New dean shares vision for Chatham's Eden Hall Campus
David Hassenzahl has been named the new dean of sustainability and the environment at Chatham University at the Eden Hall Farm campus.
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As David Hassenzahl hikes along a path at Chatham University's sprawling Eden Hall Campus in Richland, he eyes a plot of organic plants that students and faculty have tended all summer.
"I need peppers for my son," he says as he plucks a couple of ripe green ones. His 10-year-old had little exposure to fresh-from-the-garden produce, Dr. Hassenzahl said, until the family stayed at rural Eden Hall last summer after he accepted a position as founding dean and professor in Chatham's School of Sustainability and the Environment.
Before that, Dr. Hassenzahl was an associate professor and chair of the environmental studies department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he headed a sustainability task force and spearheaded a sustainability plan.
But the opportunity to develop a brand-new school and curriculum with a 388-acre farm as its focal point lured Dr. Hassenzahl from desert environs. The Eden Hall Foundation transferred ownership of the property to Shadyside-based Chatham in 2008. Originally, it was the summer estate of H.J. Heinz Co. executive Sebastian Mueller.
For Dr. Hassenzahl, the move was more complicated than packing up and driving across the country with his wife and two children. Last year, he was named a senior fellow of the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington, D.C. Until that appointment ends, he will split his time between Pittsburgh and the capital.
Prior to a walking tour of the grounds at Eden Hall late last month, Dr. Hassenzahl sat in the spacious lodge -- which for years was used as a retreat site for Heinz employees -- to discuss his background in environmental issues and his vision for Eden Hall as a wholly sustainable campus.
Q: The concept of sustainability that includes paying attention to economic and social issues as well as the environment has exploded in the business world the last few years. When did you begin focusing on it in teaching and research?
A: I have been interested in sustainability issues for as long as I can remember ... before it was a buzzword. I didn't like the buzzword at first. In the 1990s, everybody was using the buzzword. It was all over the place.
I think it has become an organizing principle for not necessarily thinking about outcomes but thinking about how we ensure we are simultaneously thinking about environmental issues, human well being, economic well being and making sure we think from a systems perspective. Big business is embracing sustainability because they understand it's important for their quality of life and quality of life for the future.
Q: What will the new School of Sustainability and the Environment at Chatham offer? It already has launched a food studies degree.
A: We are going to start with graduate programs. The master's program will be designed for people who are in careers or want to pursue careers in sustainability and something [else]. One of the big questions is what all the "somethings" are going to be.
One of them is health ... how can hospitals and clinics be more sustainable? How do you get mercury out of a hospital and still provide good treatment? How do you get bleach out of a hospital and still do things well and improve the environment?
Our foundational program is food studies. It provides people who are professional or want to be in professions in the food industry -- a broad term including cooking, farming, food transportation or production -- with a program to ensure what they're doing is sustainable and what are the best practices.
We hoped to have 15 students and we have 30. There's clearly a pent-up demand.
Q: How important is the Eden Hall campus in the school's mission?
A: We eventually plan to build a campus here. We want something fitting with the history of the place; consistent with the area. But whether that's five or 10 years is not quite clear to us yet. We hope to have dorms here.
And one of our goals is to have a carbon-neutral campus ... to minimize the amount of energy we use and have solar and other low-carbon or zero-carbon energy options. It will be an experiment campus.
One thing we don't want is for this to become an intellectually isolated place. If you do that it's no longer sustainability. I'd like everything out here to have a research component to it ... so the students will be engaged not just in the classroom but engaged in the design of the campus.
We hope to have this be a place where people in the area could come for continuing education and life-long learning. Certainly a campus has to have some privacy and some separation from the world around it but it also will be a place where people can come for knowledge.
Q: Is there fundraising going on to develop the new campus?
A: We will need to get funds to build buildings. Buildings aren't free, are they? They weren't in Nevada. It won't be just buildings. We want to develop places where people can spend time and walk and find solitude. I've started, with university President [Esther] Barazzone, looking into options.
Q: Why did you take this job though you had committed to a year at the National Council for Science and the Environment?
A: I thought I had done quite a bit at UNLV. It was a reasonable time to think about a new position though I wasn't really looking. When they came knocking, I saw there was a chance to build a new campus, build new programs and bring my vision of sustainability to a number of students, and I know there are students out there who really want to get training in sustainability.
There are lots of people in positions where their title or job description includes sustainability and they're not quite sure what it is.
And I thought the legacy of Rachel Carson (the Springdale-born author and environmentalist who graduated from Chatham when it was called The Pennsylvania College for Women) was very important. She is, I think, sometimes mis-characterized as mostly being an anti-pesticide person, which is among the things she was concerned about.
But she was really interested in thinking about things from a systems perspective: understanding how working on one part of the world impacts other parts of the world and that's a sustainability perspective.
Q: What are you working on for the National Council for Science and the Environment?
A: I'm the principal investigator on a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop climate education and resource materials for undergraduates. You don't turn down a grant from the NSF so I'm splitting time between here and D.C.
The National Council for Science and Environment has been around about 20 years and its mission is to ensure good science is incorporated into policies and decision-making about the environment. ... That group realized there aren't good educational materials on climate change like there are for, say, physics. So the NSF put out proposals to fund climate education.
It overlaps with what I'm doing [at Chatham]. I'm meeting a lot of people who are appropriate for joining the faculty as I build it here.
First Published October 10, 2010 12:00 am