Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2013

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Corrie Searls '14, an art history major from Minneapolis, at the site of her dream internship last summer, Christie's auction house at New York City's Rockefeller Plaza. Photo by Karsten Moran

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Birth of a Notion

Birth of a Notion

How Connecticut College became a pioneer in environmental studies and land conservation


The Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is named for and grew out of the efforts of two extraordinary College faculty (both now deceased) who were pioneers and leaders of the environmental-protection and conservation movements.

Richard H. Goodwin, who died in 2007 at age 96, was chairman of the botany department from 1944 to 1976 and concurrently director of the Arboretum until 1964. Under his direction, the Arboretum increased in size from 90 acres to 450, largely as a result of his own freelance fundraising.

Away from the College he is more famous for being one of the most effective early presidents of The Nature Conservancy, which he helped to organize in 1951. During the second of his two terms as president, 1964-66, the struggling organization won a $550,000 grant to transition from an all-volunteer to a paid professional staff. He was the group's last unpaid president. The Conservancy now boasts more than a million members and says it has protected more than 119 million acres worldwide since its creation.

Goodwin hired William A. Niering to join him in the botany department in 1952 and turned over leadership of the Arboretum to him in 1964. Niering remained director of the Arboretum until 1988.

One of the College's most popular teachers, Niering was also an internationally recognized expert on plant ecology in ecosystems as diverse as Pacific atolls, the Sonoran desert, the forests and fields of New England and wetlands of all sorts. His obituary in The New York Times credited him with being “one of the first small group of scientists to realize that wetlands play vital ecological roles and are not something to be drained and filled in.”

Niering taught at the College for 46 years and actually died on campus, collapsing outside of Palmer Auditorium in August 1999 after addressing the incoming freshman class.

Connecticut College's fame

In a talk earlier this year on the Goodwin-Niering Center's 20 anniversary, R. Scott Warren, Tempel Professor Emeritus of Botany, said his former colleagues, Goodwin and Niering, “made Connecticut College synonymous with study, concern, and action on the environment.”

One of the ways they did that was to convince the College to approve creation of an interdisciplinary major in human ecology in 1968. It was one of the first of its kind and resulted from the botany professors' belief that to be effective conservationists, people needed to understand more than science. They needed to understand the human side of issues, social science.

The human ecology major evolved over time into an environmental studies major. And in 1993 it was was broadened further to include the humanities with establishment of the Center for Conservation Biology and Environmental Studies. A lead gift from former trustee Helen Fricke Mathieson '52 and her husband, Drew Mathieson, in 1999 established an endowment in support of the center, which the donors asked to be renamed in honor of the College's conservation dynamos.

Today's Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment is one of the College's five interdisciplinary academic centers. Among other activities, it offers a certificate program (also made possible by the Mathieson gift) that can be combined with any major.


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