As part of Oregon State University’s Marine Studies Initiative, the OSU College of Liberal Arts is working to implement a new undergraduate major in marine studies. 

OSU currently offers a number of marine-focused degrees in the natural sciences, such as marine biology, fisheries and wildlife, environmental science and ocean sciences. In contrast, the proposed marine studies degree is geared toward students who want to gain experience in liberal arts disciplines, such as social sciences, public policy, the arts and humanities. 

“The marine studies degree is for students who want that liberal arts disciplinary training, but also want to explore and apply that disciplinary training to issues of the ocean and coast,” said Kristen Milligan, the associate director of the OSU Marine Studies Initiative. 

Jack Barth, the executive director of OSU’s Marine Studies Initiative and a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, said a key aspect of the proposed degree is recognizing that there are more ways to look at the coast and contribute to a healthy, sustainable ocean than just studying the natural sciences. 

“There are going to be thousands of jobs and people that work with communities on the coast, or are interested in policies, working in the legislature. So we want to provide that degree path, and that’s basically what the marine studies degree is,” Barth said.

The proposed degree will be centrally-housed in the College of Liberal Arts, under no specific school, similar to the way the university’s liberal studies degree is organized, according to Milligan. 

As a liberal arts degree, students will take introductory courses in the natural sciences—such as marine biology and oceanography—but will ultimately study the ocean and coast from a liberal arts lens. The proposed degree also requires an internship and capstone experience, and offers a number of specializations: environmental and social justice, politics and policy, arts and literature, global and transnational perspectives, marine entrepreneurship and community development, to name a few. 

“The ocean unites us all, and for us in Oregon, we’re connected to the Pacific Rim, so there’s a lot of issues all the way from hazard planning to shipping to educational exchanges, how we’re dealing with endangered species, migratory species. We share treaties with Canada about salmon that are renegotiated every few years,” Barth said. “So there’s a lot of really intricate ocean issues that people could get into.”

Nine new courses have been developed for the proposed program, including MAST 201 (Humans and the Ocean), MAST 300 (Society, Culture and the Marine Environment), ANTH 320 (Maritime Cultures and Lifeways), ENG 340 (Literatures of the Coast), ES 360 (Indigenous Ocean and Coast), HST 314 (Maritime Histories of the Pacific), WGSS 341 (Gender, Race and Marine Sciences) and ES/WGSS 475 (Race, Gender and Labor on the Oregon Coast). 

Additionally, a new course in OSU’s School of Writing, Literature and Film—WR 460 (Writing of the Sea)—will soon be submitted for review and approval, according to the official proposal for the new degree. 

“All of the new classes I’m excited about, but I think they really delve into issues of maritime life that need to be taught,” Milligan said. “There’s courses on race and gender in the marine sciences, race and gender in labor issues along the Oregon coast—a big thrust of the degree is a social and environmental justice component, and that’s really exciting to me too.”

So far, the proposed degree has received approval from the OSU faculty senate, the OSU provost, and the OSU Board of Trustees, according to Barth. Now, the degree needs two more approvals—the provosts at universities across the state, and the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. 

“[The degree] is not only unique to OSU within Oregon—it’s unique within the world. That’s what we’re really trying to explore, a new way of doing this,” Barth said. “And the reviews we’re getting from people across the nation, and when I go to international meetings, they say ‘wow, this is what we should be doing.’ So I feel like we’re right on the front edge of how things are going to go.”

Milligan said it has taken well over two years to develop the curriculum for the proposed degree, and described the creation of the degree as a “long process.” Milligan said she hopes it will be available by winter 2021, contingent on the proposal process. 

“As humans, we depend on the ocean, and the largest density of human populations are on the coast. It’s been well recognized at international levels, national levels and local levels that addressing the problems that face the ocean require more than just expertise in the natural sciences,” Milligan said. “We can understand a lot about what makes trophic webs go in an ocean system, but one of the greatest challenges and one of the really essential pieces to finding solutions is the people. How do we act? How do we govern? How do we share what’s happening in our ocean?”

Milligan said she is very excited about the proposed degree, and said the new marine studies building at the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. will provide an exciting coastal experience to students in the degree program.

“With the new marine studies building, there’s going to be a new theater, a big lecture hall with a stage. That’s really exciting,” Milligan said. “There’s going to be an artist studio—things that students of the liberal arts can really be out there and bet getting that coast experience first hand.”

Bob Cowen, the director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center, said the proposed degree will provide additional opportunities for students to visit the coast, interact with the state and federal agencies working at Hatfield, and learn about the ocean in an interdisciplinary manner, thus supporting the university’s Marine Studies Initiative. 

“There’s a lot of new opportunities for OSU students in association with this, particularly coming from the non-natural science arena, and so it opens up those doors for them as well. From our perspective, those students and the faculty that are supporting them, and that broader set of disciplines that Liberal Arts can bring to us is exciting as well,” Cowen said. 

Looking forward, Barth hopes to see additional opportunities for interdisciplinary learning at the coast, and wants to see OSU graduates be part of solutions in Oregon and across the world. 

“If anything, this COVID-19 challenge has shown us that we have some real challenges to work together on,” Barth said. “One is certainly climate change, and the oceans are a huge part of that. We’re going to need a lot of really clever people working together, so I would love to see our graduates be part of those solutions.”

As executive director of the Marine Studies Initiative, Barth said seeing new buildings built at Hatfield and working to develop the degree has been “fun to watch.”

“We’ve spent time designing the building [at Hatfield], getting it built, and really paying attention to the safety, both on sight and the students up on the hill. Then seeing the degree going through final approval, and getting more courses,” Barth said. “I think it’s kind of this wave of momentum, and I just want to keep it up. I understand there’s going to be challenges with funding and that sort of thing, but we’re not going to stop.”

More information on OSU’s proposed marine studies degree can be found at OSU’s Marine Studies Initiative website.

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