Peter Brown


McGill School of Environment:
A new director takes the helm

DANIEL McCABE | With a new director on board, a healthy student enrolment and a corps of revved-up professors collaborating with each other in fresh new ways, the McGill School of Environment is ready to make its mark on the world.

Peter Brown, the founding director of the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs and a professor of environmental ethics and governance, will be the MSE's first director.

Biology professor Joseph Rasmussen, a member of the MSE executive committee and the chair of the hiring committee that selected Brown, says the MSE job attracted some impressive candidates.

"They all had excellent academic dossiers," says Rasmussen of the finalists for the job. "But he was the one who really stood out." Rasmussen says his committee was struck by Brown's academic expertise -- they believed his scholarship would represent an important addition to the MSE.

"He's a practical philosopher," says Rasmussen of Brown, explaining that the new MSE director understands the underlying principles and theories behind public policy, but also has a keen sense for how political decisions are made in the real world.

"We want to train people for public service. Peter has the background to help us do that."

The committee was impressed by Brown's experience in building successful academic centres. He has established three institutions -- including the well-regarded School of Public Affairs in Maryland. Brown also set up the school's environmental policy program, considered by many to be one of the best of its kind in the U.S.

"Maybe the most important thing is that he has a strong sense of what the MSE is trying to do and he's excited about it himself," says Rasmussen. "I'm actually surprised that somebody from the outside could come in and click with us so well."

For his part, natural resource sciences professor Jim Fyles, the MSE's associate director, is happy to have Brown on the team.

"For those of us who've been working on this a while, it's an advantage to have someone like Peter come in with a fresh perspective.

"When you're toiling away, trying to get the program into the calendar, figuring out how the individual courses will work, you can lose sight of the broader vision of what you're trying to do. He has a very broad view of the environment. He's quite comfortable talking to people from science, as well as to people from the humanities and social sciences."

Brown has his own ideas about how to measure the MSE's productivity.

"I think the goal is to identify the things that are important to our society and to try to make a difference in those areas. That should be the litmus test of whether or not we're successful. I pay less attention to things like ratings and rankings in magazines."

When it comes to the environment, Brown isn't just a teacher, he's a conservationist. He manages a 450-acre tree farm in the mountains of Maryland, restoring land that wasn't treated very well in the past. He has served on the boards of groups such as the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, the Maryland Environmental Trust and Common Cause. The governor of Maryland appointed Brown to chair the state's Rural Legacy Program, an effort aimed at preserving 200,000 acres of land from development over the next 14 years.

His last book, Restoring the Public Trust: A Fresh Vision for Progressive Government in America, was a sometimes scathing indictment of right-wing politics in the U.S.

"For Brown, public enemy number one is Milton Friedman," declared a book review in Booklist. It's safe to say that Brown and Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist whose views about how the marketplace should reign supreme have been a driving force in global politics, don't see eye to eye.

"We've been relying on macroeconomics and microeconomics as premier tools for public policy and I think we've been overselling those tools," says Brown. "They're important tools, but they don't deal with the whole picture. There has to be a larger framework of values.

"In the past, we believed that all we had to do to make reasoned decisions was to use a cost-benefit analysis. One of the problems with cost-benefit analyses is that they assume that everything is tradeable at the margins. There are some things that shouldn't be tradeable."

"For Peter, being cost-effective isn't the only goal," Rasmussen says. "His view is that as human beings, it's our job to take care of the place."

In the publication Maryland Marine Notes, Brown once expressed concerns about the impact of globalization on the environment. As a result of the GATT trade agreement, Brown noted that the U.S. was able to lodge a successful protest against Canadian reforestation efforts.

"The GATT can potentially interfere with the 'carrots and sticks' we might otherwise use to affect policy, including environmental policy," he said.

When asked what drew him to the MSE position, Brown answers, "I've spent a lot of my time focusing on the environment and raising questions about where we're headed. The people I've met at McGill have impressed me with their enthusiasm for this project. It's an excellent school with an interesting range of environmental specialists. I think we're in a position to do something special here."

Having built three centres before, Brown boils down the recipe for success. "The first thing is, you have to make sure that the commitment is there -- that people truly care about what they're doing. That certainly seems to be the case at McGill."

Close to 90 students are currently enrolled in the MSE -- a pleasant surprise.

"The process took so long -- just getting everything approved by the faculties and the committees," says Fyles. "We barely made it into the student calendar and the time-table. We haven't been able to do any advertising or much recruiting for the school. We really didn't expect to have many students for the first year."

Several students decided to opt out of their environmental studies programs and switch to the MSE. Although the environmental studies programs will be folded into the MSE at some point, students currently in the programs were able to complete their programs there if they wanted to.

Rasmussen thinks he understands why the MSE is drawing good student numbers right from the start. "I think it's exciting for students to see how excited their professors are about this."

It hasn't all been easy. Fyles says a lot of his time is spent "putting out fires.

"From an administrative point of view, the school can be confusing. In some ways it acts like a department. In some ways it acts like a faculty. When you add in the fact that it represents a partnership between three faculties [Arts, Science and Agricultural and Environmental Sciences] and two campuses, you can see how the planning process gets to be complicated.

"Almost everything we do involves something that McGill as an institution isn't used to doing. Every course we develop has to be approved by three faculties, for instance."

One of the MSE's innovations has been its team-teaching approach to many of its courses. Professors from several disciplines work together, sharing their different takes on the subject matter. Rasmussen teaches a course on society and environment with colleagues from economics, anthropology and geography. Fyles partners with professors from atmospheric and oceanic sciences, geography and biology for a course on the global environment. "It's fun," says Fyles. "I'm learning a lot from the others.

"It's not the cheapest way to offer a course," he adds. "Students are getting value for their money."

"It doesn't put too much of a load on any one individual," says Rasmussen of the team-teaching. "It takes a while to get the chemistry right, but when you have the right people working together, it's very interesting having the different points of view."

The MSE intends to take its students away from McGill, giving them hands-on opportunities to explore environmental conditions in other parts of the world. First up is Panama -- the first set of MSE students will travel there in January.

"The cost for the course is high," explains Fyles, since the price also includes travel and accommodation expenses. "That, plus the fact that we're asking the students who enrol to have some training in Spanish, had us thinking that we wouldn't be able to attract many students. It turns out we're way oversubscribed, and by very good students. I've heard that students have been juggling their course loads, looking for ways to study Spanish so they can go."

Brown, who will be cross-appointed in the Departments of Geography and Natural Resource Sciences, believes that the next step is to build around the MSE's four core areas -- Health and Environment, Biodiversity and Conservation of Communities, Stewardship of Planetary Systems, and Culture Exchange and Environment.

Other faculties, such as engineering, law, management and medicine, will be invited to join forces with the MSE. "It doesn't make sense to focus on Health and Environment and not include the Faculty of Medicine, for instance."

Another goal is to set up graduate programs as soon as it's feasible. Brown also wants to build links to national and international environmental organizations.

Joseph Rasmussen recently attended a scientist's presentation at an environmental conference that left him unimpressed. All the speaker did was talk about problems, leaving his listeners with the impression that there was nothing that could be done about them.

"I don't want this to be the kind of place where people are just whining about things. I want the MSE to be offering solutions." His director concurs.

Brown says that he knows of other environmental programs where students are asked to "put away their emotions" so that they can focus on their courses in a dispassionate way. He doesn't want the MSE to operate that way. "Students who want to study in this area often have a real emotional connection to the environment," explains Brown. "They're concerned. We have to keep that fire alive, maybe even fan it a little bit."