Published on August 1st, 2023 | by University of Mississippi


University of Mississippi to Use Gift to Elevate Environmental Studies Program

Alumnus invests in degree major program at University of Mississippi

The University of Mississippi is working to add faculty members in the College of Liberal Arts and develop curriculum for a new degree major in environmental studies, thanks to a major gift from alumnus Steven B. King, of St. Louis.

His $1.3 million gift has established the Steven B. King Environmental Studies Endowment, with the resources to be used to enhance faculty strengths in teaching, research and outreach on the environment. The university offers a popular environmental studies minor, founded in fall 2009 by Ann Fisher-Wirth, a professor of English who recently retired.

Chancellor Glenn F. Boyce applauded King for his vision behind the gift.

“We are grateful to Steve King for providing significant resources to promote this incredibly important interdisciplinary field of study,” he said. “Steve recognizes and values the expansion of our academic footprint in environmental studies.

“This generous gift is an investment in our students and in our future so we can better address challenges related to our ecosystem.”

King, who graduated in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in public administration, is active in several organizations, including the St. Louis Zoo Conservation Council, the Sierra Club, and the Rocky Mountain Conservancy.

“There are so many challenges the planet is facing – climate change, loss of biodiversity, plastic waste, pollinator decline and more – and interest in the environment is very high, especially among young people,” King said. “It is their generation that will be dealing with and bearing the burden of these issues.

“Majoring in environmental studies is an excellent way to get involved in working to solve these challenges and have a rewarding career. Companies are now attuned to environmental ramifications and are hiring people to find solutions to these problems, so there’s a demand for these professionals.”

Deanna Kreisel and Cristin Ellis, both associate professors of English, are co-directors of the environmental studies minor. The program’s faculty plans to develop the major throughout the next year, then propose approval on campus and with the state Institutions of Higher Learning board.

It is important for the university to offer an environmental studies program, as climate change is determining the “very texture of our daily lives,” Ellis said.

“Climate change and the sixth great extinction will be the defining challenges of the rising generation,” she said. “Their effects can already be felt and, over the coming decades, will continue to shape the future of human life around the world – from global health to food and water security, energy policy to financial markets, weather crises to climate migration.”

The program prepares students to become innovators and leaders in an effort to meet these environmental challenges head-on, she said.

“We believe it’s crucial to the university’s mission to train and launch students into careers in which they can work to create sustainable, just and climate-resilient communities in Mississippi and beyond,” Ellis said. “And as the shift to sustainability continues to become a major driver of economic growth, technological innovation and social policy, we aim to ensure that Ole Miss students are prepared to succeed in the new climate economy.”

Those who have earned the minor have gone on to work in congressional offices and in state and city governments; they have become environmental engineers and water resources engineers, and program coordinators at environmental and community-centered nonprofits; and they have worked for interests ranging from the American Sustainable Business Network to the Houston Zoo.

Lee Cohen, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said King’s gift helps answer an urgent call.

“Our planet desperately needs people prepared to interpret research data and provide innovative solutions to ongoing problems,” he said. “While our environmental studies minor has taken off, we will be much better poised to produce environmental studies experts by developing this academic major.”

Kreisel praised the students who are enrolled in the minor, saying their devotion to environmental issues extends to their coursework and research as well as to volunteer and leadership roles within environmental organizations at the university and in the Oxford-Lafayette community.

“Unified by their passion, our minors come to us from a wide variety of majors – biology, biochemistry, business and international studies majors are among common majors in the minor,” she said. “But there’s no single ‘type’ who becomes an environmental studies major; we have students of poetry, chemistry, journalism, psychology, Southern studies and more.”

Students take courses in ecology, marine biology, oceanography, natural resource management and environmental geology, as well as those in environmental psychology, environmental law and politics, Southern environmental history and global environmental issues. They can study environmental ethics, religion and the environment, the history of water in the Middle East, environmental literature and nature writing.

Ole Miss students also often take environmental courses abroad or take advantage of internship offerings, including those on campus with the Office of Sustainability or the UM Field Station; with local organic or regenerative agricultural farms such as Yokna Bottoms Farm, near Oxford, or Home Place Pastures in Como, or further afield with The Nature Conservancy or the Black Earth Institute.

King said he hopes the resources from his gift “provide students with a better understanding of the planet and launch them into jobs and careers, as well as into master’s and doctoral programs.”

By Tina H. Hahn

Cristin Ellis. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services
Deanna Kreisel. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services
Ann Fisher-Wirth (rear center) leads a class of students in the environmental studies minor program on the Grove Stage at the University of Mississippi. Fisher-Wirth, who retired recently from the Department of English, helped create the minor program in 2009. A new gift is helping elevate the program to an academic major. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services
Donor Steven B. King (left) visits with Lee Cohen, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, about his $1.3 million gift to support an environmental studies program at the University of Mississippi. The gift will fund a new faculty position and support efforts to build an environmental studies major. Photo by Bill Dabney/UM Foundation

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The University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss, is Mississippi’s flagship university. A member of the elite group of R1: Doctoral Universities - Highest Research Activity by the Carnegie Classification, Ole Miss has a long history of producing leaders in public service, business, academics and the professions. Its 16 academic divisions include a major medical school; nationally recognized schools of accountancy, law and pharmacy; and an Honors College acclaimed for a blend of academic rigor, experiential learning and opportunities for community action. Acclaimed as one of the nation’s most beautiful, Ole Miss's main campus is in Oxford, which is routinely recognized as one of the nation's best college towns.

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