New UIC CUPPA dean aims to create more sustainable, environmentally sound communities
Stacey Swearingen White’s appointment as the seventh dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at UIC became official July 1.
She comes from the University of Kansas, where she most recently served as professor and director of the School of Public Affairs and Administration. Over nearly 25 years at KU, she held various roles, such as chair of the department of urban planning, co-founder and director of academic programs for the KU Center for Sustainability and associate director of the environmental studies program.
White’s research focuses on sustainability innovation at the local level, including concentrations on water quality and campus sustainability. As a faculty fellow in the KU Office of Student Affairs, she led a study determining the level of food insecurity among student populations. She has also contributed to recent work on the role of emotions in planning. She has held several leadership roles in the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.
White talked to UIC today shortly ahead of the 2022 fall semester.
How have things been going for you as you’ve settled at UIC and in Chicago?
Things are going great! Everyone has been very welcoming and helpful. I’ve had a lot of what I am calling my “Not In Kansas” moments, but they have all been positive things. I take the train to work every day, I can see the Sears/Willis Tower from my office, and I am getting to know the area in all its incredible diversity. I enjoy checking out new neighborhoods and will have no shortage of those opportunities here.
What inspired you to become an environmental planner with research interests in sustainability innovation at the local level?
Oddly enough, it started with my undergraduate degree in philosophy. Shout out to all the humanities majors! I became intrigued with the philosophy of technology and what modern technology means for the natural environment. That led me to graduate work in environmental studies and eventually the application of those interests to the work of environmental and sustainability planning. I’ve always been curious about why, when we know what needs to happen to have more sustainable, environmentally sound communities, some cities adopt new practices and others don’t. So that brought my interests together in looking at sustainability innovation at the local level, including at the college and university campus level.
In what way, if any, did UIC’s award-winning culture of sustainability within the campus community and its connection to your research and expertise shape your interest in UIC?
My immediate interest in UIC and CUPPA was two-fold. I am a true believer in the transformative power of higher education and feel that UIC, as an urban and minority-serving institution with a strong social justice emphasis, exemplifies the best of what higher education has to offer. When I saw CUPPA’s mission statement – promoting just, resilient and livable communities – it felt like I had found my home.
While I came to learn about it later, the sustainability work that UIC is doing, which is holistic, far-reaching and truly impressive, just made it an even more appealing place for me to land. Some of my more recent research in campus sustainability focused on food insecurity among university students, and I hope to contribute to similar work here at UIC.
Why is this an important time for sustainability, particularly in light of the record-breaking heat that parts of the world have been experiencing and other climate change issues that seem to be escalating?
This question reminds me of the old quote that “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is today.” While we should have been acting on climate change at least 20 years ago, when we still couldn’t really see its impacts, we absolutely need to “plant that tree” today.
We also need to make sure that our efforts attend to the social equity aspects of sustainability, as it has become all too clear that persons who have the least responsibility for climate change will bear the brunt of its impacts. Chicago is a painful example of this as we have seen heat-related deaths again this year among persons who did not have access to air conditioning during a heat wave. We can still have healthy communities and a healthy planet, but it will take all of us playing a role to ensure that.
What are you most looking forward to at UIC?
I’ve been looking forward to watching the campus get livelier as the semester begins. Today I helped a few new students move into their residence hall, and it was just a lot of fun to talk to them and their parents about their transition to college. I am excited to get to meet people in person that I have previously only seen over Zoom and to think about potential collaborations.
What future goals do you have for CUPPA?
I want more students to find out about us! CUPPA offers terrific degree program options for both undergraduate and graduate students, and our research centers are generating critically important knowledge about key societal issues. However, as I often say, we are “disciplines of discovery.” Urban planning and public policy, for example, do not have the same name recognition as other more traditional fields such as chemistry, political science or architecture. It may take prospective students a bit longer to discover us, but when they do I am confident that they will be every bit as excited as we are about the work we do to promote just, resilient, and livable communities.
What is one thing most people might not know about you?
While the best jobs I have ever had are the work I am doing now, the second best was the summer I spent many years ago releasing peregrine falcon chicks into the wild in a mountainous area of Wyoming. It was part of the yearslong effort to reintroduce that species to its natural habitat after peregrines nearly became extinct due to poisoning from a chemical called DDT. I lived in a tent for six weeks and hiked up every day to provide food for the chicks until they could fly well enough to hunt for themselves. When I found out that there is a nesting pair of peregrines at the top of University Hall, it was just one more sign that I was meant to be here!