This October will be a specific kind of homecoming for Alan Townsend, as he returns to his Missoula hometown to become dean of the University of Montana’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.
Townsend takes the lead at a time when forestry and conservation face major changes, both short- and long-term. Campus-wide, UM faculty and staff will spend the summer designing a college experience that keeps everyone safe from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — a particular challenge for a program built around field work and physical activity. And Townsend arrives as a national economic upheaval ripples through the wood products industry, wildlife science and tourism — all focuses of his new domain.
“The intersection of his professional background as an ecologist with his amazing track record as an administrator puts him in a unique position to lead a college like ours for success,” interim Forestry and Conservation Dean Chad Bishop said on Monday. Townsend most recently was provost of Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Before that, he spent 17 years on the faculty of the University of Colorado-Boulder and served as dean of the Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment in 2014. He assumes his Missoula post on Oct. 1.
“I’m honored and humbled to join the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation — one of the very best colleges of its kind and a place I’ve known and admired for years,” Townsend wrote in a statement. “UM and Missoula have been tied to our family for decades, and we can’t wait to return home.”
Townsend replaces Tom Deluca, who served as UM’s dean of Forestry and Conservation since 2017 and has been on the faculty at UM and other institutions since 1994. Deluca takes up duties as dean of Oregon State University’s College of Forestry in July. Before departing Missoula, he and the faculty spent much of the past three months reviewing what teaching methods were essential and what might evolve in the age of virus-driven safety.
“I think there were definitely things we can let go of, and other things are our bread and butter,” Deluca said. “We need to think about how do we social-distance in a classroom. How do we schedule classes? And we should think about how much time and money we waste on gathering. We drive all over the place to get together for meetings. We’ve now found that so many can be done without actually gathering. It’s nice to shake hands and look people in the eye, but there’s an enormous amount of waste.”
Bishop added that the format of the college’s teaching has to adapt. For example, students can easily stand apart from one another while studying trees in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest just north of Missoula, but packing together into a van or bus for the ride up and back poses infection risks.
The college’s ongoing and future research projects also present conundrums. Many long-term field experiments got interrupted or placed on hold in March when pandemic lockdown rules went into effect, leaving big gaps in data collection. On the other hand, this summer offers potentially unmatched chances to observe how natural systems react to big changes in human activity. From how wildlife respond to decreased tourist pressure in national parks to how the building industry considers new materials such as mass timber panels during an economic slowdown, students and faculty will have a real-life laboratory to study.
“Dr. Townsend’s research in ecosystem ecology is highly regarded, as is his leadership in a variety of roles within the academy,” UM President Seth Bodnar wrote in a press release. “I’m thrilled that our College of Forestry and Conservation will have a leader of Alan’s caliber at its helm.”
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