Catching up with Professor Tom Leschine in Retirement

Professor Emeritus Tom Leschine. Photo by Mackenzie Nelson.

By Mackenzie Nelson

He walks to the corner office and opens the door. The room is as big as his reputation at SMEA. The number of books lining his walls is impressive. The spectrum of colors represented, even more so—almost like an art installment with each book specifically placed to bring the most artistic appeal. But upon closer inspection, it is clear they have been carefully categorized by topic. “That’s the thing about birders,” he explains, “we’re pathologically organized.”

In conversation, he easily points up to a collection of books to his left, towards the ceiling—his “mathematics section” –easily picking out the two copies of his PhD dissertation. Next to those is the text he referenced in his application essay for Woods Hole Institute of Oceanography.

He is a man of many interests as represented by the diversity of topics indicated by the book titles. In a department focused on interdisciplinary studies, he is the epitome of that. While he may own enough books to rival a small library, their presence is welcoming—just like him as he sits behind his desk, reflecting on his time at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and the indirect path he took to get here.


I came to the field of marine affairs sideways, having serendipitously found myself in Woods Hole, MA. in the summer of 1975, tag-along to a wife who had been awarded a scholarship to attend an MBL summer course, “Marine Microbial Ecology” it was. Having just finished my Ph.D. in mathematical logic, I hadn’t even imagined there could be such a field. But I proved an avid learner and soon found myself immersed in all matters marine.

I took part in microbial ecology field trips in search of interesting algae and bacteria, experienced first-hand the transformative power of summer tourism on places like Cape Cod, and got to engage intellectually in what was then to me almost pure abstraction, the task of defining a “new world order for the oceans” through the Law of the Sea negotiations then underway. Those were heady times, as they say.

I was awarded tenure at the two-year college where I was teaching when I completed my Ph.D. The path of least resistance would have been to stay there. But for many reasons, that felt like it would ultimately prove to be the wrong choice. The opportunity to go to Woods Hole that suddenly opened up was a chance to try something different; I approached it tentatively at first but soon saw there could be no turning back, at least no happy return to what I was doing before, which was mostly teaching undergrad math. I was very lucky, and I remain in debt to several people who aided me in the somewhat unusual and risky academic transition I made.

Being the product of a second-generation steelworking family from near Pittsburgh that didn’t travel all that much, almost all that I learned was entirely new to me. I prepared myself for my Woods Hole sojourn by reading Thoreau’s Cape Cod, Henry Beston’s The Outermost House and the essays and books of a raft of other New England-oriented nature writers. I guess I was a romantic at heart, but not in any simple way. The postdoctoral research proposal that got me into WHOI’s marine policy program picked up on ideas proposed by some WHOI engineers, that the then new coastal zone management program could usefully be framed as a problem in systems analysis.

A year and a bit later I found myself in a WHOI marine policy fellowship, ultimately staying on for eight years, most of that time as a staff member specializing in marine policy. Woods Hole felt like the center of the ocean universe, with just about everyone in ocean science or policy orbiting through. I met Warren Wooster, Ed Wenk, John Knauss, Roger Ravelle, Francis Christy, Tommy Koh and most importantly, Ed Miles, then the director of SMEA’s predecessor IMS.

Ed had just given a typically Milesian keynote address at a symposium, and there he was standing at the end of the line all by himself at the Cape Cod lobster bake that invariably followed such events in Woods Hole. One of the marine policy fellows practically pushed me into line behind him, exclaiming that now was my chance to bid on getting to Seattle and the University of Washington—the place I most wanted to go. It worked, and I arrived at SMEA’s forerunner IMS as a new research associate professor in 1983. Soon I was teaching courses in both marine pollution management and marine policy analysis, both then absent from the IMS curriculum. I joined the tenure track faculty in 1988 becoming SMEA’s fifth director in 2003.

I’ve been here nearly 35 years and SMEA has needless to say changed quite a bit over that time. There were no women on the faculty before the early-90s and the majority of students were male, unlike today. Moreover, students came here to learn how to manage things: be it ports, fisheries, or the coastal zone. Today the emphasis has shifted to governance and fewer students aspire to traditional careers in resource “management”. The other big change has been the way SMEA has opened up to the social sciences beyond economics and public policy. Today ‘human dimensions’ play a prominent role in our curriculum and are becoming more prominent in marine affairs practice as well. I think in retrospect I was the first faculty member at SMEA to bring a hard-to-pin-down disciplinary focus, partly a mathematician and partly several other things.

The evolution that has occurred at SMEA is by no means unique to SMEA; the leading North American natural resources management and policy programs have all changed similarly. We’ve learned that environmental policy can’t succeed if it is overly focused on the health of the resource, we have to give equal attention to the human communities affected directly or indirectly by management and policy. The question now is whether broadening in those ways leads ultimately to more successful outcomes than the old resource-focused approaches.

Marine affairs is perhaps an unfortunately named field that will likely always lack name recognition. It’s not all our fault, the oceans just don’t resonate with average people the way they resonate with us.

What happens in the oceans is more or less invisible most of the time and there aren’t physical boundaries or visual separations the way there are on land. At least not for those who lack roots in oceanic or seafaring cultures, and that’s most of us. So there’s a lot of information asymmetry in marine affairs; people have trouble seeing the problems that experts see.

We’ve in many ways romanticized the marine world now that most of us aren’t much dependent on marine-based activities like fishing and shipping for a living. Booming Seattle epitomizes the problem we have, I think, and the decline of the natural resource base that used to support consumptive recreational uses of Puget Sound hasn’t helped. Places like Seattle are on the coast but not of the sea the way most coastal places used to be.

As a marine affairs practitioner I’ve always engaged with real-world problem solving more than the average academic and I’m working to keep that part of me going. My wife and I recently launched a watershed planning effort on Whidbey Island where we have lived part time for nearly 20 years and we’ve now got an enthusiastic planning group from throughout our watershed working with us. It’s stakeholder process as I’d like to think we teach it at SMEA.

Farming has deep roots and deep cultural importance in places like South Whidbey, but both the natural environment and human communities are now changing in ways not anticipated when the underlying institutions arrangements were set, in some cases, more than a century ago. We’re taking this as an opportunity to plan for a future that we can see coming and which we hope to be able to deal with on our own terms. I think of it as an exercise in trying to get a grip on sustainability while we have the power to do so. To me it’s an exercise in building greater resilience in a coupled human and nature system very much as we try to teach it at SMEA.

I’m a year into retirement now, and frankly it doesn’t feel all that much different on a day-to-day basis. I spend most of my days reading, writing and researching in marine affairs at least in part, even if now I’m a bit more relaxed about it. Maybe too relaxed. I spent a lot of time running and biking in my middle years and I’ve been getting back to the biking part.

I’ve long been an avid if untutored bird watcher, so I took a master class over this past year, a really challenging class it turned out. I’d go so far as to say I learned some things about teaching and learning that I didn’t know before, like the importance of the inter-student dynamic to what students learn. Now I’m getting involved with Seattle Audubon and even led a “nature camp” birding trip for some early teens recently, a serious stretch for a person like me.