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May 13, 2002

Building concern

By Eric Rangus


John Wegner certainly looks the part of an environmentalist. His hair is long. So is his beard. Sandals are his footwear of choice. A leaf roughly the size of his head is taped to the bookcase in his office.

But Wegner, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Environmental Studies, is not an environmentalist.

“I distinguish between people who are ‘environmentalists’—those people tend to be against something—and ‘environmental advocates,’” said Wegner, a senior lecturer. “I tend not to label myself as an environmentalist, more as an environmental advocate, and I try to have a positive vision of how things could be.”

So instead of chaining himself to the nearest oak or waving a placard at every passing car, Wegner puts his environmental expertise to good use and works to make Emory a better—and more ecologically friendly—place.

“The University has changed dramatically since I’ve been here,” said Wenger, who came to Emory in fall 1998. “We’ve gotten a lot better and a lot more environmentally conscious, particularly in the way we build buildings.

Wegner should know. He’s had a hand in several campus building projects over the past few years. Wegner’s place at Emory is unique. Not only is he a faculty member, but he also holds a staff position as an environmental consultant in Facilities Management. During the school year, Wegner is at FM (he has an office in Building C) one day a week. Over the summer, he is at FM full-time. Prior to this year, his work at FM was simply as a consultant, but this year it is a paid position.

“Having an office there is very important,” he said. “I’m more like a colleague and less an external threat. You could imagine that relations between a person who has environmental concerns [and FM] could be adversarial.”

Wegner sat on the building committee for the Mathematics & Science Center (formerly known as Science 2000, Phase II), which will be completed this summer. In fact, he and the rest of the environmental studies department will be all settled in their new home come the fall.

Through the Committee on the Environment, an arm of University Senate, Wegner also has participated in debates on projects ranging from the University Apartments parking deck, to the Lullwater shuttle road, Whitehead Research Building and now a parking deck and road expansion at Yerkes.

While in most every case there has been vocal opposition to Emory’s building, development and expansion—as is most often the case outside the Emory campus—won out. However, with Wegner’s voice, along with several others, as part of the discussion, those planning that development took into account its effect on the environment and adjusted accordingly.

For instance, the path of the shuttle road was changed in order to minimize the impact on the forest. And the Mathematics & Science Center has an atrium that will look out on the stand of trees between the building and Oxford Road.

“We stood out on the site and said, ‘Couldn’t we use the trees for their amenity value?’” Wegner said. “People get a lot of pleasure from looking at a forest.”

An ecosystem and landscape ecologist/conservation biologist by training, Wegner teaches four classes in environmental studies, each of which he created. “Ecosystems of the Southeastern United States” is part lecture, part field trip. Each year, Wegner and his students take weekend trips to visit a variety of ecosystems. This year, they went to Sapelo Island, the Okeefenokee Swamp, the rolling hills of Highlands, N.C., the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge near Forsyth, and the Joyce Kilmer National Forest in North Carolina. Each experience, from swamp to old growth forest, was unique.

“The field portion was almost show and tell,” Wegner said. “What is this? How does it survive? Is this a native or nonnative species?”

Wegner’s “Ecology of Emory” course grew out of the work he does for FM. “I can learn about things in Facilities Management, then I can teach them to my students,” he said.

While students perform some lab work in class, their labor also helps the University. For instance, Wegner and James Johnson, project manager in Campus Planning, have been constructing a vegetation map of the campus, and students assist in that effort. Recently, that project has climbed to another level. Wegner’s students are mapping and identifying individual trees on campus and studying their characteristics such as age and health.

Students who sign up for the course also perform environmental audits, looking at criteria such as energy and water use and recycling frequency. Not only do students learn practical environmental skills, but Wegner can pass the data they collect over to FM so that Emory’s environmental policies and practices can be adjusted, if necessary.

Wegner’s other classes are “Ecosystem Ecology” and “Service Learning,” a title the professor himself described as “opaque.”

“It’s less a course and more a job,” he continued. His students perform practical studies—most frequently with waterways—and try to identify pollutants as well as how to control or stop their release.

“This is their opportunity to apply what they have learned throughout their undergraduate career to [solve] some practical problem,” Wegner said.

Wegner’s work with students does not end in the classroom. He administrates the environmental studies internship program. He also runs a LearnLink site that lists summer jobs, graduate opportunities and permanent employment positions.

A native of LaPorte, Ind., a town of 30,000 tucked in between South Bend and Gary, Wegner earned bachelor’s degrees in both political science and zoology at Indiana University. For graduate school, he went to Carleton University in Ottawa, Ont. He earned both a master’s (1976) and a doctorate (1995) in biology from Carleton, and only returned to the United States for his Emory job.

Wegner half-jokingly called himself an American by birth and a Canadian by choice (a Canadian flag hangs behind the door in his office), and a Canadian accent is still detectable in his speech.

“As far back as I can remember, before even starting school, I spent time in the woods and marshes and lakes where I grew up,” Wegner said about his interest in the environment. “It’s something that’s been part of my being since early childhood.”

Wegner and his wife lived about an hour south of Ottawa (and about 10 minutes from the New York border), where he farmed sheep while he wasn’t teaching classes at Carleton. It was a vocation he sort of backed into.

“When I started farming, I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “You’ve got neighbors, but they don’t tell you what to do. There are ways to learn, though. I just watched them, and by the time I stopped farming, the vet told me he was afraid when I phoned. If I phoned and said I had a problem, he didn’t want to come—it was something really serious.”