When ecologist Ingrid C. “Indy” Burke was appointed the 16th dean in the history of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale officials lauded her combination of scientific research, hands-on teaching, and interdisciplinary leadership. Burke forged those skills over three decades in the American West.
By Kevin Dennehy
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
One winter day while she was an undergraduate at Middlebury, Indy Burke along with a group of classmates trekked on cross-country skis to a frozen lake in northern Vermont. As the students gazed into the lake a professor urged them to contemplate the physical changes occurring in its frozen depths.
Since light can penetrate even ice and snow, he said, it might mean that algae were undergoing photosynthesis deep beneath the ice. But scientists, he added, weren’t sure if photosynthesis occurs in deep winter. “So, why don’t we find out?” he said.
For Burke, who was an English major at the time, the intellectual challenge was thrilling. For the first time it occurred to her that she could spend her life working outside, exercising her creativity, and addressing unsolved scientific mysteries — all at the same time. She soon switched her major to biology.
“I frostbit my feet that day, it was just so cold,” Burke says. “But I didn’t really notice. It was just so great to work together with others on a question that we felt like was our own.”
That fieldwork did more than inspire Burke to change her college major, or even her future vocation. It helped shape how she would eventually teach her own students and was a foray into the kind of collaborative work she has done for more than three decades.
During those years Burke’s career has led her from the forests of northern New England to the drylands of the American West, and now back east. Last month, Burke, an ecosystem ecologist and former dean of the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, was named the 16th dean in the history of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES).
When her appointment was announced, Yale officials noted that it was that combination of scientific accomplishment, hands-on teaching, and interdisciplinary leadership that made Burke stand out.
Burke, who will begin on Oct. 1, is also the first female dean in the School’s 116-year history.
In Wyoming, her former colleagues say Burke fundamentally transformed the Haub School, helping to strengthen what had previously been a program into one of the leading institutions in the western U.S. for research, teaching, and outreach on natural resource issues. During her tenure, the School experienced a steep increase in enrollment, programming, joint-degree programs, and philanthropic donations.
Burke took particular pride in the school’s interdisciplinary approach to addressing a wide range of complex land-use challenges, from management of recreation on public lands and understanding migratory wildlife populations to achieving a balance between energy production and conservation. And as the lone four-year academic institution in the state, she took seriously their researchers’ capacity to influence meaningful environmental policies.
“Here in Wyoming we have had this phenomenal opportunity to make a difference when it comes to decisions on natural resources,” she said recently. “When a decision-maker or a group of stakeholders wants to know how something works, and how collaborative solutions can be reached, we get the phone call.
“At Yale I think that platform is global.”
After Middlebury, Indy Burke started a Ph.D. program at Dartmouth, where she planned to examine a forest regeneration phenomenon known as “fir waves,” in which rows of balsam fir trees die synchronously, forming arresting patterns across the landscape. But when her advisor decided to relocate to the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, Burke moved west, too. It was there that she was captured by another natural pattern: she noticed unexpected patterns of sagebrush growth, with lush patches thriving just a few dozen yards from desert-like scarcity.
“And so I had a lot of fun asking questions about where those patterns came from,” she says. “I went from patterns in balsam fir to patterns in sagebrush.”
After finishing her Ph.D. she took a job at Colorado State University where she spent more than two decades as a professor in the Department of Forest, Rangeland and Watershed Stewardship. She also eventually became co-director of the graduate program in ecology and was named one of just 10 University Distinguished Teaching Scholars at CSU.
Her own research was dedicated to understanding the region’s dry systems, focusing specifically on carbon and nitrogen cycling in semi-arid rangeland ecosystems.
And before long she fell in love with the American West. Over more than three decades in the region, she embraced a life of horses, hunting, backpacking, and spending a lot of time outdoors. But she has also seen how the region’s natural beauty — and growing demands upon the land — is changing the character of the West.
“The American West is an amazing case study for the natural resource issues going on all over the world,” Burke says. “Particularly in Wyoming, where we have world-class energy reserves and the headwaters of some of the major river systems in the country. We have the largest migratory herds of wildlife in North America. We have tremendous agricultural assets, where the landowners are essentially conserving our open spaces for us. And we have the National Parks that bring in tourists from all over the world.
“We also have people moving here because it’s so beautiful — resulting in landscapes that are being fragmented, urban areas developing in places where there can’t possibly be enough water to support them, and areas where energy development combines with climatic conditions to cause world-scale air pollution.
“And of course we have conflicts around all these issues.”
In 2008, Indy Burke returned to the University of Wyoming, where she was recruited as director, then dean, of the Haub School. And over the next eight years, she helped steward its transition into a school, with its own tenured faculty, new degree programs, more partnerships across campus, and increases in student enrollment and private funding.
Key to that success was Indy Burke, said Steve Smutko, the Spicer Chair of Collaborative Practice and professor at the Haub School. She helped formalize a vision of interdisciplinary collaboration, and then convinced the university administrators and philanthropic donors who were needed to make it happen. Then she began recruiting a team of faculty from a range of disciplines — including ecologists, economists, anthropologists, writers, and legal experts.
“It was a huge transition to make, from a program into a school,” said Smutko, whom Burke recruited to the faculty in 2009. “To do it in such a short time, I think, is phenomenal. And it was her vision and determination that made it happen.
“She relishes the idea of trying to figure out how to overcome challenges and how to make it work. And she doesn’t give up; she doesn’t drop things because they might be difficult. She keeps at it.”
Burke says she learned early in her career that collaboration across disciplines is critical to addressing most natural resource challenges — including conflicts over sometimes competing land use visions. Sometimes, she found, the ultimate decisions had nothing to do with the natural sciences.
“So increasingly I had the opportunity to interact with people who would ask questions, like, ‘Why is it that land is managed this way? Why would somebody plow up this piece of native prairie? Why did they choose to grow wheat here? And why is it that livestock are managed this way?’ It just became so clear to me that some of the most important ‘why’ questions about environmental problems have to do with people.”
Burke says she’s proud of the interdisciplinary and collaborative work done at the Haub School. She cites, as an example, the work of the school’s Collaborative Program in Natural Resources, which builds the capacity for collaboration on even seemingly intractable natural resource challenges. The program, which is led by Smutko, has helped stakeholders address conflicts over water use in Laramie County, ozone levels related to natural gas production in Pinedale, and organized the Western Governors Association forum on the Endangered Species Act.
“This isn’t my specialty and I didn’t do it,” Burke says. “But I’ve had the opportunity to lead a group that has managed to make a really big difference in the West…I enjoy learning about different disciplines. And I enjoy working with teams and with leaders and I don’t mind doing the organizational work to help them be successful.”
Courtney Carlson, an assistant professor and creative writer at the Haub School, said Burke’s approach has empowered faculty across campus to tackle a wide range of questions. “That has included interdisciplinary faculty who were not necessarily connected to the Haub School, and those who were exploring questions that weren’t priorities in the academic and research culture,” Carlson said.
“That really impressed me because it’s something that I think is still not that well understood in many institutions: how to unite faculty from various fields around common questions and to answer questions that might not be priorities in the academic literature yet, but really matter to people on the ground in communities all over the country.”
“She gives her faculty a lot of room to articulate their goals,” she added. “And then she’s in the trenches supporting them, making sure they achieve them.”
Karen Seto, a Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science at F&ES who chaired the dean search committee, says Burke embodies the School’s core missions in her scholarship, in her work bridging science and policy, and in her education and training.
“She has the experience of working with a diverse set of stakeholders and bringing science to bear on environmental policy in Wyoming,” Seto said. “Indy also appreciates the history of the school. Her own research has been shaped by the contributions of F&ES faculty such as Herb Bormann and Tom Siccama. She is a bridge-builder and deeply committed to interdisciplinarity.”
Burke admits that she will have a lot to learn when she arrives at Yale.
“The moment that real learning starts”
One challenge she is eager to address is making the F&ES community, as well as the broader environmental field, more diverse — particularly at the leadership level. While there have been improvements at recruiting more diverse students in natural resources graduate programs across the country, there remains a lack of diversity among the faculty in many colleges and universities, particularly within natural resource or environmental programs.
Achieving a community that is more representative of the greater community, she says, requires going beyond simply setting metrics for diversity.
“I’ve served so many times on committees where I was sure that I was on there because I was ‘the woman’ in the department, or ‘the woman’ in ecosystem science,” she says. “And that’s no way to engender a lively discussion from multiple perspectives. It’s done by building leadership teams that are energetic and diverse and constant advocates for diverse perspectives.”
In Wyoming, Courtney Carlson says, Burke showed the she understands the cultural and institutional challenges and limitations faced by some faculty — including women, junior faculty, and interdisciplinary faculty. And she introduced policies to address those challenges, such as new tenure and promotion guidelines that place a value on the contributions from scholars in different fields.
“Indy has a really good grip on what those limits are and she’s really good at helping those members of the faculty navigate a system that is not always perfectly designed to support them,” Carlson said. “She just gets it in a way that people who haven’t had a chance to walk in those shoes can’t, through the privilege of their experience.”
Indy Burke says she’s a fan of strategic planning, so in the weeks since her appointment was announced she has spoken with several members of the F&ES community. But she says she'll hold off on setting any other priorities until she arrives next month and gets to meet the community.
“Learn before you lead is the important thing,” she said. “I think a new leader doesn’t just show up and say, ‘Saddle up, here’s where we’re going.’ Instead she or he should find out what people think, what their wishes are, and then engage them in a process that brings everyone towards a future that everyone agrees is a good one.”