New SUNY ESF president says college could be at the forefront of environmental learning

Sep 12, 2014

A new era officially begins at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse this weekend. Quentin Wheeler will be inaugurated as the school’s fourth president. Wheeler sees ESF fitting into a world where environmental issues are moving closer toward the forefront.

Wheeler, a biologist who specializes in bugs and biodiversity, comes to ESF after stints at Arizona State University and Cornell. And that biodiversity background bubbles up when he talks about the future of Earth.

"At the current rate of species extinction, it’s believed that within 300 years, 75 percent of all the kinds of plants and animals will be gone," Wheeler said. "So unless we make decisions to do things differently, to set aside more wild places and to interact with nature in a different way, that’s the future.”  

Wheeler thinks ESF, with it’s strength in forestry and natural history, is poised to play a major leadership role in making those decisions.

“We have no idea what assaults will face the planet 500 years and 1,000 years from now," Wheeler explained. "And if we diminish diversity so much that ecosystems aren’t resilient and can’t bounce back, then we make ourselves very vulnerable to what uncertainties lie ahead.”

And those uncertainties could come from anywhere, at any time.

“Understanding what organisms exist, how they interact with each other and ecosystems and being able to detect changes in those living systems," Wheeler said. "Whether it’s invasive species showing up that don’t be long there or species disappearing, or species changing their ranges as a result of habitat change or climate change.”

He admits that the competition is great because the number of environmental programs in colleges across the country is booming. But he thinks ESF has an edge.

"So there’s this field of weeds growing, and everyone has a toe in the pool, but ESF is unique because we only focus on the environment, and have for a century," Wheeler said.

Exactly how to become that preeminent school will be part of a strategic planning process that’s starting this year. Among the short-term goals will be to get more out-of-state students to the SUNY school and to create a bigger reputation nationally.  

But Wheeler says there’s a much bigger consideration as well.

“The decisions we make now and the next few decades will be a tipping point," Wheeler said. "It’ll forever determine how diverse life is on this planet going forward."