Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies
Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies

Maymester at the Great Barrier Reef

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Study the politics of protecting the Great Barrier Reef … at the Great Barrier Reef!

Comprised of 900 islands that stretch for over 1,600 miles just off Australia’s northeastern coast, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is roughly half the size of Texas. It’s the only living organism visible from space. Despite its status as an Australian icon and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the GBR is under threat. In 2016, it experienced the worst episode of coral bleaching in recorded history—around 90 percent of corals in its northernmost reaches died. This led Outside magazine to publish an obituary for the GBR. Reports of the Reef’s death were an exaggeration, but it’s true that the GBR faces numerous and formidable challenges—coastal development, agricultural run-off, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, damage from shipping traffic, overfishing, and climate change, among others. How could such a beloved environmental treasure be in such a perilous state? What can be done to save it? This course takes students to Townsville, Australia—home to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority—in search of answers to these important questions.

Addressing these questions requires a level of engagement that transcends glossy tourist brochures and sensationalist news headlines. Students will learn firsthand the complex political, economic, and societal contexts within which the GBR exists. The Reef is located in Queensland, a state roughly two-and-a-half-times the size of Texas! Whereas Queensland’s population is 5.1 million, Texas is home to 29 million people. Like Texas, Queensland is known for its conservative political culture, and agricultural and energy industries play important roles in its economy. The GBR lies in close proximity to important farming and mining regions. Large ports, like the one in Townsville, enable Australia’s commodities to enter the stream of global commerce. Bound mainly for Asia, massive container ships ferry their cargos through the GBR’s fragile ecosystems. The GBR is also a tourist-magnet. Over two million visitors each year inject roughly AU$6 billion into the local economy. And finally, over 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owner Groups maintain longstanding and continuing relationships with land located in the GBR region. Some have done so for at least 40,000 years! These various interests complicate policymaking with respect to the Reef.

Course Design

In examining GBR policymaking processes, this course addresses the following questions: What, according to the most rigorous scientific studies, is the current state of the GBR’s ecosystems? What policies are in place to manage and protect the GBR, and what levels of government are responsible for implementing those policies? What explains the adoption of these policies—in other words, what are their political and economic foundations? How well are existing policies working? Are there better policy options? And, if so, what are the political prospects for their adoption? In sum, to what extent is GBR policy driven by scientific evidence, political calculations, and economic imperatives? In answering these questions, the course considers the role of political institutions, party politics, economic interests, societal values, activism, and experts in shaping policy outcomes.

It does so through a combination of classroom learning and on-site investigation at the GBR. The latter entails visiting the Reef and seeing firsthand the difference between healthy and unhealthy coral reefs; learning from leading GBR researchers about threats to the Reef; and, meeting with representatives from the various political, economic, and societal sectors that have a stake in the GBR. The course will combine regular classroom meetings with experiential, active learning. Students will assume the role of researchers charged with ascertaining the state of the GBR, evaluating the effectiveness of current policies, and assessing the GBR’s future prospects. Within these parameters, they will be free to focus on a specific issue of their choice.

The course will have a regular classroom schedule, but its defining feature will be its access to the GBR and various persons with special knowledge and interests in the Reef. Small groups of roughly five students each will be assembled based on student responses to a pre-trip survey. During our four weeks in the field, students will engage with one another in their groups as they pursue their individual research projects. Group work will consist of preparing for meetings and excursions that will entail: (1) researching the people with whom they will meet and the places they will visit; (2) identifying what they wish to learn from their meetings and excursions; and, (3) drafting specific questions to ask in their meetings and excursions. Despite the collaborative course format, final course grades will be based on each student’s performance on individual assignments. The course is designed to help students hone a set of transferable skills that includes research, writing, policy analysis, interviewing, and public speaking.

Students who participate will be required to enroll in a one-credit hour course in the spring 2021 semester. They are encouraged, but not required, to take Australian Society and Politics (GOV 365J), also offered in the spring 2021 semester.

Academic Credit

Students can apply credit earned in this course (GOV 355M) towards a major or minor in Government or International Relations and Global Studies (IRG). This course may also be applied towards IRG’s Science, Technology, and the Environment Track. For students pursuing degrees through the Department of Geography and the Environment, this course satisfies the Resource Management theme or track in the Sustainability Studies major and minor. Contact your advisor to learn more.

Your Instructor: Dr. Rhonda Evans 

rhonda evansI grew up in Cadiz, Ohio. (FYI never cite Wikipedia!), a village in the Appalachian coal fields. In 1992, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. After receiving a B.A. in Political Science from Kent State University’s Honors College, graduating phi beta kappa, I immediately went on to earn a J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law because I thought I wanted to live the rest of my life in Da Burgh. Turns out that wasn’t the case, so I practiced law for a couple of years in Ohio, working as an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Tuscarawas County and as a Staff Attorney with Southeastern Ohio Legal Services. Dissatisfied with life as a lawyer (and the weather in Ohio), I moved to Austin, Texas to pursue a Ph.D. in Government at The University of Texas at Austin—Hook em! I entered the program intending to study the US Supreme Court but ended up becoming an expert on Australian politics instead. Gotta admit I didn’t see that coming! Moral of the story: have a plan for your life, but be open to the beautiful opportunities that serendipity can present.

After completing my Ph.D. in 2004, I had to leave my beloved Austin for Southern California--just as an exodus from SoCal to Austin began. I taught for a year at Claremont McKenna College and saw firsthand all that an elite liberal arts college has to offer its students. [Pro Tip: You can get many of the same benefits right here on the Forty Acres if you know where to look for them.] From Califorgetaboutit, I moved to the other side of the country, Greenville, North Carolina (virtually another planet) to accept a position at East Carolina University, deep in the heart of Pirate Nation. The mothership finally called me home in 2012, and I returned to UT-Austin to direct the Edward A. Clark Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies and serve as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government. Since then, I have been teaching a course on Australian Politics and Society (next offered spring 2021) as well as this course on Human Rights and World Politics (offered every spring).

Today, I am a principal investigator for the Australian and New Zealand Policy Agendas Projects. My research is interdisciplinary in nature, reflecting my training in Law and Political Science. Current projects examine the Australian Human Rights Commission, apex courts of Australia and New Zealand, and partisanship in the Australian Senate. In addition to contributing to a number of edited volumes, I have published in the Australian Journal of Political ScienceCongress and the PresidencyOsgoode Hall Law Review, and Journal of Common Market Studies. I am co-author of Legislating Equality: The Politics of Antidiscrimination Policy in Europe with Oxford University Press (2014). 

Offsetting the Carbon Footprint

Air travel to Australia has a significant carbon footprint. As a means of offsetting some of it, students will assist traditional landowners owners at Mungalla Station in restoration activities, and they will assist with reef restoration on Magnetic Island through a program operated by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Reef Headquarters. Additional opportunities will be identified for those students who wish to do more.

Learn More

For updates on the course and developments concerning the GBR, stay tuned to this website and follow the Edward A. Clark Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies on social media.