid in up-front cash, Rojstaczer said, there would still be tens of millions of dollars left in endowment money, producing a revenue stream of $1 million to $2 million that could be used in a variety of initiatives.

Robert Wolpert, professor of statistics and decision scientists and professor of the environment, said he hoped the Nicholases' gift would help free up funds that were previously tied up in maintenance and operation fees for space in the Levine Science Research Center. "There are important areas we haven't been able to build up, and maybe now we can--at the boundaries between environmental science and genomics and microbiology, for example, and in surface water science," he said.

Baker said that, although there is a real need to close the school's budget gap, he hopes "this marvelous gift is not reduced to solving an ongoing financial imbalance."


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