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UCI Podcast: What is social ecology?

Jon B. Gould, new dean of social ecology, explains what’s going on at one of UCI’s epicenters for change

August 31, 2022
UCI Podcast: What is social ecology?
UCI’s new dean for the School of Social Ecology, Jon B. Gould, says we are at a moment of urgency for social issues and the faculty and students of social ecology “take this quite seriously. As we always say, we aren’t just studying social problems, we’re trying to solve them. And we’re really trying to solve them in a holistic way.” Steve Zylius / UCI

In 1970, the Social Ecology Program at UCI was founded as the first academic unit in social ecology in the United States. In 1988, UCI began the process to elevate the program to the status of a school – and in 1992, the University of California Regents formally approved UCI’s School of Social Ecology – the first of its kind in the U.S.

But what, exactly, is social ecology? To answer that question, we welcome Jon B. Gould, dean of the School of Social Ecology, to the UCI Podcast. Gould breaks down what is being done in his school’s three departments, how their groups collaborate on programs to solve social problems in the community and why Social Ecology Anteaters can see how they can affect change before they even graduate.


Music for this episode of the UCI Podcast, titled “Seasons,” provided by Telecasted via the Audio Library in YouTube Studio.

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UCI Podcast/Cara Capuano: From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. You’re listening to the UCI Podcast. In 1970, the Social Ecology Program at UCI was founded as the first academic unit in social ecology in the entire United States of America. In 1988, UCI began the process to elevate the program to the status of a school. And in 1992, the University of California Regents approved UCI’s School of Social Ecology, the first of its kind in the U.S. But what exactly is social ecology? To answer that question, we welcome in Jon Gould, dean of the School of Social Ecology. Dean Gould, thank you for joining me on the UCI Podcast.

Gould: Oh, it’s my pleasure to be here. I really appreciate your being interested in the School of Social Ecology.

Capuano: You started your position earlier this year, and I’m guessing that some of your peers, both inside and outside of academia were curious about social ecology, particularly a whole school of social ecology at UCI. How did you answer their questions of “what is social ecology?”

Gould: So, you’re right. This is the number one question I get asked as dean: “what is social ecology?” And it’s not something that necessarily comes to people’s minds immediately. We are the only School of Social Ecology in the country because we’re really hard to replicate. I think the simple way to understand us is that we take a holistic or connected approach to solving social problems. So, what we say is you can’t ask about the health of an individual – in our case, whether someone has anxiety or depression, whether they’re aging well – without asking about the health of the community in which they operate, in which they live. So, is there economic opportunity there? What’s crime like? Does government work? What’s transportation like? And if we’re going to ask about the health of the community, we have to ask about the health of the environment. So, really, we’re a connected way of not only studying social problems, but we also seek to solve them.

And one of the ways we do this, in another way that’s fairly unique to us, is we have a field study component to our curriculum, which students have to participate in. They don’t just take classes in our classroom. They go out into the community. They work in nonprofit organizations. They work in governments. They work with businesses. And what they’re trying to do there is take what we’re teaching them in the classroom, match it against the reality outside of academe, and then take lessons away from that, as well as being well prepared to be the change makers that they tell us they want to be.

Capuano: I was a major in biochemistry as an undergrad and I remember one of the richest experiences of my entire undergraduate experience was working in a laboratory. Please tell me a little bit more about the field study because I know since you’ve started, you are about the most “hands on” dean I’ve ever seen. You’re interacting with people all the time. I know you’ve talked to students about it. What kind of reactions and reflections do they have when they share their experiences with you from their field study?

Gould: So, these first several months as dean have really been exciting. I’ve had this “90 in 90” Twitter campaign where I met 90 new people in the school in 90 days. We’re now at seven months. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve met. And you’re right, the students just are so excited about what – not only what they’re learning in the classroom – but taking these lessons and they go into the community, and they work with groups that are trying to solve problems.

For example, we have groups that are working on anti-trafficking. We have groups that are dealing with the effects of COVID in schools and what our students – when they light up – is when they are able to take something that they learn in the classroom, and they see it play out in practice. It’s like, “Aha!” The light bulb goes on. “Aha! That’s what I was learning. And that’s why it’s relevant.” And then they come back to us and it’s this 360 where they then take their experiences out there in the world and we help them make sense of them in conjunction with what they learned in the classroom. So, not only is this an education where they’re able to test out there, but they are so prepared once they’re done at the university to go out and make a contribution right away.

Capuano: That sounds fantastic. UCI’s School of Social Ecology has three main departments: criminology, law and society, psychological sciences, and urban planning and public policy. What is a general idea of the work being done in each of those departments?

Gould: So, here’s the way I think to understand each of the departments. And we will see whether my colleagues agree with me, we’ll hear from them after the podcast. So, the department of criminology, law and society focuses oftentimes on the distinction between law on the books and law in practice – what we think law should be, what we want law to do and what actually happens – with a strong focus on preventing crime and society’s response to crime. So, that would be CLS. Psychological science focuses on the behavioral side of psychology. So, some of that would be developmental psychology, social psych, health and psychology, abnormal psychology – and within that, we now have a new PhD program in clinical psychology. We have our first cohort and we’re very excited about that. Our third department of urban planning and public policy focuses on the special challenges of planning and managing policy problems, particularly in metropolitan areas. So, it’s a lot of area that we cover in the school.

Capuano: And each department is really robust in its own right – so many different researchers tackling different aspects of everything you just shared. How do you see those groups work together?

Gould: So, I’ve been at four different universities now. This is by far the most accomplished group of faculty that I’ve had the honor of serving alongside and being a part of. I would say what holds a lot of the school together is our commitment to justice – whether it’s social justice, climate justice or environmental justice. We also have this common approach to working in collaboration with those outside the university, with those in the community and the community groups, with government, with practitioners, with business partners. And we see a number of our faculty then collaborating within – inside the university on some of our centers. So, for example, our Center for Psychology and Law, our Livable Cities Lab, Water UCI. So, it’s not only this kind of common approach to how we understand the world and how we understand our mission as academicians, but it’s also some of these centers and programs that we come together, and we collaborate within.

Capuano: That reminds me of something that you said back in May – as you introduced yourself to a room full of your peers and your colleagues – you said something that really stood out for this listener: “There are so many social problems that demand our attention.” And by having these centers where there’s collaborations happening, it feels like it’s a more “all hands-on deck” approach. Can you share some more examples of some real-life tangible solutions that you’ve seen out of this effort to try to solve these problems?

Gould: Absolutely. And it happens every single day within our school. And I am not exaggerating on that. So, some of the most tangible examples might be in some of those centers I just mentioned.

Our Livable Cities Lab just released a report recently that looked at the effects of affordable housing. We know that in a society, when you go to put affordable housing in a community, there are usually two objections to it. Number one, it’s going to reduce housing values. And number two, it’s going to bring crime. This is the, the concept of “NIMBY” – not in my backyard. Well, the Livable Cities Lab just did this 360-review of affordable housing in Orange County. And what they found actually was not only does crime stay stable or in fact go down, but also housing values around those projects go up. So, when we put affordable housing into a community, we actually don’t need to fear about some of the things that people are worried about. What it means then is we can have an even greater push to address the problems of housing scarcity that we know exist here and elsewhere.

Other things that we’re doing, if we point to the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, one of the big projects right now is anti-human trafficking. It may surprise some people to find out that Orange County has a considerable problem of human trafficking. It’s under the radar for many people. In fact, it’s under the radar for almost all of us, but researchers in the Blum Center are not only uncovering it, but they’re trying to address the problems and help serve those who have been trafficked.

I mentioned Water UCI… we also have a new program on urban sustainability and climate change. And what these projects are doing is they’re looking for the solutions to urban environmental problems. So, things we know about are for example, access to clean water. That is a big challenge here in California, particularly during our continuing drought. They’re also working on reducing urban flood risk and maintaining coastal health.

And then two other things that just got funded by the state recently – our Young Adult Court, we just got a $10.1 million grant from the state for that. And UCI LIFTED, which just got almost $2 million for the state. What both of those are doing is they are trying to break the cycle of crime among young people and those who are incarcerated by not only helping them to have a path out of the criminal justice system, but also provide educational opportunities for them. Because we know that providing educational opportunities to those who have had some sort of a run-in with the criminal justice system not only gives them better opportunities going forward, but actually makes not only society safer, but also makes prison life easier and safer.

So, these are a number of things that we’re doing, and this is part very much of our mission as a public institution in California. We take this quite seriously. As we always say, we aren’t just studying social problems, we’re trying to solve them. And we’re really trying to solve them in a holistic way.

Capuano: Those two programs you just mentioned – Young Adult Court and UCI LIFTED. The opportunity that both create with their programming to potentially reduce recidivism and really make a break and a change in that criminal cycle that we hear that’s a reality of the systems that have long been in place – That’s a thing that just lifts my heart as a citizen that wants to see people that didn’t have the same opportunities as others growing up, have a new opportunity to have a different future.

Gould: And if you go to the graduation ceremony for Young Adult Court and you just see the pride that the individuals have, that their families have, that the judge has in that courtroom – these are two programs that truly bring the left and right together. Because whether it is providing opportunities for people, as you say, who really didn’t get them before, or whether it’s trying to increase safety and reduce crime – and also reduce cost to the taxpayer – these are win-win programs. And we need more people throughout Orange County – we need more people throughout California and the country – to come join us and be partners in this kind of work and in the other kind of work that I was talking about, that we’re doing in the school, because we really are trying to address those knotty problems that need all of our attention right now.

Capuano: And it must be great as the dean to feel like someone who’s seeing these change makers working so hard and kind of be the leader of that group. In that same conversation back in May, you brought up that this is your dream job.

Gould: This is my absolute dream.

Capuano: When did this goal – and this opportunity to chase this dream – first plant its seed in your mind?

Gould: So, I don’t know that it was a goal so much as it was a hope. Over a decade ago, I was invited to the school to give a talk in my research. And I was just producing at that point some work on wrongful convictions – at preventing wrongful convictions, I should say. And I came in and spoke to the students, to the faculty – and I instantaneously knew that this was a place I wanted to be.

This was a place – and still is – with faculty who are so sharp, who are so engaged, whose research is so interesting. It’s a school that takes seriously this notion that it needs to be relevant. It was a place that took diversity seriously. We talk about it all the time in higher education. We are a school that has a great deal of racial and ethnic diversity. We have a tremendous number of first-generation scholars. And for someone like myself, who’s always kind of been at this intersection between academe and policy, academe and practice, it really was a place where I saw that we could truly make a difference.

It also didn’t hurt that the weather’s wonderful and we have In-N-Out Burger here, across the street. But I just knew from there that this was exactly the kind of place I would want to be. And I’ve been here now as dean over seven months and there has not been a day where I have been anything other than overjoyed that I’m a member of this community.

You say “the leader of the school” – what brings the leadership here? Our faculty and our staff. I’m fortunate to help collaborate with them. I’m fortunate today to be able today to talk about what we do. I’m fortunate to try to bring others into our mission, but we really are a team. And it is – I know I sound like this can’t – you know, there’s no way this could be true – but it really is a special place. And we are the only School of Social Ecology in the country because we are truly that unique.

Capuano: Your passion and commitment are palpable in the space. It’s wonderful to hear.

Gould: So you talk about this passion – and I do feel passionately not only about the school, but what it is we have to be doing. We are in a moment of urgency right now. Whatever the social issue that you care about – whether it’s climate and sustainability, whether it’s improving the criminal justice system, whether it’s addressing the many psychological harms that we know have come from the pandemic, whether it’s trying to advance social justice – any of these things, this is an absolute moment of urgency.

And so, we are committing every single day in this school to trying to do that. I sometimes say that the programs in our school truly represent the “hard sciences.” You know, some others sometimes say, “Oh, the physical sciences, engineering – those are the hard sciences.” No, no, no, no. The hard sciences are the ones in our school because they address human behavior – and trying to explain human behavior, let alone change human behavior – that’s really difficult, but that’s what we’re focused on.

And we are also focused on our students. I talked about where they come from. Where they want to go is to be change makers. They want to go back into their communities and they want to make a difference. Many of them want to make a difference in government. Many want to make a difference in nonprofit organizations. We’re also seeing many now who want to make a difference in the business world.

And what we need for our school, more than anything else, is we need partners – partners within academe, but most especially partners from outside who are willing to work with us to achieve these goals, to help address some of the social problems and to give these students, who are so committed, that opportunity to go make the change that they want to do.

Capuano: Perhaps this conversation will entice some of your potential partners now that they know what social ecology is.

Gould: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today to talk about that. And, of course, we are always welcoming those who have any interest in our school.

Capuano: Thank you for your time today, Dean Gould.

Gould: My pleasure.

Capuano: The UCI podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California. Irvine. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.