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The acclaimed climate scientist discusses the new curriculum, the College’s $135M research enterprise and employee retention.

Jim White stands in front of a window in South Building looking out at the Old Well.
An internationally recognized climate scientist, White was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2014. (Donn Young)

This story continues The Well’s series of Q&As with Carolina’s newest deans.

Jim White is a passionate and tireless supporter of the enduring value of a broad-based liberal arts education and often gives public talks on the topic. He also believes that diversity, equity and inclusion go hand in hand with what it means to provide an excellent liberal arts education, which values diverse ideas, cultures and perspectives.

White came to Carolina in July 2022 from the University of Colorado Boulder, where he was acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for five years and a faculty member in the department of geological sciences for more than 30 years. An internationally recognized expert in climate science, White has published some 200 peer-reviewed journal articles and is a highly cited researcher in the field. He was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2014. At Carolina, he is a member of the faculty of the department of Earth, marine and environmental sciences.

What’s something you’ve learned about Carolina since you arrived?

I was asked that a lot when I first arrived, and I’ve talked previously about how I was struck by the loyalty and devotion of the students, faculty and alumni to this place — it’s very special and, I think, unique to Carolina — so let me give a new answer. I’m impressed by all the care and thought and time and energy that goes into helping our students succeed: There’s our holistic Academic Advising Program and also the Center for Student Success, which includes the Writing and Learning Centers, among other support programs. Our new IDEAs in Action curriculum has a required course called “College Thriving” to help first-year students adjust to life at a major Research-1 university. And those are just the programs in the College; there are many others across the University. These are largely invisible to most of the outside world, but you see them once you’re on the inside, and they are vitally important.

How is your school fulfilling Carolina’s mission of teaching, research and public service?

It is part of Carolina’s DNA to be thoughtful in the education that we provide our students, and to not settle for the status quo. The IDEAs in Action curriculum, years in the making, is evidence of that. This curriculum is designed for students to become the next generation of leaders and lifelong learners, engaged in public service and the civic responsibilities that are essential to our democracy.

Lots of universities emphasize the importance of written communication, but our curriculum recognizes that students need oral and digital communication skills as well. We are emphasizing the listening, rhetoric and discourse skills that allow students to have difficult conversations. We have a required data literacy course to ensure that our students can make sense of the numbers that are thrown at them every day. We are emphasizing experiential education because we know what an effective learning tool that can be.

As for research, many people think of the College as the place for undergraduate education — which of course we are — but we are also the third-largest research enterprise on campus, bringing in nearly $135 million in research funding last year. College faculty are doing incredible work that will directly benefit the people of North Carolina and beyond: developing technologies to clean up PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in our water; designing low-cost test strips for COVID variants; helping us understand the effects of smartphone use on the developing brains of our children; studying disinformation in social media; helping North Carolina communities weather storms and other natural disasters. I could name many more examples.

What’s one example of how you are addressing a current top priority for your school?

The College is more than a thing; it is people — our faculty, staff and undergraduate and graduate students. A top priority for me is how to retain our people. Universities are not immune to the “great migration” that began during the pandemic. Thanks to effective fundraising and state support, we were able to retain many faculty this year who had received job offers from elsewhere or to provide pre-emptive retention offers. We were able to increase salaries for key faculty and staff. And with lobbying from the College, graduate student stipends were increased by 25% this year. There is still more to do on all of these fronts, but we have made progress.

You’re a climate scientist. Can you share some findings from your research that might surprise people?

I’ll give two examples: abrupt climate change and sea level change. Up until about the 1990s we thought of climate change as gradual, forced primarily by sun-Earth changes. My ice core research in Greenland has helped show that large-scale climate changes can occur as abrupt and rapid shifts. (Ice cores contain information about the Earth’s temperature and atmospheric composition on a year by year basis dating back to over 20,000 years.)

We now know that abrupt change is a common and natural feature of the Earth’s climate system, and that temperature changes of 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) can occur in a matter of years — and have, dozens of times. We need to understand and appreciate that we live on an occasionally temperamental planet.

Politically, we focus on temperature change, but sea level is far more dynamic than temperature change on our planet. For example, with just four degrees C of global warming, the Earth tells us that we can expect about 80 meters of sea level rise as Greenland and Antarctica melt completely. That’s enough new seawater to cover Florida. To limit global warming to just 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels — the ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement — will be exceedingly hard, but even if we do, we can expect oceans to ultimately rise far more than any of us would find acceptable. Rising seas will take time, so it won’t happen in our lifetimes, but it will happen. The physics are just too simple.

But to end on a more positive note, my research in isotopes in the carbon cycle has also helped to show that land plants are capable of removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, amounts that equal our input of CO2 from fossil fuel burning on short time scales. This could be a key piece in the puzzle as we seek to formulate workable policy on CO2 levels and climate change.

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