a longstanding geography legacy at wmu


Professor Leslie Wood

The Department of Geography, Environment, and Tourism at Western Michigan University, founded in 1905, is one of Michigan’s earliest established Geography departments. President Dwight Waldo recruited Professor Leslie Wood (i.e. the same Wood from our building Wood Hall), an outstanding physical geographer, to come to WMU from Northern Michigan University (NMU). Wood, in turn, recruited Professor Lucia Harrison from NMU also. Harrison, one of the outstanding minds in North American geography and an incredibly important feminist voice who influenced the broader discipline of geography, encouraged her colleagues and her students to excel in their studies. Wood and Harrison formed a powerhouse of intellectual insight into the evolving field of geography at that time. In this early period, WMU’s prime focus was on teacher training. When WMU became a University as the post-WWII baby boom engulfed higher education, WMU was fortunate to recruit a variety of talented geographers who proceeded to build upon the strengths of the tradition previously established—not least of whom were Oscar Horst, Eugene Kircherr, Albert Jackman, and many others. This faculty team had largely retired by the turn of the 21st century, and had been replaced by a new, energetic, and talented faculty. 

Professor Lucia Harrison

Today, the Department of Geography, Environment, and Tourism is one of over two dozen departments and programs in the WMU College of Arts & Sciences, and an important part of its Division of Physical Sciences & Mathematics. In addition, the department is the second largest department of Geography in the state of Michigan (after Michigan State University). We believe it compares favorably with MSU in quality of instruction, research, and professional service. The major difference between these two programs, aside from MSU’s larger size and Ph.D. program, is that MSU offers more extensive resources university-wide than does WMU, because of its land-grant institutional history and status.

According to the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Guide to Geography Programs 2017 – 2018, 66 Departments of Geography in the United States reported awarding thesis-based M.A and MS degrees in the 2016-2017 academic year. The WMU Department of Geography, Environment, and Tourism ranked 8th in the number of these degrees awarded. In the same database, 43 departments reported awarding thesis-based Master of Science degrees in geography. Our department ranked 3rd in the number of thesis-based masters of science degrees awarded in geography. However, the most important of all is that this department received the AAG’s Academic Excellence Award for Masters Programs in 2019. This award is given to the top Geography Master’s program in the country, in terms of several criteria, including program quality, shared governance, commitment and dedication to faculty and students, engagement with K-12 schools and community colleges, and placement of graduate students for further studies or in career fields. In fall 2019, the department voted to change its name from simply Department of Geography to Department of Geography, Environment, and Tourism, which became effective in fall 2020.