The campus is responding broadly and creatively to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began in April 2010 has left a painful legacy: human lives lost, massive consequences to ecological systems and endangered species, and ongoing social, economic, and psychological trauma for the people of the Gulf Coast. At UMass Amherst, however, the staggering challenges posed by the catastrophe have inspired an innovative, vigorously cross-disciplinary response.
In the months before the spill, the campus’s Office of the Provost decided to inaugurate an annual program, the Academic Deans’ Theme. It was created to offer, prior to the start of each school year, a new, overarching topic of broad societal or scientific importance, one meant to inspire a rich campus-wide range of curricular and extracurricular activities.
Touching as it does on so many vital research areas—water, energy, engineering, environment, politics, labor, public health, corporate responsibility, law, and more—the spill was quickly seized upon as an ideal Deans’ Theme. Among other things it might help showcase the importance of objective scientific research and help expose how corrupt funding practices can compromise research’s integrity, retard its dissemination, and erode public trust in science.
Thus far the theme has been integrated into a sociology course on corporate crime, taught by Professor Rob Faulkner; an introductory course on oceanography, taught by Professor Mark Leckie; and an engineering course on mass and heat transfer, taught by Professor Drew Guswa of Smith College. Over the summer, Lisa Green of the Linguistics Department, as part of a dialog research project on African American English, considered what Louisiana dialect might reveal about local response to the spill. And the Theater Department staged a production of Hell in High Water, faculty member Marcus Gardley’s recounting of the region’s other great disaster, the Mississippi flood of 1927.
Meanwhile, campus librarians have done their bit, compiling an online guide to information and news about the spill and the Gulf Coast. It offers images and links to resources on community initiatives, the science and engineering behind oil exploration and drilling, the spill’s environmental and economic impacts, and the region’s arts and culture.