Over the past three years, Southern Oregon University's environmental studies program has received a single federal grant worth $74,558. But with a new president, a new department and a new department head, the focus on federal grants has emerged as a primary goal.




Just four years ago, Outside magazine highlighted SOU's environmental studies program declaring the university as one of the "top forty universities to learn, live, work, and play." The school promotes the accolade on its Web site.




But despite the recommendation, SOU to date has done little to solicit federal funds for the program that has garned national attention, and is uniquely situated in an area that touts a unique environmental landscape.




"SOU is more of a teaching facility," Erik Dittmer, the outgoing head of the environmental studies program, said. "Grants just don't fund the ongoing personnel issues we require here. Grants focus more on individual projects rather than staffing issues."




Historically, Ditmer has been the program's only one full-time staff member. Dittmer said that for a program not based on research and graduate studies, the instructional needs of the program require professors rather than field equipment.




"A granting agency wants to be able to look at a laboratory and say, 'Here's what we did,'" Dittmer said. "They can't do that by paying an associate professor's salary for a year or more."




The staffing problem is about to change, but Dittmer won't be in charge of the transition. After nearly two decades with the science department, he is retiring just as the environmental program is expanding.




At the beginning of the year, the environmental studies program was staffed by "1.13" staff members, Dittmer said. After recent budget cuts, the university combined the geology, geography and current environmental studies programs, effectively transforming environmental science from a single program into a full department and expanding the staff from one to eight.




The program at SOU now has more than 100 students enrolled. With the transition to a full department the university expects enrollment to rise.




Dittmer notes that the bolstering of the program, despite budget cuts at the university, shows the administration truly understands the importance of the ecology and surrounding issues in the area.




"We have so many important issues in the region worth studying," Dittmer said. "You name the issue, we have it here. We have [studies relating to] rare and indigenous species, air quality, the spotted owl, urban growth and sprawl, solid waste disposal, land use and more."




Joseph Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center agrees with Dittmer.




"This is a unique area, diversely comparable only on a national scale to somewhere like the Appalachians," Vaile said. "SOU is doing a good job with what they have. Because they aren't a research facility like Oregon State, they can't go after that many grants. That is kind of a shame because we do live in what you could call an environmental mecca. The forests outside of Corvallis have been studied to death."




The environmental studies program at SOU uses outside agencies for free to help research the issues rather than develop its own research projects.




University President Mary Cullinan is ready for that to change.




"We see the Environmental Studies Department as one of our programs which has the opportunity to become nationally recognized," Cullinan said. "One of our interests is to begin pursuing grants."




The university signed a contract on July 6 with Craig Stockwell, an associate professor from North Dakota State University. He will be the new environmental studies department director. Stockwell disagrees with the notion that grants are mostly unobtainable for an undergraduate, nonresearch program.




"Obtaining grants is going to be an important goal for me &

for us at the school," Stockwell said. "Those grants are exceptionally important because it offers research opportunities to students. The primary mission of SOU is undergraduate education, thus grants need to be aimed at conducting research on a scale that directly supports undergraduate education." Stockwell, whose tenure as director of the new department begins Sept. 15, said there are several organizations that offer grants for undergraduate research, and his background will bring experience to the table needed to obtain these grants.




"We need to look for areas where we can compete and try to bring in money," Stockwell said.




School officials hope that the step toward more actively pursuing grants will result in an increase in research within the school.




Currently being developed by the university is the Deer Creek Center for Education and Field Research in the Illinois Valley. SOU administrators see this development as a way to implement research and begin transforming environmental studies to environmental sciences, which would create a program closer to the one at Oregon State University.




"We need to try and not view Oregon State as a competitor, but as a collaborator," Stockwell said. "One way to obtain more research funding is to collaborate with regional resource agencies and research-intensive universities such as OSU."




Stockwell said working with OSU's nationally recognized program will not only create an immediate opportunity for additional research opportunities, but it will also benefit students with essential contacts and resources for graduate school.




"These opportunities will give our students excellent real-world experience and thus prepare them to enter graduate school or the job market," Stockwell said.




SOU ranks sixth out of seven state schools for funds received from the Oregon University System's general fund. The new focus on federal grants will help offset the fluctuations in revenues from state funding and student tuition, which has contributed to the current budget problems at the university.




"I'm delighted we're going to begin pursuing grants," Cullinan said. "It's going to be an attraction for new students and benefit the ones we currently have enrolled. This is one of our exciting new initiatives."