Dennis Wichelns, Ph.D., the new director of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Northwest, also happens to be a farmer.
At least he used to be, before the allure of academia and Wichelns’s desire to help find solutions to growing concerns about water allocation, food shortages and other environmental-resource issues led him away from horticulture and into a successful career as an educator, researcher and policy advocate. Now, the former University of Rhode Island professor, who also spent several years at Fresno State University as chief economist for the California Water Institute and, most recently, at Hanover College as director of the Rivers Institute, is ready to lead IU Northwest’s acclaimed SPEA program to the next level of academic excellence and public service.
“My background really is in fruit and vegetable production,” said Wichelns, who worked his way through college with farm work. “My first degree was in horticulture at the University of Maryland. I actually managed the University of Maryland’s research farm for a time after I got my bachelor’s degree, and I began taking some classes part-time. I took an economics class that looked at worldwide issues of poverty and food security and pollution.
“This was back in an age when these issues arose sort of in the way that they’re arising now. Energy was tight, food supplies became very scarce and very expensive, and population issues were an important consideration in the early 1970s,” he recalled. “So I became very interested in poverty, food security, and issues in developing countries and international development. That’s why I made the switch to economics, to become involved in a policy sense and to help solve these complex issues of poverty and food security.”
Wichelns earned his master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Maryland and a doctorate in the same field at the University of California, Davis. In his years of teaching at Rhode Island and elsewhere, he remained heavily involved in research and policy work throughout the country, and particularly in California and the American West, where water-supply issues dominate the political and agricultural landscape. Wichelns did his Ph.D. work on water topics, and he continues to be actively involved in water policy in Indiana, where he serves on the Indiana Water Shortage Task Force.
“Here in Indiana, we are becoming much more involved in water policy and much more interested in water allocation and water demand and supply issues,” he said. “We’re probably where California was 30 years ago in terms of water policy, and with good reason, because water has always been plentiful here. But it’s now very interesting to start this process, just as other Midwestern states like Ohio and Illinois are also doing. In all states, the demand for water increases with population growth and increasing industrial activity; yet the supply of water is relatively fixed. Hence even in the humid Midwest we will have many challenging water issues to solve at some point.”
While working in Indiana for three years, Wichelns became familiar with SPEA’s stellar reputation throughout the state, so the opportunity to take charge of the IU Northwest program held considerable appeal for him.
“It’s already a good, strong, vibrant program,” Wichelns said. “I’m just coming in to help take us a little bit further and maybe bring in some new ideas, as well. We have a strong program, and we can make it even stronger. I’m just really another set of eyes and another mind that’s added into a group that’s already doing very important work. It’s a wonderful leadership opportunity to join many talented and devoted faculty and staff members across a challenging range of disciplines and topics.”
Wichelns’s presence in SPEA will bolster its up-and-coming environmental affairs program, which currently is anchored by Assistant Professor Ellen Szarleta, J.D., Ph.D. Wichelns said he expects to teach one or two classes per year.
“I’d like to be in the classroom to get to know the students, and to contribute to the program, as well,” he said.
Wichelns said he’s excited to learn more about SPEA’s other areas of focus, including public management, health services management, political science, and criminal justice. And, while education will always be SPEA’s foremost obligation, Wichelns said he would also like to bolster the school’s already-robust service component by fostering additional relationships with surrounding communities and organizations.
“We’re not just a classroom operation,” he said. “We’re also very much an outreach operation. One of my goals is to enhance our outreach activities at the same time we enhance our instructional capabilities and the quality of our courses.
“I think we have not only an opportunity, but also, to some extent, an obligation to provide service to the community,” Wichelns continued. “And, in Northwest Indiana, there is an exciting combination of issues to address: environmental issues, criminal justice, health care, political science, and public management issues. We see them in the newspapers every day, particularly as budgets become tighter in municipalities. How in the world do we maintain quality public services when our budgets become so constrained? I think the expertise we provide here at SPEA can be helpful.”
Between his policy work, research and service activities, Wichelns admitted that not much of his time these days could be rightly classified as “free.” However, when he finds the chance for down time, the native Marylander enjoys that most Hoosier of pastimes: basketball.
“I tend to work pretty much 24-seven, but if I can get in a couple of hours of basketball in a day, then the rest of the day is a little bit nicer,” he said. “I’m not a spectator of basketball, and I have not watched games ever since Michael (Jordan) retired, but I do love to get out and play. I’m not saying I’m any good, but I do love to get out and play.”
And, yes, at least one of Wichelns’s thumbs still turns green each spring, as he continues to dabble in his first love: farming.
“That’s my other weekend activity. I do enjoy gardening still,” he said. “I love to get dirt under my fingernails on weekends.”