Call it adaptive management. The University of Washington is looking at creation of a College of the Environment that combines academic disciplines with a broad mandate to educate students, save the planet and attract generous supporters.

Done right, the plan has appeal, because it catches up with the seamless view students have of the world they are studying, experiencing and preparing to manage. An outline of the plan, taking shape since spring of 2007, was presented to the UW Board of Regents Thursday. The change has been a long, tough sell on campus, and the discussions continue. Provost Phyllis Wise is meeting with the College of Forest Resources faculty Monday.

In recent straw polls, no faculty from the affected disciplines – Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Atmospheric Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences, Marine Affairs, Oceanography and Forest Resources – has endorsed the plan.

These various schools and departments are part of the pride and joy of the University of Washington, but even these world-class educators and thinkers have to compete and explain themselves in a changing global environment.

The proposal to create the College of the Environment speaks to four grand challenges: climate, water and energy; global environment and ecosystem health; conservation and urbanization; and the human dimension of the environment. The list sounds like a keyword search for a grant application to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Balkanized academic areas are being blended elsewhere, and the changes proposed for the UW campus very much have an eye on what has been done at Duke, Stanford, Yale, Michigan and other top-tier institutions.

For taxpaying observers on the outside, the desire is to do what is necessary to keep the university competitive to attract and retain top students and faculty. The discussions can quickly and understandably break down into concerns about resources – both financial and physical space – lines of authority and academic independence.

For outsiders, there is also the puzzle of how lines are drawn and who is included and who operates in an external orbit, such as architecture, which blends environmental, climate, conservation and urbanization issues.

Forcing the creation of a College of the Environment will not be successful, nor is blunt force expected. The schools and faculties, in this case, may be catching up to students, who do not see the lines in the organizational charts, only the environmental problems to solve.