Robert Wright works in an office lined with reminders of the past, but his thoughts are on the future and mapping a way forward for forest science research and education at U of T.
Wright, a long-time member of U of T’s academic community, is beginning a two-year term as dean of the Faculty of Forestry. A landscape architect, he is also director of the Centre for Landscape Research at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design.
He starts his new job as the university considers the best structure for forest science and forestry education to flourish at U of T. Forestry has six full-time faculty members and 111 graduate students and for several years has faced questions about its future. Consultations, led by Professor Elizabeth Smyth, vice-dean, programs, at the School of Graduate Studies, took place this spring and summer. The university plans to release a discussion paper based on those discussions and will start a second round of consultations this fall.
Pointing to a black and white photograph on his office wall of a man seated on a horse – the Faculty’s first dean Bernhard Fernow - Wright says the Faculty has gone through many ups and downs since its founding. What has struck him, he said, is that researchers continue to be on the leading edge of so many complex issues, from battling the emerald ash borer and preserving urban forests, to developing new, wood-based materials and sustainable forestry practices.
“The more I am here, the more amazed I am at all that the faculty and students are doing,” he said.
His goal, he says, is to enable them to devote their attention to that work, without the distractions created by uncertainty.
“There is no hidden agenda here. We are really looking for a positive solution - and what that means and what that requires and how it will unfold is open,” he explained. “I see an opportunity to make things better. Given the right circumstances and structure, forestry can flourish.”
Wright says he is proud of the fact that it was Forestry faculty members who nominated him for the dean’s position. Their recommendation was supported by Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr and President Meric Gertler.
“Professor Wright brings a wealth of experience and enthusiasm to this role,” Regehr said. “I‘m looking forward to working with him and with our faculty as we strive to find the best options for our students and our researchers.”
Wright said he hopes to strengthen relationships with other Faculties and with colleagues at U of T Scarborough and U of T Mississauga, where research and courses related to forestry are taking place.
“I took the job because I think there is an alignment taking place at the university and that the Faculty of Forestry really has a role to play,” Wright said. “We need to find what the best organizational strategy is to support the faculty and the students and the research. That’s really what it is all about.”
Wright says he is very much “in listening mode,” meeting individually with faculty and alumni to hear their thoughts. “I want to get as many views as possible right now and try to work out what the most innovative solution might be.”
He’s also spent time this summer at the Haliburton Forest northeast of Toronto, a privately run sustainable forest that has a longstanding partnership with the Faculty.
Everyone, he notes, has been incredibly generous with their time.
Wright says the next step is a discussion paper that will be produced as a result of recent consultations.
As he talks, Wright returns several times to the idea of sustainable biological resources and the need to respond to change. “It’s not just about getting people jobs, but putting them in the jobs that will be there 10 years from now,” he says. “How do you restructure a Faculty to address that future? That’s what we need to figure out.”
Among the many paintings and objects Wright has inherited with his new office is a row of books on a shelf – many copies of One Hundred Rings and Counting: Forestry Education and Forestry in Toronto and Canada, 1907-2007, a history of the faculty written by Mark Kuhlberg to mark its centenary.
It’s a story that at this point Wright pretty much knows by heart.
“The book,” he says, “is not over.”