Tribute to John Seidel

    By Provost and Dean Michael Harvey
    February 3, 2022

    It is with deep gratitude and keen regret that I announce the retirement, at the end of this academic year, of John Seidel, the Director of the Center for Environment & Society (CES), and the Lammot du Pont Copeland Associate Professor of Anthropology & Environmental Studies.

    We will celebrate John’s career and legacy later this spring, but I wanted to share a few facts and thoughts about this amazing member of our community. John and I began at the college in the same year, 1998, and since that time I have marveled at John for his broad, vital vision of environmental education, and his success in creating—and collaborating with others to create—impactful, sustainable programs for the college and our students. John has helped expand our conception of where learning happens, insisting throughout his long career that the greatest classroom for young people is the physical environment around us, and that we must weave sustainable engagement with the environment into every aspect of the college’s operations and identity.

    Washington College’s commitment to visionary environmental education goes back to the 1970s, when the remarkable Joe McLain—alumnus (Class of 1937), chemistry professor, president—launched our sustained efforts to build an environmental program. Two decades later, President John Toll created CES, with inaugural director Wayne Bell doing very significant work to establish the program. John worked with Wayne to create a GIS program, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In 2007, after a year as interim Director, John became the Director of CES, and he has served the college in that position, alongside joint appointments in Anthropology and Environmental Science and Studies, ever since. Prof. Seidel has regularly taught courses in environmental studies, environmental and marine archaeology, and historic preservation. 

    Over the past 15 years, John has built CES—one of the college’s three signature Centers of Excellence—into a nationally prominent research, action, and education powerhouse. Today, CES has a staff of 28, with 40 to 100 interns and student employees in a typical semester. It has an endowment of almost $25 million, an annual pipeline of about $500,000+ in annual giving, and a portfolio of about $3.5 million in grants at any given time. CES’s grants are student-centered, providing powerful experiential learning on real-world projects and problems for hundreds of students from every major at the college. In total, since becoming Director of CES in 2007, John and his dynamic team, working with Advancement, the Board of Visitors and Governors, and his own CES Advisory Board, have secured more than $70 million in grants, gifts and contracts—a unique achievement in the long history of the college.

    CES programs include the innovative, four-course Chesapeake Semester, an interdisciplinary and experiential examination of the Chesapeake Bay that includes a global perspective. CES resources include Washington College’s first Living Building and three labs, the Watershed Innovation Lab, the Geographic Information Systems Lab, and the Past Is Present Archaeology Lab (formerly the Public Archaeology Laboratory). The Center also operates two research vessels (27 and 46 ft) and manages the College’s 5,000-acre River & Field Campus, including the Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory. 

    In his role as a faculty member in Anthropology, John worked with Prof. Jeanette Sherbondy to establish an Anthropology major, which subsequently became a stand-alone department (previously, Anthropology and Sociology had been a single department). John and his wife and stalwart partner Liz established an archeology program at the college in 1999. Liz brought her own experience from the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology, the University of Maryland, Anne Arundel County’s Lost Towns Project, and other positions. Together, they offered the college’s first Summer Field School in archeology in 1999, and Liz developed the Public Archeology Lab (now the Past Is Present Archaeology Lab).

    John earned his Bachelor of Arts from Drew University, where he double-majored in Political Science and Anthropology. He earned Master’s degrees in Anthropology and American Civilization and a Ph.D. in American Historical Archeology from the University of Pennsylvania, conducting excavations in the Middle East and Latin America. His doctoral dissertation was an appraisal of the archaeology of the American Revolution and a case study at a winter cantonment of the Continental Artillery from the winter of 1778-1779. The project became a decade-long multidisciplinary archaeological investigation of that site, in Pluckemin, New Jersey. With typical John energy and vision, not only did he dig and do research, but he set up a non-profit to fund the work, raising almost a half million dollars.

    Before coming to Washington College, John taught at Rutgers and at the University of Maryland College Park, where he served as co-director of the Archeology in Annapolis Program, developed a GIS laboratory for the Department of Anthropology, and guided the pioneering use of GIS research to manage historic preservation in the Annapolis Historic District. 

    John has served in numerous volunteer and service commitments. A couple of ongoing ones include his work as a Lead Instructor for the Maritime Archeological & Historical Society, and his service on the Board of Trustees of the Chesapeake Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland. At Washington College, he was awarded the President’s Distinguished Service Award in 2014.

    There is much more to celebrate in John’s career—for instance, more than 65 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and monographs; more than 50 papers delivered at professional conferences; five multimedia publications; and inspiration and support to thousands of students and graduates over the almost quarter-century of his time at Washington College. But this note must suffice for now. A full measure of John’s impact and legacy will take place later this spring, with opportunity for members of our community to share thoughts on what John has meant to us.

    Upon retirement in June, John will be a Senior Fellow at CES, an unpaid position that will allow us to continue to benefit from John’s wisdom, vision, and energy. 

    John, we applaud you, thank you, and congratulate you on an extraordinary career. Your tireless dedication to a vision of holistic environmental education, woven into the total student experience for thousands of young people at Washington College, has inspired and shaped us for almost a quarter of a century. Your vision and your work have had, and will continue to have, a defining impact on the enduring identify and future growth of the college, and of the learning that happens here.


    John Seidel