'A special discipline': Clark geographers feted in Washington

From left: Geographers Anthony Bebbington, Susan Hanson, and Roger Kasperson

The setting was as appropriate as a setting could be.

The National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. was the site of a March 15 reception honoring five distinguished geographers with Clark ties who are members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Clark boasts more NAS members in the area of geography than any comparable sized university in the United States, and more than most larger schools.

The University also awards more doctorates in geography than any other geography program in the country, President David Angel told the gathering of Clark alumni in Washington. “Clark graduates are highly sought after,” he said. “They are in some ways differentiated in the field.”

For more photos from the event at the National Geographic Society, visit Clark's Flickr site

Those being honored were Anthony Bebbington, M.A. ’88, Ph.D. ’90, director of Clark’s Graduate School of Geography and Higgins Professor of Environment and Society; Susan Hanson, Distinguished Professor, Emerita; Roger Kasperson ’59, research professor and Distinguished Scientist, George Perkins Marsh Institute; Robert Kates, senior research scientist, George Perkins Marsh Institute, and Billie Lee Turner II, head of Clark’s Graduate School of Geography for many years and currently a research professor, and professor in the School of Geography Science and Urban Planning at Arizona State University.

President Angel, describing himself as that night’s Oprah, posed questions to Bebbington, Hanson and Kasperson about their perspectives on Clark and how the University cultivates an environment where cutting-edge research thrives. Kates and Turner were unable to attend the March 15 event.

“For me, research really is a state of mind,” Hanson said. “A state of mind that infuses everything we do at Clark; infuses every level of the institution from graduate, to undergraduate to faculty activities, which we often do in together in groups that transcend all of these levels.”

Clark, Hanson said, enabled her to conduct the research she’d always wanted to pursue.

“At the core of the research we do at Clark is being open to surprise all the time,” she said. “In many places I see people supposedly doing research, but they go into it expecting to find something. They’re going to find what they want to find, and they’re not open to surprise. That’s not research to me; it’s not truly worthy of the name nor is it very interesting.”

Angel noted that Clark brings together a commitment to research, commitment to teaching and a commitment to being engaged in finding solutions to the world’s most important problems.

“Those are the three cornerstones of how Clark operates as a research university,” he said. “At other research universities faculty often focus on one of those things. Clark has always resisted that.”

Clark is a “very special place, and geography is a special discipline,” Kasperson said, noting that geography crosses many academic disciplines. He recalled interacting with people in physics, philosophy and other departments. “I don’t think this is something that happens at most universities,” he said.

He said Clark’s NAS members were elected to the Academy based upon their work in the area of how the environment intersects with human society. This interest “has allowed us to take a leadership role on many of the basic questions the globe is facing right know, including the kinds of things going on in Japan.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Clark, Kasperson attended the University of Chicago for his graduate work. “I always described [University of Chicago] as another Clark — a place with intellectually ability, clarity and argumentation about basic issues. People really question you, and it will be the strength of your analysis and the strength of your ideas that carry the day. And you’d better be prepared to defend them.”

When he first arrived at Clark for graduate studies beginning in the mid-’80s, Tony Bebbington thought, “What have I done?” The neighborhood seemed uninviting to the new student who had grown up in a small village in England and had done his undergraduate work at the University of Cambridge.

And the school itself?

“When I was walking around campus I thought, ‘This place is really small.’ The library was small, there weren’t many departments. It was a completely difference experience. My sense was this was a big mistake. And the next two semesters proved how wrong I was.”

The smallness, he said, is one of Clark’s greatest strengths.

“It lends an intensity to the experience at Clark that I haven’t seen at the other institutions I’ve been a part of, whether it’s Cambridge, Colorado or Manchester. And that has to do with constantly questioning your ideas and others’ ideas, and working across boundaries. The boundaries I’d known in my undergraduate experience — between undergrads, grads and faculty, and also among disciplines — don’t exist at Clark.”

Bebbington said Clark offers “a really resilient social network. So when I left Clark I never really left that network of relationships and people who I’d come to trust so much.”
Clark geographers continue to have impact on crucial human-environmental matters, he said, from monitoring climate change in the Arctic, to developing forest-saving GIS tools, to assessing future of cities around the globe.

“We’re moving forward,” he said. “We have a commitment to excellence in the world.”

- by Jim Keogh, Director of News and Editorial Services