Professor Emeritus, Civil and Environmental Engineering
When former Interim Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Erhard Joeres began his graduate studies in the 1960s, he recalls very few people discussing the environment. In fact, he says environmental stewardship really wasn’t a part of the general population’s vocabulary.
So, when Joeres entered into a program at Johns Hopkins University that explored the connection between engineering and environmental challenges, he was excited to be among those addressing these challenging issues through an interdisciplinary lens. It was that first exploration of interdisciplinary research that helped to shape his career, eventually leading Joeres to join the UW-Madison faculty in 1970.
For Joeres, the journey to the Nelson Institute began when he graduated with his doctorate from Johns Hopkins and began looking for a faculty position. Joeres had a fellowship planned in Germany, but before leaving for Europe he visited with leaders in engineering at various universities throughout the United States, including UW-Madison.
During these visits Joeres made several connections, but he became particularly close with Arno Lenz, a UW-Madison Professor and chair of Civil Engineering. Lenz and Joeres continued corresponding for some time and in the spring of 1970, Joeres was offered a position at UW-Madison for that fall.
Although Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) became Joeres’ tenure home, Lenz had been working with several other UW-Madison professors to develop an interdisciplinary program that would focus on water resources management. Lenz invited Joeres to represent CEE on the faculty committee of this new, interdisciplinary graduate program and Joeres was happy to become a part of the Water Resources Management (WRM) graduate program in the Graduate School.
At the time, WRM was five years old and supporting around 17 students through a grant from the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration (WPCA), the predecessor to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The program addressed the subject of managing water resources at the intersection of the physical, biological, and social sciences, and for Joeres, the program was a prime example of the type of interdisciplinary work he had sought to participate in throughout his career.
“With these programs, there were no walls and barriers between disciplines,” Joeres said. “There was a philosophy that the problems to be solved determined the disciplines needed to address them. Here people from different disciplines had a common focus.”
In 1972, however, the WPCA funding ended and a new administrative home was needed for WRM. With the recent development of the Institute for Environmental Studies (IES), which eventually was renamed the Nelson Institute, the WRM Executive Committee voted to join IES.
“Although my tenure home was in CEE, I saw my professional identity also tied to IES [Nelson Institute],” Joeres said. “I was happy that CEE supported my being engaged in both and being a bridge to CEE, which sees its infrastructure mission as overlapping the domain of the Institute.”
Joeres remained deeply involved with the WRM program and IES throughout his career, serving as the WRM Program Chair from 1980-1988, with a break in 1983 when Joeres was a Fulbright Research fellow in Germany. Upon his return to campus, Joeres continued his work with IES, serving as the Chair for the IES Land Resources program (later renamed the Environment and Resources program) from 1990-1992.
In 1992, Joeres initiated planning for a new problem-focused IES degree option to address Air Resources Management, to complement the existing water and energy tracks. The program eventually became the Energy Analysis and Policy graduate certificate, which prepares students to become leaders in industry, government, consulting, non-profits, and other roles in the energy field.
Joeres also played a role in developing the structure of the Land Resources program, which allows students to define a course of study addressing environmental problems beyond the scope of traditional disciplines.
“The degree was originally named Land Resources as a way to showcase Aldo Leopold’s philosophy that everything in the environment connects back to the land,” Joeres said. “This philosophy captures the idea of the land as the common denominator for all environmental problems.”
While the name of the Land Resources program changed to Environment and Resources in 2008, its goal remains the same: to serve as an interdisciplinary program for graduate students who need the flexibility to customize a course of study appropriate to the environmental problem that interests them.
In addition to his role with the curriculum and programing, Joeres also participated in the start of the New Graduate Student Orientation Field Trip. This multi-day field trip is held at the beginning of the fall semester and takes students, faculty, and Nelson Institute leaders around the state to farms, nature reserves, rivers, dams and other noteworthy places to introduce participants to the range of environmental issues that exist in Wisconsin.
“I led the field trip for 11 years. Aside from introducing new students to Wisconsin’s environmental issues, it had the hidden agenda of introducing the students to each other,” Joeres shared. “I would get letters for years after saying it was the most memorable experience of being in graduate school.”
Ultimately, Joeres spent 34 years as a full-time faculty member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working closely with IES (Nelson Institute) for much of that time. In fact, after years of service to the program, including serving as chair of the Institute’s instructional programs from 1998-2002, Joeres ended his career serving as the Interim Director of the Nelson Institute from 2002 until his retirement in December 2004.
“IES [Nelson Institute] attracts faculty who want to work together in an interdisciplinary setting and it facilitates those connections,” said Joeres. “I’m proud to have been a part of a program that promoted faculty collaboration among disciplines. My hope for the Nelson Institute in the next 50 years is that it continues its dedication to interdisciplinary study and research and that its work contributes significantly to a better understanding of the environment.”