How PSU's largest school will play a role in the future of sustainability on campus and throughout Portland
Author: Cristina Rojas, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: April 1, 2019
 For more than a decade, the Institute for Sustainable Solutions has helped build and nurture effective partnerships between campus and community partners to tackle the challenges brought about by climate change. Faculty and students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — the largest of Portland State's eight schools and colleges — have played a key role in dozens of projects. Looking ahead, the college is committed to building on those successes and ensuring that sustainability-related research, education and community partnerships remain central to the college's and PSU's mission.

Todd Rosenstiel, associate dean of research and graduate studies in CLAS and an ISS faculty fellow, says he has been working with others across campus to envision what the future of sustainability-focused work will be at PSU, and what structures, resources and support need to be in place to enable that work to thrive.

"Our faculty take engaged scholarship around sustainability very seriously, everything from basic climate science to equity and the environment and how we think about a sustainable future in terms of the way we write and the stories that we tell," Rosenstiel said. "Engagement means working with community partners to get more transformative impact quicker, and this is very much what CLAS wants to push on in the future."

Here's a look at some of those ideas:

Resiliency Research

Rosenstiel said the area of resilience has emerged as a key research theme for the college, whether it be the resilience of communities to natural and anthropogenic stressors or the resilience of language.

"An important piece of making livable and sustainable communities is understanding that the concept of resilience is more than just the physical infrastructure," he said. "It's also the human capital."

He said there's interest within CLAS to focus on issues of resilience, both social and ecological, with a lens toward climate.

"At the end of the day, ongoing global climate change is the single most important factor influencing all of humanity," he said. "If we're not preparing PSU graduates today to inherit that world and generate new ideas, then we're literally not doing our job as a university."

Climate Change 101

Rosenstiel says it's critical that all students graduate with a basic understanding of climate change, and he's working to create a course that would ensure just that. 

"Everyone needs to understand the impact that ongoing climate change is going to have on their homes, their families, economies and the future of the planet," he said. "We need to come up with different ways to bring people up to speed quickly. Because if we don't, we're not setting them up to succeed."

He envisions a large lecture course called "S--- You Need to Know" that would be taught by both faculty who are passionate and world-renowned climate scientists and community partners who are working toward solutions.

"Most of our students are from the Portland metro region and most of them will stay after graduation, so the best thing we can do to make sure that before they graduate, they understand what it's going to mean for the Portland metro area to have persistent, continued and accelerated climate change," he said.

He hopes that the course would not only be made a university requirement, but that PSU could generate enough financial support for it so that every student can take it, regardless of income.

Building Effective Partnerships

Rosenstiel says CLAS is committed to building on ISS' successful track record of not only building effective university-city partnerships, but nurturing them. 

"Just because a university is in a city, like we are in Portland, does not mean that there's going to be a great university-city partnership," he said. "It's hard work to get large organizations to come together to actually try to grow something. To me, a good partnership is one where you identify a collective goal and each institution is committed to getting to that goal while realizing that the very act of partnering will change the nature of both organizations."

He calls it both an art and a science, and says he's excited to learn about what works well and what doesn't work well.

 "I'm excited about how we can envision a partnership-centered view that provides better opportunities for our students and faculty and keeps us true to PSU's mission of 'Let knowledge serve the city,'" he said. "The key to getting to where we all want to be — a sustainable, livable and happy city — is to admit we should grow together and take advantage of the expertise that we both have."

Take, for example, the two postdoctoral positions that CLAS is co-funding with community partners. Rose Graves, a postdoc working on natural climate solutions in the Pacific Northwest, has a joint position with geography professor Andres Holz, environmental science and management professor Max Nielsen-Pincus, and The Nature Conservancy in Oregon. Arielle Catalano, a postdoc working on gaining a better understanding of how climate change will affect water resources in the Pacific Northwest, is working with geography professor Paul Loikith's Climate Science Lab and the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services.

"PSU can and should distinguish itself in the world of translational science," Rosenstiel said. "Come to PSU with your Ph.D. and technical training but learn how to work with an agency or community partner who really needs boots-on-the-ground help to translate the science into something that's practical or has real outcomes. … To me, that's a perfect partnership and that's how university-community partnerships should be coming together."

Rosenstiel says it's important that faculty and staff as well as community partners remember that they are all public employees.

"The responsibilities we have are not just to our organizations, but it's really to the public of today and the public of the future," he said. "That requires public employees to come together in ways to co-create novel solutions for problems that we can't even yet imagine that we're going to have to fix. That's a big challenge and if we can get that right, then we can show students how we do that and have them be part of that process."

Photo captions: Top right, Todd Rosenstiel, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Bottom left, PSU researchers, including faculty from CLAS, toured the Clackamas River Watershed with Clackamas River Water Providers as part of an ISS project to create a resilience plan for water in the Clackamas Watershed (Courtesy of Institute for Sustainable Solutions).