Sunday, April 21, 2024

William & Mary Unveils Details of Plan to Replace Virginia Coastal Policy Center

Rising waters: Coastal flooding is of growing concern across Tidewater Virginia and in other coastal areas worldwide. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of J.D. Loftis from VIMS)
(WYDaily/Courtesy of J.D. Loftis from VIMS)

WILLIAMSBURG — Following William & Mary’s announcement it plans to close its widely respected Virginia Coastal Policy Center this summer, the university has unveiled a new initiative to address sea level rise and stormwater flooding.

The school has touted the new Virginia Coastal Resilience Collaborative as being part of a university-wide approach that is in line with its Vision 2026 plan to establish a greater presence in Virginia’s efforts to deal with water issues.

“We’re excited about the potential of this new university-wide collaborative to expand, evolve and streamline the scholarship, educational, and advisory work that W&M and [the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences] have been engaged in across campus,” said Brian Whitson, the university’s chief communications officer. “This will be a multi-disciplinary approach, bringing together expertise across campus to produce a broader range of research, education and advisory work for policymakers and stakeholders.”

The new collaborative will be organized under an assistant provost, who will coordinate work across William and Mary’s five schools of marine science, law, business, education and arts and sciences, as well as with other universities and state agencies.

That coordination will allow the school and VIMS the ability to “develop and implement timely, real-world solutions — and legal scholarship and policy advice,” a description on William & Mary’s website reads.

“With a broader, multidisciplinary university-wide approach, the Virginia Coastal Resilience Collaborative will also have the ability to address economic, social, business and/or private sector issues, whereas VCPC was focused more directly on legal and policy questions,” Whitson said.

Other staff at the collaborative will include a policy analyst and clerical support roles. The former VCPC had a director and three staff members, whose positions will be terminated June 30 when the center is dissolved.

“The Provost, in coordination with the steering committee, will develop an implementation plan including recruiting personnel for the new collaborative,” Whitson said.

The steering committee, chaired by the dean of the School of Marine Science and director of VIMS, will first meet April 15 to develop the plan for the new collaborative, with help from Virginia Sea Grant, other school leaders, legislators, municipalities, policymakers and industry representatives.

The current timeline calls for the plan to be submitted to the school’s president and provost in June. Recruitment of personnel will begin in July, and the collaborative will formally launch in September.

The former VCPC had become a go-to resource in the state and Mid-Atlantic region for science-backed policy recommendations on evolving issues linked to climate change. Environmental nonprofits, local governments and regional commissions lauded the center for its contributions, with many members saying they are keeping an eye on the new collaborative to see if it lives up to its predecessor.

“VCPC evolved into an institute of excellence, providing three critical functions for Virginia,” including the convening of resilience professionals, workforce training and policy guidance, said Mary-Carson Stiff, deputy director of environmental nonprofit Wetlands Watch. “We will see if this new entity will serve these three important functions for the betterment of Virginia.”

Anna Killius, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said she hopes the new collaborative continues VCPC’s track record of science-based policy recommendations.

“I hope the conversation about the Virginia Coastal Policy Center has made clear the many important relationships that have been built by the center and its directors over the years with administration leaders, state lawmakers and many other public and private organizations,” Killius said. “To make sure that the collaborative is primed to deliver value for both the university and the community, it will be very important to see these stakeholders at the table as the collaborative takes shape.

Immediate impacts

The loss of the center has had ramifications in the legislative world.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has already recommended an amendment to House Bill 2393 from Del. Keith Hodges, R-Middlesex, to strike a reference to the Virginia Coastal Policy Center that would otherwise have appeared in state code.

Hodges’ bill, which passed both chambers unanimously, expands the range of universities the state can confer with when crafting resilience policy from solely VIMS to include VCPC, Virginia Sea Grant, the Virginia Cooperative Extension and the recently unveiled Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience at Old Dominion University.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension offers agricultural research services through a partnership between Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local governments. Virginia Sea Grant is the state’s program within a federal network established by Congress in 1966 to facilitate research opportunities across the state’s university network.

Another amendment to Hodges’ bill from Youngkin could be more significant. The governor is suggesting a change that would add the word “led by” in front of Virginia Sea Grant.

Some environmental nonprofits and universities have privately voiced worries the change will allow Virginia Sea Grant to determine which entities could provide input and which couldn’t.

Virginia Sea Grant Executive Director Troy Hartley said his agency did not ask for the amendment. However, he said the amendment wouldn’t preclude state agencies from seeking advice from other universities if they so desired.

“Prior to [VCPC’s] existence, we were leveraging interns and the National Sea Grant Law Center. No question that’s at a lower capacity than [what] existed with VCPC,” Hartley said. “We tap on the expertise of our member institutions and throughout the commonwealth, so we don’t make contact decisions. We’re helping collaborate and communicate across the institutions.”

Hodges said he worked on the amendments with the Youngkin administration. Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Youngkin, said the amendments were requested by the Hodges and eliminated redundancies by also removing reference to the Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience, which falls under the purview of Virginia Sea Grant already.

“The issues that we have are very, very complex, so you need to bring in all of the universities to solve the problem,” Hodges said. “[Virginia] Sea Grant makes perfect sense to be the one to lead that effort.”

The inclusion of other collaborators doesn’t diminish the role of VIMS, Whitson said, pointing to state code specifically outlining its role.

Lewie Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, highlighted the collection of scientists, engineers, public outreach experts, educators and students brought together by Virginia Sea Grant to tackle coastal issues.

“I don’t know of a more established public entity with a national statutory responsibility administered at the state level better equipped with a solid foundation to help lead and coordinate,” Lawrence said.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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