New Dean for Nicholas School



Schlesinger: heading environment and earth sciences school

William H. Schlesinger, a Duke ecologist, teacher, and researcher noted for his study of the impact[ca of humans on the world’s climate, has been named the new dean of the
Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. He succeeds Norman L. Christensen Jr., founding dean of the Nicholas School, who plans to step down in June and return to teaching and research.
Schlesinger is James B. Duke Professor of Botany in the biology department and holds a joint appointment in the division of earth and ocean sciences at the Nicholas School. He has taught at Duke since 1980 and currently heads the Duke Graduate Program in Ecology. During the past decade, he has been a principal investigator on a series of major research projects with more than $14.3 million in funding. His current research interests focus on the role of soils in the global carbon cycle. He is leading a government-sponsored experiment in Duke Forest de- signed to determine how forest vegetation and soils respond to the increased atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide from human ac- tivities.
Schlesinger also has worked extensively in desert ecosystems to see how they respond to global change. He has testified before Congress on a variety of environmental issues, was a member of the White House Panel for National Climate Assessment in 1999-2000, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Global Change Research.
“The genesis of my environmental interest stems from a weekend program for high-school students at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where field trips took me to the few remaining natural areas of northern Ohio,” Schlesinger says. “During the fieldwork for my first scientific study—the description of a virgin forest just outside Cleveland—I worked just ahead of bulldozers. The plight of the wildlife in that forest, where I had seen brown creeper and woodcock, in the face of suburban sprawl left an indelible impression on me. How much of nature can coexist with humans? With its publication in 1971, my first scientific paper provides the only remaining record of that forest’s existence.”
The Nicholas School got its start as the School of the Environment in 1991 when, under Christensen’s leadership, it was formed to unite and expand upon existing programs at Duke’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies on the university’s main campus and the Duke Marine Laboratory in coastal Beaufort. In 1995, the school was formally named the Nicholas School of the Environment when Duke trustee Peter M. Nicholas ’64 and his wife, Virginia Lilly Nicholas ’64, gave Duke $20 million to support the school’s development. Earth Sciences was added to the school’s name last December after the geology department moved into the school.
During the ten years of Christensen’s
deanship, the school’s faculty grew from twenty-four to forty-four, and the endowment increased from less than $5 million to $94 million, including eleven new endowed faculty chairs.
A key to the school’s success, according to Duke officials, is its approach to the study of the environment from an interdisciplinary perspective. It has collaborative efforts with a variety of other programs at Duke, including public policy, law, engineering, natural sciences, economics, business, and several departments in Duke Medical Center.
The Nicholas School also is home to a number of research centers focusing on complex topics such as wetlands issues, business and the environment, marine biomedicine, environmental toxicology, environmental economics. and tropical conservation.
Schlesinger earned his bachelor’s from Dartmouth College in 1972 and a Ph.D. from Cornell in 1976. He was an assistant professor of biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara before joining Duke in 1980, was named associate professor in 1983, and was named James B. Duke Professor in 1994. He is the author or co-author of more than 125 scientific papers and the widely-adopted textbook Biogeochemistry: An Analysis of Global Change. In 1995, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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