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 Tuesday, November 14, 2006 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Gilbert White's Legacy: Bridging Scholarship and Humanity

This time of year brings to mind the many things we have to be thankful for as a university community. The contributions Gilbert White made to the world on our behalf should clearly be on that list.

Gilbert White, the Gustavson Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography, was one of the most internationally recognized faculty members here at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Yet just as much as he was a towering academic, people made note of his indelible personal qualities. Many have said they walked away from an encounter with him feeling they learned something, not just in academic terms, but also as a human being. I didn't have a chance to meet him, but I wish I had. When he passed away last month, he left a huge and humbling legacy for all of us to follow.

Gilbert White was exemplary in teaching, research and service. His doctoral dissertation has been called the most influential ever written by an American geographer, and his numerous honors exemplify the scholarship that makes the University of Colorado at Boulder such an outstanding institution. Known worldwide as the “father of floodplain management,” Professor White's work not only changed the way people deal with nature and made the world safer for people to inhabit, it saved countless lives. His influence reached around the globe and made lasting contributions to the study of water systems in developing countries, global environmental change, and international cooperation.

The spirit of Professor White's scholarship, values and activist philosophy is flourishing across the campus. It can be felt among our faculty and researchers working to solve problems in communities around the nation and the world, and through the regional, national and international outreach efforts of our staff and student organizations. I am excited to tell our constituents about the interdisciplinary and collaborative work we are engaged in that helps promote what Professor White might call “a practical understanding of harmony between humans and our world.”

There is much evidence of this type of work across our university in each of the schools and colleges – evidence such as the Engineers Without Borders team that installed a water purification system in a Rwandan village, the development of a new flu vaccine to help fight pandemic influenzas, ongoing efforts to restore and sustain our natural environment, and studies of the human brain and our intellectual abilities. Likewise, expanding our language instruction in less commonly taught foreign languages, assisting local businesses with developing eco-friendly and socially progressive practices, hosting international journalists for media training sessions, and providing scientific and artistic educational experiences for the people of Colorado are just some examples of the bridges being built far beyond the campus boundaries.

Building bridges to improve the quality of life for people in Colorado and beyond also involves supporting, encouraging, and enhancing the humanitarian, ethical and civic engagement activities of our students, faculty and staff. These important efforts include creating affordable, energy-efficient homes and buildings, assisting communities affected by natural disasters, hosting hundreds of children and their families at football games and other sports events, and partnering with Boulder, Denver, and other cities across the state on community-wide events, such as One Book, One Boulder.

As we engage in all of these efforts and others too numerous to mention, I believe it's important to remember—and to practice—two of Professor White's notable qualities: the art of listening and the art of humility. By all accounts, Gilbert White was a skilled consensus builder and possessed a great ability to bring diverse groups together to help them find common ground.

As all would probably agree, the world is a better place because of Professor White's contributions as a leader, a humanitarian and a citizen-scientist, and while this column is a tribute to him, it is also intended to be a tribute to all of the many fine people of the University of Colorado at Boulder who are working together to make our university, our community, our nation, and our world a better place for all people. The University of Colorado at Boulder is a better place because of our association with Gilbert White and we are thankful that he chose this university as his academic home for more than 35 years. It is also a better place because of the contributions of you, our exceptional faculty, our dedicated staff, and our outstanding students. The many remarkable academic and civic contributions you have made and continue to make on behalf of the university makes us all thankful and proud.

Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for all you do for CU and the world!

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