Program History of the Department of Geography at the University of Nevada, Reno

Mackay Science at night by Crista Hecht

The history of Geography at the University of Nevada dates from 1947, when the Department of Geology, settled in the Mackay School of Mines, hired its first Geographer, John Thompson, who taught meteorology, but lasted only a single year, to be replaced by Harold Classen, 1949-51. Earl “Bill” Kersten was hired in 1951 and given the charge to add courses and build a program, which he proceeded to do. Bill can truly be considered the founder of geography at UNR. Recognizing an interest in enrollments and a strong departmental presence, the Geology Department was renamed the Department of Geology and Geography in the early 1950s, and, in the mid 1950s and the late 1960s, two more geographers were added to the faculty, greatly expanding the geography component – Fritz Kramer (1956-59) and John Johnson (1960-64). John Houghton was hired in 1967 and Terrill Kramer in 1968.

Geography split from Geology in 1978 as the Department of Geography, with Bill Kersten as the Department’s founding chair. At the time, Geography had a faculty of three. Tragically, the next year (1979), John Houghton was killed in a plane crash in Antarctica. Within two years, John James came on board to teach a reduced load, but also to serve as the Nevada State Climatologist; the State Climate Office was firmly entrenched in the Department of Geography, where it resides today.

In 1978, Geography found itself at a crossroads, when the Department was moved from the Mackay School to the College of Arts and Science. At that point, the future of the Department was in question, and Melvin Marcus, a physical geographer of renown and past president of the AAG, was brought in as an outside reviewer to offer suggestions to the administration about possible courses of action. In 1981, accepting one of his suggestions, the University chose to bring in an outside hire to take over as department chair. Enter the guiding hand of Christopher Exline, who would change the face of the Department forever. An early action of his was to hire Gary Hausladen, in 1987; subsequently, the department proceeded to bring into the fold Paul Starrs (1992), Kate Berry (1993), and Scott Mensing (1993).

As the hiring timeline suggests, the year 1993 was another benchmark: The number of faculty had increased to six and a Masters of Science program was approved and added to the curriculum. The Department now housed a Masters of Science in Geography and a Masters of Science in Land Use Planning and Policy. With a core faculty teaching, developing courses, and innovating the curriculum to encourage graduate student interest and progress, these were also years of challenge, but a pattern of university-wide recognition of hard work and superior teaching within geography meant promised progress toward further interest in what the department was doing.

The year 1997 proved to be the next benchmark for the Department as a result of our first external review since the Marcus assessment in 1981. Positive in tenor, the Department’s response to the review resulted in the 1997 strategic plan, the highlight of which was a concerted effort to move toward a Ph.D. in Geography. Although there was support from the administration, no new faculty positions were available for Geography.  Energy went into expanding the Masters program.

Upon John James’ retirement in 2000, he was replaced on the faculty by Franco Biondi, but John maintained his position as State Climatologist until 2004.

Arrival of a new President saw in fairly short order a drive to administratively reorganize the University. With the splitting of the College of Arts and Science, Geography was one of three departments identified as eligible for either the College of Science or the College of Liberal Arts.  We submitted a proposal to be placed in the College of Science, largely because we felt that this would provide better support for our physical geographers and their labs, which are expensive to maintain.  We also felt that with the reorganization, it made sense to return to the restructured Mackay School, renamed the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering (MSESE). Reorganization has provided the support needed for Geography to move forward once again. Since 2004, Jeff Underwood (who suceeded John James as State Climatologist), Jill Heaton, Scott Bassett and P. Anthony Brinkman have joined the faculty..

Beginning in July 2010 with the EPSCoR project in full swing, the department grew by two more faculty; Douglas Boyle and Thomas Albright. Doug's work is focusing on paleoclimate modeling and watershed hydrology and Tom is expanding the scope of the ecoclimatology portion of the project and establishing a conservation biogeography research focus. These new additions have greatly expanded the diversity and depth of the teaching and research capabilities of the Geography Department.