The Graduate Degree Program in Ecology (GDPE) was the first interdisciplinary program in the history of CSU. It paved the way for five additional interdisciplinary programs that currently exist across campus. However, the formation of GDPE took 20 years and relied upon the persistence and commitment of many faculty, staff and administrators.
Establishing a Program
GDPE began in the 1970’s with a group of dedicated CSU faculty that advocated 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 can be attributed to Dr. Dick Tracy.
When Dr. Tracy arrived in the Zoology Department in 1974, he immediately saw the potential to unite ecologists on the CSU campus and in agencies across Fort Collins. At the same time, he saw that there was no ecology major to unite their ecological research. Dick knew that creating an ecological major would take time, effort, and a lot of support. With that in mind, Dr. Tracy strategically started his campaign by building recognition of the ecological prowess CSU already had.
In 1977, Dr. Tracy approached ecologists in different departments and colleges, the Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Dean Jaros, and Academic Vice President, Dr. Chuck Neidt to support his efforts. Following an initial committee, the Ecology Program Committee (EPC) was formed from 1979 to 1980.
To bolster attention to 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 famous Eugene Odum, a pioneer in the discipline of Ecology. Continuing through the fall of 1979 and spring of 1980, hundreds more attended talks by Dr. Samuel J. McNaughton, Willian E. Cooper, James H. Brown and W. Dwight Billings.
With increased support of faculty, students, and administration, EPC 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.
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 the Biological Science, the Botanical Society, and the Assocaiteion for Tropical. Many left the conference speaking highly of ecology at CSU.
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. However, an interdisciplinary program was, at the time, unpresented on the CSU campus. Overcoming the logistics and red tape that accompanied the unknown highlighted the resolve of PES Executive Committee had to make their dream a reality. Dr. Steingraber, along with the help of John Wiens, championed the creation of the major. With additional support from the PES committee and the support of dean Dean Jaros, the Graduate Degree Program and Ecology came to fruition.
On July 1st, 1994, days after the formal recognition of the program, Mary Ann Vinton became the first student to receive an Ecology degree from CSU. The first interdisciplinary program director was Dan Binkley. Along with the birth of GDPE, the Front Range Student Ecology Symposium (FRSES) began, highlighting all the collaborative work being done through the program and the larger Front Range community. In the first four years, GDPE blossomed from its first student to enrolling 80 graduate students.
“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,” said Dave Steingrabaer.
Modern Day GDPE
GDPE is now more than 25 years old. It has been led by five directors, supported over 500 graduates, and provided over $20,000 annually to its students. 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.