Establishing a Program
The humble origins of the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology (GDPE) began in the 1970’s when a group of dedicated CSU faculty spent their free time and energy advocating for an interdisciplinary, collaborative and community-oriented ecology program at CSU. Although the work of building an entire graduate degree lay on the shoulders of many, the original idea for an ecology program at CSU can be attributed to Dr. Dick Tracy.
When Dr. Tracy arrived in the Zoology Department at CSU in 1974, he immediately saw the potential to unite the many ecologists on the CSU campus and the surrounding agencies across Fort Collins. At the same time, he also saw the potential for an ecology major. To start the ball rolling, without drawing too much attention, Dr. Tracy strategically started his campaign by advocating for CSU to receive the recognition it deserved for its influence ecology. In 1977, Dr. Tracy approached ecologists in different departments and colleges and then the Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Dean Jaros, and Academic Vice President, Dr. Chuck to support his efforts. In 1978, the first committee to “investigate the state of ecology at CSU” was formed. This committee would later transition into the Ecology Program Committee of the Environmental Resource Center (EPC) in 1979-1980. Dr. Tracy was joined by Pat Reid, Ward Whicker, Dave Coleman, Mil Dyer and Ken Doxtader to serve as the original EPC faculty. With dedication and countless hours of work, this group made strides to assemble support for CSU as an ecological hub.
To bolster the ecological clout of CSU, the EPC started the Visiting Distinguished Ecologist Series. In fall 1979, a crowd of 1,200 people gathered for the first Distinguished Ecologist (DE): the infamous Eugene Odum, a pioneer in the discipline of Ecology. Continuing though the fall of 1979 and spring of 1980 hundreds more attended talks by Dr. Samuel J. McNaughton, William E. Cooper, James H. Brown, and W. Dwight Billings.
The schedule for the visiting DE was rigorous. It consisted of a weeklong visit, three hour-long seminar lectures and countless meetings with labs, students, and faculty. Although this schedule was a treat for all those who were able to attend, it was difficult for the DE’s and the members of the EPC, who were concurrently implementing other efforts on campus.
In 1982, two years after the first Distinguished Ecologist, EPC formally created the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Ecological Society of America.
With increased support of faculty, students, and administration, the EPC made strides to an ecology major when it transitioned into the Program in Ecological Studies (PES) as a part of the Graduate School in 1984. During that time, it was framed as a certificate that could be achieved alongside any graduate degree on campus.
“People wanted to have ‘Ecology’ on their transcript. There were already people all over campus doing ecological research, but this put an official title to that work,” said Dave Steingraeber.
As if icing on the cake, in 1984 as CSU stepped closer to an Ecology major, CSU hosted the Ecological Society of America (ESA) joint conference with the American Institute of Biological Science, the Botanical Society and the Association for Tropical. With X number in attendance, many left the conference speaking highly of the University, adding more stature to CSU.
Continuing the momentum, John Wiens was hired as the first senior ecologist in 1985 after Dave Coleman, a prominent ecologist, left CSU. Bea was hired as a first academic coordinator and in 1987 Jim Detling was elected as the chairman for the PES program. Jim held this position from 1987 to 1991 and during that time PES made major strides to continue building the ecological discipline across the Front Range. To achieve this, they collaborated with other universities, including the University of Wyoming, University of Denver, and University of Boulder. They also continued bringing influential Distinguished Ecologists to campus and begin versing students in the basic foundations of Ecology with the introduction of two new courses.
Autecology and Synecology were the first foundational courses of PES and were co-taught by passionate faculty. Interest in the courses was apparent when enrollment numbers reached 60 students in the first few years after the course’s creation in 1987 and 1988 respectively.
As support built to transition PES into a degree program, the decisive step was to bring everyone on campus together.
Luckily, Dr. Dave Steingraeber became the chairman of PES in 1991. Dr. Steingraeber began to address the numerous concerns about the coordination of the program and built the necessary support from the Colorado State Board of Education, the Faculty Council and Department heads. With a limited budget but a broad vision of comradery and complimentary research goals, the PES committee campaigned for a way for students and faculty to share their zeal and research in Ecology. Without a precedent for such a program on campus, overcoming the logistics and red tape that accompanied the unknown highlighted the resolve the members of the PES Executive Committee had to make their dream a reality. Dr. Steingraber, the help of John Wiens, championed the creation of an ecology major. With additional support from the PES committee and the support of Dean Jaros, GDPE came to fruition.
On July 1st, Mary Ann Vinton became the first student to receive a diploma with an Ecology degree from CSU, days after the formal recognition of the program. At the same time, Dan Binkley became the first director of the newly minted and first interdisciplinary program on campus. In the first four years, GDPE went from its first student to enrolling 80 graduate students. The Front Range Student Ecology Symposium was in its fourth year, having begun with the founding of GDPE, highlighting all the collaborative work being done throughout the program and the larger Front Range community.
“It has always been the grassroots faculty really putting in the effort. That is one of the joys of it, in all the history of it, is that the people are enthused by it, not that it is dictated from above.” – Dave
Modern Day GDPE
In 2005, Dan Binkley ended his long tenure in the program after having helped establish and guide the program for over 10 years. The same year, GDPE welcomed co-directors Indy Burke and Bill Lauenroth. The new directors had a vision to expand the GDPE community and gain recognition for the interdisciplinary program. With that idea in mind, they hired the essential administrative support, Jeri Morgan. Jeri was committed not only to the program but the students – always available when needed and knowledgeable on any issue raised. Addition supportive arrived from the Provost Rick Miranda. Dr. Miranda understood the importance of cross disciplinary programs on behalf of GDPE. With a growing appreciation for interdisciplinary programs across campus and a commitment to celebrating successes, Dr. Burke and Dr. Lauenroth were able to increase funding for the program. They also held events each semester to connect faculty and students, often with live music and food, with one event centered around a salsa making contest and live music on the front porches of their home on Mountain Avenue.
Leroy became director in 2008 and made advancements to the capacity of the program. Throughout his tenure Leroy realized the importance of monetary support within the program. He strived to increase the budget and to provide teaching assistantships for the GDPE Ecology courses. He also created and supplied money to support students through grants, as well as money for the administration side of the program. After stepping down from his post in 2016, the program looked for a new director while Kurt Covich held the role in the interim.
Colleen Webb was the next Director of the program, from 2017 to 2019. During her two years as director, Dr. Webb wasted no time following her vision, attention to detail, and goals for the program. Under Dr. Webbs leadership GDPE saw the addition of its first Science Communications Fellow and the first year of the Research Mentoring and Inclusivity in STEM (RMAIS). Dr. Webb created the first GDPE budget, allowed students to be teachers for 592 courses, and Z, among many other accomplishments. Although Dr. Webb left to follow an opportunity with the Graduate School her presence in the program changed it profoundly.
Alan Knapp held dual roles as both the interim director and senior ecologist from 2019 to 2020 before Ruth became the current director. Starting off her time as Director, Dr. created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee and pushed for increased funding for the program. Her vision for the program is to , Z.
GDPE is now more than 25 years old, has supported around X number of students, provided X of grants/scholarships, been led by X number of Directors, and consists of X number of faculty. However, it will always be remembered as a community of people committed to furthering future generations of ecologists while having a grand time doing it.