From a young age, Steven B. King of St. Louis, Missouri, has had an affinity for the natural world, and from the time he first set foot on campus, has had an affection for the University of Mississippi.
Upon discovering that Ole Miss did not offer a major in environmental studies, he put efforts in motion to help make that a reality. It was the perfect fit of combining the two passions that led to a major gift from King to fund a new faculty position and support efforts to create an environmental studies major.
His gift has established the Steven B. King Environmental Studies Endowment, with the resources to be used to enhance faculty strengths in teaching, research and outreach on the environment. Faculty members across the College of Liberal Arts have a variety of areas of expertise about the interaction of humans and the environment, and King’s gift will provide needed faculty depth to help the program move toward offering a major.
The university currently offers an environmental studies minor, founded in fall 2009 by the recently retired professor of English Ann Fisher-Wirth, that is popular with a variety of majors.
“There are so many challenges the planet is facing — climate change, loss of biodiversity, plastic waste, pollinator decline and more — and interest in the environment is very high, especially among young people. It is their generation that will be dealing with and bearing the burden of these issues,” King said.
“Majoring in environmental studies is an excellent way to get involved in working to solve these challenges and have a rewarding career. Companies are now attuned to environmental ramifications and are hiring people to find solutions to these problems, so there’s a demand for these professionals.”
UM Chancellor Glenn F. Boyce applauded King for his vision behind the gift.
“We are grateful to Steve King for providing significant resources to promote this incredibly important interdisciplinary field of study. Steve recognizes and values the expansion of our academic footprint in environmental studies. This generous gift is an investment in our students and in our future so we can better address challenges related to our ecosystem.”
Deanna Kreisel and Cristin Ellis are the co-directors of the environmental studies minor and faculty in the Department of English. The environmental studies faculty will work to develop the major throughout the next year, then propose approval on campus and with the state Institutions of Higher Learning board.
Ellis said it’s important for the university to offer an environmental studies program, as climate change is determining the “very texture of our daily lives.”
“Climate change and the sixth great extinction will be the defining challenges of the rising generation. Their effects can already be felt and, over the coming decades, will continue to shape the future of human life around the world – from global health to food and water security, energy policy to financial markets, weather crises to climate migration,” she said.
UM’s environmental studies program prepares students to become innovators and leaders in an effort to meet these environmental challenges head-on.
“We believe it’s crucial to the university’s mission to train and launch students into careers in which they can work to create sustainable, just and climate-resilient communities in Mississippi and beyond,” Ellis continued. “And as the shift to sustainability continues to become a major driver of economic growth, technological innovation and social policy, we aim to ensure that Ole Miss students are prepared to succeed in the new climate economy.”
Those who have earned the minor have gone on to work on environmental policy in the offices of U.S. senators and in state and city governments; they have become environmental engineers and water resources engineers, and program coordinators at environmental and community-centered nonprofits; and they have worked for companies ranging from the American Sustainable Business Network to the Houston Zoo.
Lee Cohen, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said King’s $1.3 million gift helps answer an urgent call.
“Our planet desperately needs people prepared to interpret research data and provide innovative solutions to ongoing problems,” the dean said. “While our environmental studies minor has taken off, we will be much better poised to produce environmental studies experts by developing this academic major.
“We are grateful to Steve King for supporting the University of Mississippi and the environmental studies program. I believe this gift will elevate our ability to train students with interests in sustainability and protecting the environment. We will be better prepared to participate in the national and global conversation on environmental concerns and help contribute to solutions.”
Kreisel praised the students who are pursuing an environmental studies minor, saying their devotion to environmental issues extends to their coursework and research as well as to volunteer and leadership roles within environmental organizations at the university and in the Oxford-Lafayette community.
“Unified by their passion, our minors come to us from a wide variety of majors — biology, biochemistry, business and international studies majors are among common majors in the minor. But there’s no single ‘type’ who becomes an environmental studies major; we have students of poetry, chemistry, journalism, psychology, Southern Studies and more,” Kreisel said.
Students take courses in ecology, marine biology, oceanography, natural resource management and environmental geology, as well as those in environmental psychology, environmental law and politics, Southern environmental history and global environmental issues. They can study environmental ethics, religion and the environment, the history of water in the Middle East, environmental literature and nature writing.
UM students also often take environmental courses abroad or take advantage of internship offerings, including those on campus with the Office of Sustainability or the UM Field Station; with local organic or regenerative agricultural farms like Yokna Bottoms Farm of Oxford, Mississippi, or Home Place Pastures in Como, Mississippi; or further afield with The Nature Conservancy or the Black Earth Institute.
King said he hopes the resources from his gift “provide students with a better understanding of the planet and launch them into jobs and careers, as well as into master’s and doctoral programs.”
King chose Ole Miss as his college home after visiting campus upon the recommendation of a friend from St. Louis who was already attending. He earned a Bachelor of Public Administration degree from the School of Business Administration in 1975, a degree that allowed him to take many liberal arts classes. When he graduated, he went to work in his family’s Porsche and Audi dealership and ended up leading it. He sold the dealership about eight years ago.
Now retired, King enjoys gardening and pursuing his own environmental work including volunteering to maintain three purple martin houses in the Missouri Botanical Garden and one in a St. Louis park. He is a member of many organizations, such as the St. Louis Zoo Conservation Council, the Sierra Club and the Rocky Mountain Conservancy.
He has a son, Andrew, who earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from the Ole Miss School of Business Administration, and a daughter, Kelly Woodsum, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University with majors in economics and human development and has three children.
To make a gift of any size to the Steven B. King Environmental Studies Endowment, click here. To learn about supporting the College of Liberal Arts, contact Delia Childers, associate director of development, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 662-915-3086. Gifts of all sizes combine to make an impact.
By Tina H. Hahn/UM Development