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The next generation: New faces join the Warnell faculty family

When Dale Greene took up residence in the dean’s office in 2015, he didn’t realize he’d oversee what on the outside appears to be a lot of faculty turnover. In reality, he just became dean at a time when many longtime Warnell professors hit the magical age of retirement, many retiring after literally decades of service to the University of Georgia.

It’s been hard to see so many respected faculty members leave, Greene said, especially when they’ve had such powerful impacts on natural resources research and the students who’ve passed through Warnell’s halls. 

But Warnell’s not alone. “Our peer institutions around the country are facing the same thing,” he said.

Since Greene became dean four years ago, he has hired 20 new faculty members to not only replace retirees, but to also fill some new positions created to help expand Warnell’s diverse disciplines. He’s focusing on the upside of losing experienced talent: Fresh faces that will not only bring in new perspectives to teaching and research, but also further diversifying Warnell’s faculty.

“I’ve been very fortunate to serve as dean during strong state budget years that allowed us to fill vacancies and also add some new positions as well,” Greene said. “And I am delighted with the people we’ve added to our faculty.”

RETIREMENT ON THE HORIZON

When Sharon Swagger (BSFR ’04, MS ’07) walks into Flinchum’s Phoenix at Warnell parties, she’s always thrilled to see someone whose class she sat in all those years ago. These professors, she said, not only helped shape her career, but they also helped forge that longlasting connection to Warnell that has made her so enthusiastic about staying involved with the school.

While a graduate student, the house Swagger and a roommate lived in burned down, and they lost everything. Their professors, she said, really went above and beyond in helping with donations. That kind of family-type connection made her one of Warnell’s most engaged alumni—Swagger’s been on one of Warnell’s advisory committees every year since she graduated, including the Young Alumni Committee and Alumni Steering Committee.

But she doesn’t always see those familiar faces at parties anymore, she said. “I graduated just 12 years ago, and I don’t know half the faculty now,” she said.

That’s just a reality for Warnell now.

In the past few years, the list of professors who have retired looks like a Who’s Who of UGA faculty: Bob Warren, Dick Daniels, Bob Teskey, Dave Moorhead, Mary Ann McGuire, Jon Caulfield, Doug Peterson and Ben Jackson have all called it a day.

Tom Harris and Larry Morris retired this past semester, and Langdale Center for Forest Business Director Bob Izlar and longtime wildlife Professor Karl Miller have already announced that they’ll also be retiring in the next couple of years. Their careers were not short: Teskey and Harris spent 35 years at Warnell, Jackson retired after a 29-year stint, Warren and Morris both did a 33-year tour, and Moorhead topped them all at 36 years. Both Izlar and Miller have spent their entire teaching careers at Warnell.

Many of those who are now enjoying the retired life had a long list of accolades, awards and internationally recognized and often groundbreaking research.

“Once people come here, they stay here because of the strength of the program,” Greene said.

They may be hard to replace, but Greene’s found no shortage of qualified applicants for not only the positions vacated by retirees, but also for the new faculty jobs created as Warnell’s program expands. Warnell also offers a stable school budget and a very competitive start-up package for new faculty.

“We’re one of the top programs,” he said. “When we advertise positions, people who already have faculty jobs elsewhere apply here.”

STRATEGICALLY PLACED

Back in January, the University’s president’s office announced that it had created a committee to develop a five-year strategic plan to expand UGA’s impact around the world. To be put in place between 2020 and 2025, this plan will focus on teaching and learning excellence; increasing research, innovation and entrepreneurship at UGA; and strengthening the University’s relationships with communities in the state and around the world. 

Each college at UGA has been tasked with helping create this strategic plan, and the new faculty at Warnell will have a hand in this, Greene said. “It’s exciting that we have new folks who are going to help write this plan,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of people from a lot of different places who’ll bring new ideas to the table.”

UGA’s not the only one looking to the future, however. Over the past couple of years, Warnell has taken a hard look at its curriculum and whether what the school teaches is still relevant to today’s natural resources management and industries. And in a couple of cases, the answer was “no.”

So Warnell made some changes: The school revamped two majors—natural resources recreation and tourism became parks recreation and tourism management, and water and soil resources became natural resources management and sustainability—and added relevant areas of emphasis. Expanding Warnell’s program not only lines up with what employers look for in graduates, but it also attracts more students.

New additions to the program include community forestry and arboriculture (COFA) and geospatial information science, while transforming water and soil resources into an area of emphasis under the new NRMS major. Losing faculty can be a hindrance, said Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Robert Bringolf, but it can also bring new opportunities.

“Recent retirements of many of our most well-respected, beloved, and established faculty posed significant instructional challenges for supporting our expanding academic programs across the school,” Bringolf said. “However, we’re very excited about the depth, breadth, energy, and diverse perspectives the new faculty hires bring to Warnell.”  

Jason Gordon has already settled in at Warnell as part of the COFA discipline, and he’ll be joined by Rebecca Abney on Aug. 1. Holly Campbell joined Warnell on July 1, and all three “will contribute to existing programs, like forestry and water and soils, as well” said Bringolf.

“Marty Hamel adds expertise in large river biology to the fisheries program,” he added, “and Michel Kohl’s experience in wildlife outreach and extension adds to the already strong wildlife program. 

“We’re also very pleased to have a new instructor position in the school that will be dedicated to enhancing data literacy for all Warnell students,” said Bringolf. “Dr. Duncan Elkins will work with students starting in their first semester in the professional program, through their majors, and in senior project/thesis, to introduce and reinforce topics related to data collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation.  No doubt these new hires have some big shoes to fill, but we’re confident that the combination of their experiences and commitment to excellence in instruction will help grow our programs to new heights.”

Teaching won’t be the only area at Warnell influenced by the new hires. Associate Dean for Research Scott Merkle predicts that Warnell’s research prestige will only grow with new professors.

“The researchers who have joined our faculty in 2018 and 2019 are not only continuing Warnell’s traditional research strengths in the broad fields of tree biology, sustainability, fisheries science, silviculture and soil science, but are expanding the school’s research expertise into new, specialized areas within these broad fields,” Merkle said. “Some of these specialized areas include fish population dynamics (Hamel), invasive species and hardwood silviculture (David Clabo), phytoremediation (Lori Sutter), fate of pyrogenic carbon in soil (Abney), water transport properties in trees (Dan Johnson) and the dynamics of rural community engagement with natural resource stewardship and conservation (Jesse Abrams).”

One retiree might be a little sadly nostalgic when he comes back to visit and sees all new faces, but he’s also thrilled that the faculty has had an injection of new blood. When Bob Warren was a fresh-faced professor back in the very early 1980s, the school didn’t even have wildlife as a major, and non-Warnell students were forbidden from taking classes in the school. When he and some others argued that opening up some of the classes to other UGA students could bring in new students and spread the importance of conservation to the rest of campus, the older faculty members put up a fight, he said.

“That’s why we need to change faculty every few decades,” Warren said. “So we can bring those new ideas in.”

Warren also applauds Greene for doing something few Warnell deans have done in the past: Aggressively filling vacant faculty positions, often with an overlap between retiring professor and the replacement. There were times, Warren said, that saw faculty jobs left vacant for years. When Gino D’Angelo came on board just as Warren’s retirement loomed, the two had three months of overlap that allowed Warren to help D’Angelo get settled and maybe pass on some tips. 

“It maintains program continuity,” Warren said. “You don’t get that drop in productivity.”

NEW PROFESSORS, NEW CONNECTIONS

Swagger may not be that familiar with the new faces on Warnell’s faculty, but she’s already seen the effects they’ve had on the school. “By hiring a wide variety of faculty that have such a diverse skillset, it’s really rejuvenated the program,” she said.

She’s optimistic that as time goes on, they’ll forge the same kind of connections with students that have kept her so active as an alumna—but she’s hopeful they’ll also duplicate that relationship with alumni they never taught. 

Her favorite professor from her undergraduate years, she said, was Warren. But she witnessed him not only enthusiastically engaging with students at events, she said, but also other alumni. “He was so active,” Swagger said. “He came to alumni events, and he made us alumni feel that we were still part of the family.”

For his part, Warren said it does feel strange to walk into Flinchum’s Phoenix only to see a slew of strange faculty faces. But it’s for the best, he said, not only for the new ideas, but also to meet the changing needs of Warnell’s curriculum.

“I walk into Warnell, and I don’t recognize the place anymore,” Warren said. “But that’s important. We need to make sure the school moves ahead and maintains an active, vibrant and productive faculty. The students are always going to change. Technology advances, and science advances. We have to move senior faculty members into retirement so we can get the new wave of faculty in to get that best education, research and extension efforts that our students and citizens of Georgia deserve.”

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