Focused Unexcellence

The UA School of Landscape Architecture fights to stay alive in the face of possible extinction.

At a reception on March 7 to welcome Ron Stoltz to his new job as director of the UA's School of Landscape Architecture, all the usual components were in place: tables of food, crowds of smiling students, flowery speeches praising Stoltz's international reputation.

But when Stoltz took the floor, the evening's harsh ironies emerged.

"I'm reminded of the Oregon bumper sticker, but with an Arizona twist," he said. "Welcome to Arizona. Now go home."

This winter, just months after he left his longtime post at Guelph University, Ontario--uprooting his wife and two boys and buying a house in Arizona--the UA proposed to eliminate the school he had been so heavily recruited to lead. If the idea goes over with the Regents this June, within a few years, there may be no school for him to direct. Stoltz told his supporters, "We're going through a terrible struggle right now."

Landscape Architecture is a casualty of "Focused Excellence," the Orwellian name President Peter Likins and Provost George Davis have given a devastating series of suggested cuts designed to counteract state budget deficits. Founded back in 1966, the venerable program is just one of 16 that may go on the chopping block. Planning--its fellow school in the interdisciplinary College of Planning, Architecture and Landscape Architecture--may also be shut down, leaving Architecture to soldier on alone. Other targets include the Humanities program and Flandrau Science Center.

The possible loss of the School of Information Resources and Library Science has gotten plenty of local attention, in part because it educates large numbers of minority librarians who go on to work with underserved populations. And the cutbacks overall have been criticized because they would disproportionately eliminate departments with high numbers of females and minorities. (Two of Landscape Architecture's six professors are women and two are minority men; 70 percent of the department's students are women.)

The landscape architecture profession is stunned by the potential blow to the school, the only graduate level program in the state. (Arizona State has an undergrad curriculum.)

Calling the UA school "practically unique in its focus on arid environmental design" the national American Society of Landscape Architects called on the UA to reverse its decision. Society president Paul F. Morris issued a statement noting that "Arizona is struggling to balance development and population growth with environmental concerns--issues at the very core of what landscape architects do."

Landscape architects routinely grapple with some of the most vexing issues a boom state like Arizona has to offer--particularly in water and land use--but many people labor under the false impression that they mostly design pretty gardens for the rich. That's not the case, Stoltz said in an interview.

"Landscape architecture is a very broad profession, bigger than most people think," he said. "People work on everything from design/build on a small scale all the way up to regional landscape plans. We are pioneers in visual resource management. (And in a state like Arizona), we reconcile rapid population growth against limited natural resources."

Locally, landscape architects have worked on everything from the popular linear river parks to the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan to the Mount Lemmon Highway. The original engineering scheme for widening the mountain highway would simply have cut deep gashes into the slope, permanently marring the beloved scenic drive. But landscape architect Joanne Gallaher softened the plan considerably, and today, visitors to the mountain find curving hills planted with native trees all along the new roads. Landscape architect Lori Woods has worked on the conservation plan, helping identify large swathes of land to be preserved from developers' relentless bulldozers.

Richard Eribes, dean of CAPLA and the man who pursued Stoltz for the job--he even went so far as to endure numerous curling matches in Guelph--and said the massive Rio Nuevo project will also demand the profession's services.

"Landscape architects will be so important in making the (Santa Cruz) riverbed into something that is a real community resource, and ecologically and biologically responsive," he said.

The UA program, Eribes and others noted, is internationally known for just this kind of expertise in desert landscaping. Erv Zube, a professor who recently died, "was considered the pioneer of environmental design research," Stoltz said. And the department might not have invented the name, but it pioneered the concept of "xeriscaping," the use of native plants requiring little water, professor emeritus Warren D. Jones wrote in a letter to Likins.

"It's a crazy thing," Eribes added. "If anybody needs landscape architecture, Arizona needs landscape architecture."

Bob Sharp, a grad student in the master's degree program, came to the UA precisely for its expertise in desert lands.

"I have a deep love for the land," he said at Stoltz's party. "I've seen over 30 years how Arizona has changed: People are migrating from rural to urban places, people are migrating from elsewhere to the Southwest and Arizona. What is happening is a kind of development that doesn't make sense. ... I thought I'd take a crack at it. There's no reason graduates of this school cannot influence political decisions made in this state."

The landscape architects are fighting back--and hard. They've launched a letter-writing campaign, pointing out, among other things, that the UA's landscape architecture grads are eminently employable. Stoltz said 80 percent of them stay in Southern Arizona. He recently met with Provost Davis to explain just how broad the program is, and Eribes has already submitted several counterproposals to the university. Under one scenario, the program would be kept intact, but additional fees of $500 a semester would be levied on students to strengthen the program financially. Local professionals have pledged to raise enough money to pay for what in effect would be a tuition increase for the program's 50 to 60 students.

Stoltz, passing out pledge envelopes at his party, told the crowd, "To survive, we have to buy ourselves a seat at the table. We may not like it, but it's what's necessary today."

Proponents also charge that the university based its recommendation on incorrect information. The school sailed through an accreditation review in 2001, yet the UA report mistakenly cited that review as somewhat critical. Dennis L. Law, professor and dean with the Kansas State College of Architecture, Planning and Design, wrote to Likins to correct the record, saying that "we found a program that was strong and with extremely high potential for the future"; his team gave it accreditation for the maximum six years.

The UA report also declares that the graduate landscape architecture school exists, in part, to "enrich" the education of undergrad architecture students. In fact, the three schools in CAPLA are co-equals, with each separate discipline bringing new perspectives to the others. Eribes, who oversaw the creation of CAPLA just a few years ago, said the "whole notion was to build a college that mirrored the way the disciplines act in the real world." Today's design practices normally deploy multidisciplinary teams to attack problems from different angles. Deprived of their colleagues in landscape architecture and planning, architecture students would get a poorer, more insular education, argues Law, of Kansas State. Or, as Stoltz put it, "If architecture is left alone, it will return to an older traditional approach, not taking landscape into account."

The interdisciplinary studies are partly what attracted Erin Addison, a two-time Fulbright Scholar and first-year grad student. She decided to switch careers to xeriscape design after earning a doctorate in Islamic history and teaching at the university level for 10 years. While working and doing research in Jordan, she said, she met a pair of UA landscape architecture professors researching water resources and was impressed by their dedication to "issues of sustainability." And not only is the CAPLA faculty multi-disciplinary, she said; they're an international bunch who speak multiple languages and routinely engage in overseas research.

Addison applied only to the UA. She has not been disappointed.

"I've learned an enormous amount from the planners. We're comparing water issues in Jordan/Gaza/Israel and in Mexico and the United States. We look at similar issues through different lenses. We all lose if we're dismembered."

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