Paul M. Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), believes the next five years will be the most dynamic in the history of the college. He shared both recent accomplishments and future opportunities at the Board of Visitors meeting on Nov. 16.

Winistorfer has been dean of the college since August 2009. During his tenure, he has led efforts to rename the college and three of its academic departments, create new degree programs, double undergraduate enrollment, build a research aviary, and invest in significant infrastructure improvements. His tenure has also been marked by steady increases in the numbers of faculty and graduate students as the college has stepped forward to address new and ongoing challenges in natural resources conservation and environmental sustainability.

The college has four academic departments — Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, Geography, and Sustainable Biomaterials — and offers graduate programs in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area through the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability. Faculty and students utilize an expanded set of facilities that includes Center Woods and the Wild Animal Research Center adjacent to campus; Fishburn Forest, located west of campus; and the Reynolds Homestead Forest Resources Research Center in Critz, Virginia.

CNRE has been ranked the best place to study natural resources and conservation for the past four years by College Factual. The forestry program is also top-ranked, and the packaging degree program was ranked fourth in the nation by earlier this year.

It is within this unique and successful academic footprint that Winistorfer finds his greatest points of pride, and he shared some of the programs and initiatives that give the college a distinctive competitive advantage among national peers with the members of the Board of Visitors.

Winistorfer spoke first of the college’s top-ranked degree programs, like the aforementioned packaging systems and design major — which boasts a near 100-percent placement rate at graduation — and the state’s only meteorology degree. The college is the first in the nation to offer a degree program in sustainable biomaterials, and the bachelor’s degree in water: resources, policy, and management is also unique in the national landscape.

CNRE’s dean shared the successes of the college’s advising center, donor-funded director of employer relations position, and new director of inclusion and diversity, who will come on board in January 2021 — all of which will be key to his vision of the future of the college.

This vision begins with people. Approximately 25 percent of CNRE’s faculty will retire in the next five years. Winistorfer recognizes that talent that will be leaving the college, and that this large exodus of faculty in a short time frame creates unique challenges for the near future. However, it also represents significant opportunities for the long term.

He also hopes to be able to scale enrollment, growing the college as the university expands and reaching an undergraduate population of 1,500 by 2025. There is a strong demand for CNRE graduates and expanding student interest in all degree programs due to the competitive advantages of the college in relation to its peers.

In addition to recruiting new faculty and growing student enrollment, Winistorfer talked with the board about new academic initiatives and the facilities that will be need to support them.

As Virginia Tech is taking steps toward an enhanced presence in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area, CNRE plans to leverage its success via the master of natural resources degree program. The program, which serves 80-100 students annually, includes an executive degree format that currently enrolls its tenth cohort.

Winistorfer sees a potential niche in the region for a school of environmental security, the proposal for which is now moving through university governance. A professional master’s degree in environmental security is in the planning stages.

“Environmental security is at the intersection of environmental challenges and national security, people and resources, conflict and resolution; it focuses on creating a sustainable human ecosystem for the future,” he said. “We have a vision for the future school and its degree programs and know that this initiative will define Virginia Tech as a leader in this unique academic space.”

In addition, Winistorfer sees potential in a new academic initiative in urban natural resources. A faculty-led task force is currently investigating curriculum possibilities related to the ongoing global migration of humans toward urban areas, as well as the need to manage both the natural resources of urban environments and the consumption of these resources by urban populations.

Areas of study for a future degree program could include urban forestry, urban watershed management, urban-rural wildlife interface, urban geographies, and other themes. Winistorfer also sees the urban areas in and around Virginia as potential recruitment venues for a diverse body of students interested in studying urban natural resources at Virginia Tech and then returning home to put their skills and knowledge to work.

“Urbanization of the planet is happening at an accelerating pace and we have to ask: what skills, talents, and resources can this leading college bring to that equation as we move forward?” Winistorfer noted.

With so many opportunities on the horizon, Winistorfer spoke next of a current and ongoing challenge that affects not only the college’s ability to recruit and retain talented faculty but also its proficiency in providing hands-on learning experiences: space.

The college has outgrown its current collection of facilities, and the greatest priority for state support is the construction of a new building that would be located at Center Woods and house the Wild Animal Research Center. This facility would provide space for labs, offices, and meeting rooms; offer a staging location for boats, trucks, and equipment; and be a permanent site for the Conservation Management Institute, a prolific applied-research center currently housed in rental space.

“We are in desperate need to develop world-class facilities for our fish and wildlife program adjacent to campus. As one of the top five academic research departments (according to research expenditures), we have proven our ability to advance the college’s research mission and that of Virginia Tech,” the dean said.

In a time of growing populations, especially in urban areas, and extreme pressures on global natural resources, Winistorfer believes that the need for the work happening in CNRE has never been greater: “Even in the most challenging of times, we must think about positioning the college for a successful future; it is the driving force for us all.”

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