Meet Neil Drobny, Program Director, Environment, Economy, Development & Sustainability (EEDS)

Oct. 1, 2012

This semester AEDE welcomed Neil Drobny to the department as the Program Director for the recently launched Environment, Economy, Development and Sustainability (EEDS) undergraduate major at Ohio State. Neil brings to the department many years of experience teaching sustainability concepts to business students and a wealth of experience and contacts in the business and public service communities. In his new role at AEDE, Neil serves as the primary contact and the coordinating advisor for the EEDS major.

Emerging trends suggest that employees in all significant job functions require an understanding of sustainability issues to perform at the highest levels.  Because EEDS is a transdisciplinary degree program that integrates the human, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability, this cutting-edge major provides the core knowledge and skills students need to launch a leadership career in the private, public or non-profit sectors.

EEDS gives students that have a passion and a purpose to make the world a better place the tools they seek to become agents of change. Students in the program can choose to specialize in one of four areas: sustainability and business, environmental economics and policy analysis, community development, or international development. This comprehensive major is possible because EEDS is a joint effort between the School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR) and the Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics (AEDE) in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.  Additional partners include the Fisher College of Business; Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering; City and Regional Planning;  International Studies; Center for Resilience; John Glenn School of Public Affairs; and the President’s and Provost’s Council on Sustainability. The resources of these partners combine to offer students over 150 courses from which to choose while at Ohio State.

Drobny, who received his undergraduate degree in Engineering Science and Civil Engineering and his master's degree in Engineering with a focus on Civil/Environmental Engineering, all from Dartmouth College, as well as his Ph.D. in Civil/Environmental Engineering from The Ohio State University, recently sat down with AEDE to discuss his experiences studying, working and teaching in the field of sustainability and his vision for the EEDS program at Ohio State.

What led you to focus on the topic of sustainability in your studies and career?

I have always been interested in environmental issues and when I was an undergraduate and graduate student in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the only real ways to study the environment was through environmental engineering. Thus, I focused on this topic at Dartmouth. I would say though, that even before I started college I was interested in issues involving the environment and living more sustainability. This interest really developed in my youth while a Boy Scout. I also grew up in New Jersey, in the shadow of many “smelly” chemical plants, which also made me aware of the impact of industry on the earth and on people.

I spent six years at Dartmouth, earning my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering. While at Dartmouth I was a Navy ROTC student and through this program, and due my master’s degree research in cold weather sanitation, I was sent for my military service to a U.S. Navy lab in California where I conducted research on environmental issues in the Antarctic. While in this role I even earned a patent. The Navy gave me a lot of opportunity to travel and learn. I was even sent to Antarctica to collect data for my research.  

What brought you to Ohio State?

Well, several years after I finished my degrees at Dartmouth and time in the Navy, I took a job with Battelle, which was located in Columbus. I was their second environmental hire in the history of the organization, so it was early on in the field of sustainability work. I was brought on board to help clients cope with an emerging plethora of environmental regulations. I spent 15 years with the organization and as time went on I became more and more involved with the growing environmental business work that Battelle was taking on.

I left Battelle to start my own business. I opened the Midwest office of an international environmental consulting firm, which focused on clients in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky. The business did well and grew to 125 employees. After 15 years I sold the business to the parent company so I could focus on independent environmental business consulting.

It was at this point in time that I noticed that with the momentum growing for sustainability in business practices, some business schools in the country were beginning to offer sustainability coursework. I approached the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State regarding this and they were intrigued and asked me to develop a syllabus. I went home, developed a syllabus, pitched it to Fisher, and in 2004 we offered the first sustainable business course at the College. The course was very popular. In 2008 we developed and offered to undergraduate Fisher students a sequence of courses focused on sustainability in business. This reflects the growing momentum that the field of sustainability has gained in the past few decades in the business community, which has now trickled down to academia. I’m happy I could be a part of that change for OSU.

What’s special about the EEDS program at Ohio State?

The EEDS program is a unique program – Ohio State is the only university to have integrated business content along with arts and sciences coursework to focus on the study of the environment, economy, development and sustainability in a transdisciplinary format. This training is what many public and private sector organizations are looking for in their next generation of hires – they want students who can think sustainably regarding many dimensions of their work. There’s a real niche in the private and public sectors related to sustainability that the training our students receive prepares them to fill.

The students in the program are very engaged; they are active advocates for sustainable change. Our students actively want to make a difference and to contribute new ways of thinking to partners in the private and public sectors.

The fact that Ohio State offers this program and recognizes the market need is great – where Ohio State has come from in the past few years in regards to focusing on sustainability is just incredible.  Our President, Dr. Gordon Gee, has made many public commitments pertaining to the University’s ambitious sustainability goals. One example is the announcement this week that Ohio State has signed a letter of intent with Iberdrola Renewables to purchase 50 megawatts of wind energy capacity from the Blue Creek Wind Farm, located in Van Wert and Paulding counties in Ohio. This purchase of clean, renewable wind energy capacity equates to approximately 25 percent of the entire Columbus campus electricity load, and is one of the single largest purchases of actual renewable energy by any university in the country.

What’s your vision for the EEDS program at Ohio State? 

My vision is that our graduates will be change agents throughout the world in leading the transformation of neighborhoods, communities, organizations, institutions and society at large from lifestyles and business models based on resource depletion to mindsets based on resource restoration and conservation. In this regard I am talking about human resources, natural resources and economic resources, what we refer to in “sustainability speak” as people, planet and profit. In my grandest dreams, EEDS will be the defining foundation of Ohio State’s 21st century legacy.    

You can learn more about Neil Drobny on the AEDE faculty profiles section of our website. To learn more about the EEDS program, including program requirements and application instructions, please visit the EEDS website.

Images: Neil Drobny, Program Director for the Environment, Economy, Development and Sustainability (EEDS) Program, which is one of Ohio State's newest majors (top). EEDS students and faculty members during the September 5, 2012 program orientation, which included a briefing from Ohio State's Sustainability Office and a tour of Ohio State's Nationwide & Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center on campus, which is a LEED certified construction that uses geo-thermal heating and cooling (bottom).

October 1, 2012