Green Fire: A History of Huxley College

Green Fire: A History of Huxley College

Our story is the environmental movement’s story.

Like Earth Day, Huxley College of the Environment was forty years old in 2010. It was, and is, the progeny of a century and a half of American thought about industrialization, its consequences, and humankind’s proper and happiest relationship to the planet.

It embodies the dictum of British scientist and namesake Thomas Henry Huxley, who said, “Learn what is true to do what is right.”

And, like Earth Day, Huxley’s history tracks the history of the modern environmental movement. The idea of establishing an interdisciplinary environmental college at Western Washington University predates most of the legislation that governs environmental politics today. Huxley was never just an academic experiment; it was a cultural creation, a physical embodiment of new values. In the forty years since, those values have shifted in step with broader society. The radical experimentation of Huxley’s earliest days inevitably gave way to a more structured, conservative, and politically calibrated college as it matured.

The result is a school that has managed to harness youthful idealism and earn business respect, to spawn ideas and successfully implement them. For better and worse, Huxley has become an established institution - dare we say an establishment? - with the longevity, influence, and practical compromises that name implies.

Huxley’s history is important because it reflects the history of man’s struggle to develop a sustainable stewardship of the earth. Accordingly, Huxley Dean Bradley Smith and Development Director Manca Valum conceived the idea of summarizing its story in a fortieth-anniversary book. It is hoped that internally, Green Fire will aid institutional memory and prove useful in inspiring those who will guide and grow its experiment in the future. The book is also intended to give potential students, faculty, staff, and donors an idea of how the college came to be and the ideas that have guided it.

Huxley’s accomplishments can be measured in at least three ways:

One is faculty research. The college has frequently led Western in grants funding and contributed to fundamental scientific knowledge, from the analysis of Lake Whatcom to a study of carbon cycling in Siberia.

A second accomplishment is social activism. Huxley students have done everything from pioneering Whatcom County’s first recycling center in 1971 to work on making SeaTac Airport one of the greenest airports on the planet in 2009. They have marched on sidewalks, gathered data for urban planners, and published an award-winning environmental magazine.

A third is the contribution of its students in green careers. Here the college has an outstanding legacy. To demonstrate it, we selected forty of our approximately 4,000 alumni to profile, ranging from those working on the cleanup of Puget Sound to organic farmers. These forty are not meant to represent the “best” of Huxley graduates - such a judgment is beyond our capabilities - but rather to represent an inspiring cross section. Their individual stories give a clearer picture of what Huxley is all about.

Huxley College is not so much a place (in fact, its physical presence is scrambled in two main campus buildings, a marine center with which it is affiliated in Anacortes, and branch programs at three Pacific Northwest colleges) so much as it is a forty-year fellowship of people: of teachers, students, donors, partners, and advisers. Its presence on campus is (regrettably) understated, with no flashy sign or even a single building to call its own. It has no billionaire benefactors, attention-winning sports teams, ivy-covered brick (more on its quirky quarters later) or People Magazine celebrity alumni. What it does have is a consistent mission, to produce environmental problem solvers, and a quiet, persistent, unquenchable fire in its belly to make the world a better, more sustainable place.

And for forty years, that has been quite enough.

Copies of Green Fire can be ordered here.