When what was then called the Massachusetts Bay Marine Studies Consortium launched its flagship program in January of 1980, we enrolled 39 students from area colleges in a semester-long interdisciplinary course called "Into the Ocean World." The course was team-taught with faculty representing different disciplines, academic institutions, Massachusetts state government, and area NGOs. The course and the Consortium were conceived at the intersection of three interesting questions and challenges. First, is it possible to teach a serious academic course that introduces the many disciplines that speak to the marine world (from biology and physics to history, politics, and the arts) without giving short shrift to any of them, and yet allowing students to experience broad themes, the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts? Second, is it possible to go beyond bridging the divides between disciplines to bridge the divides between campuses and different educational institutions? Third, it is possible to build "real world" problems, perspectives and practitioners into a serious academic offering? All three of these questions were unanswered at the time and the success of "Into the Ocean World" and the continuing survival of the Consortium suggest that the answer to all three is a resounding "yes."
In the vision of the Consortium's founders, "Into the Ocean World" was to be part of a catalog of offerings. We surveyed the courses available on member campuses, proposed a cross-registration mechanism, and sought to develop courses, particularly interdisciplinary courses, where there were holes in the curriculum. Courses in coastal studies and marine mammals were soon developed to make something new available to area undergraduates. Any course developed by the Consortium had to be approved through the normal new-course review process at member schools, and member fees allowed us to pay faculty to teach. Courses were housed at member institutions chosen for accessibility by both car and public transportation.
As required by our Articles of Incorporation and bylaws, the Consortium's board and executive committee consisted of the faculty representatives from member schools. While this guaranteed the serious pursuit of our academic purposes, over time this governance proved to have its limitations in two regards. First, there was no "real world" voice at the table as plans and decisions were made. Second, while the faculty members were fully engaged, there was little "ownership" of the Consortium on member campuses beyond the personal relations (with students, fellow academics and administrators) of Consortium board members.
After several years and a strategic planning exercise, we began to invite "real world" practitioners to join executive committee meetings (without ever formally changing our governance documents.) We developed a robust program of engagement with the then-emerging challenges of cleaning up Boston Harbor. The Consortium wound up playing a major role in convening scientists, environmental advocates and policy makers to exchange ideas and, together, develop what we came to call a "Research and Action Agenda." The goals of that agenda were a) to identify future public policy decision points that could benefit from more research,b) to encourage Consortium faculty and others to pursue that research, c) to engage Consortium students in both the research and in the thinking about the application of their studies to public policy questions, and to provide a framework for collaboration for all groups and institutions that touched the world of Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay. An annual symposium series, the federally-funded Massachusetts Bays Program, and the non-profit advocacy organization Save the Harbor, Save the Bay all trace their DNA to this new Consortium effort. With the transition from the Consortium's founding director in 1990, the public policy agenda shifted from the harbor and bay to water resources, a new focus that energized the Consortium's public identity for over a decade. The Consortium board now seeks to identify a new focus for its public work.