Position: Dean and professor
Company: LSU College of the Coast & Environment
Family: Wife, Jennifer; son, “Wake” (deceased 2018); daughter-in-law, Maria Lamberti
Hometown: Fairfield, Connecticut
Education: A.B. Middlebury College, 1968; Ph.D. University of Georgia, 1974
In the news:
Christopher D’Elia recently celebrated his 10-year anniversary as dean of LSU’s College of the Coast & Environment, signifying he has the longest continuous tenure of any presently serving LSU dean. Since stepping into the role in 2009, D’Elia has greatly advanced the college, with an eye toward developing the Gulf Center for Environmental Protection and Synthesis, a proposed mission-control-like research center laid out in the LSU Strategic Plan 2025.
What was your very first job, how old were you and what was your biggest takeaway from the experience?
At 15, I was a caddy at the Country Club of Fairfield, Connecticut on what was once a 19th Century cranberry bog, in an area where my 95-year-old mother’s family has lived since before the Revolutionary War. The views there are incredible. Several years later, I was a lifeguard working for the town’s public beaches nearby. Through these experiences I became intrigued by water, particularly along the coast. I have been doing coastal research ever since.
What time do you typically get up on a workday, and what’s your ideal morning routine to get it off to a great start?
I typically get up around 6:30, brew a cup of coffee and watch CNBC’s “Squawk Box” to get business news. I also scan the Wall Street Journal and the Baton Rouge Advocate and answer messages received during the night. This time is my golden hour where I don’t have any interruptions and I can begin to focus on the day ahead.
For those who are not familiar with the LSU College of the Coast & Environment, tell us a little bit about the college and your role.
LSU is a land-, sea-, and space-grant university that has more than 200 multidisciplinary faculty who explore coastal challenges holistically. As dean, I lead 45 faculty who conduct research on every continent, including two of the world’s top six scientists in wetlands and marshes. We prepare students for critical 21st century jobs. To earn a degree from our college, our students must have research experience. Students earning our bachelor’s degree get the perfect blend of coastal and environmental science. All students to date have found employment or been accepted into graduate programs within two months of graduation. I wish that this program had existed when I was considering where to go to college. Students who complete our program know their stuff.
The LSU CC&E is seen as a leader in environmental research and coastal resource management, which is critical to Louisiana’s future. What do you see as the state’s biggest challenges to addressing coastal issues? How is the college helping overcome them?
The state’s biggest coastal challenge is land loss. We are losing more land than any other place in the United States. Because so much of our population lives in areas impacted by changing climate, Louisiana’s residents, communities and businesses benefit from our research and education. Our college is making new discoveries that help to understand better the causes and impacts of these challenges. I like to say that we wrote the book on deltas and wetlands (lots of them, in fact). LSU’s College of the Coast & Environment has become much more than just a center of research excellence. It is a critical source of talent that our state, our nation, and other nations need to cope with ever-increasing coastal challenges.
As dean for the past 10 years, how has the college grown or evolved over time? What are your goals for the institution going forward?
Our educational and community outreach programs have grown significantly over the past 10 years. Our Bachelor of Science in Coastal Environmental Science has grown 500 percent during this time. We added a Ph.D. program in Environmental Sciences, launched online courses including a master’s in Environmental Sciences, and grew from a school into a college. We now host LSU EnvironMentors, a science–based mentoring program with Scotlandville Magnet High School, which has twice been recognized as “National Chapter of the Year.” Looking ahead, my vision is to establish a “mission control” and artificial intelligence platform that will use next-generation technology to prepare coastal residents and industry for intermediate and long-term environmental changes in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystems. This transformative approach of integrating data will incorporate multiple stakeholders and will be unique to Baton Rouge as no such platform currently exists.
What’s a leadership skill you’ve learned the hard way?
I speak Spanish and one of my favorite “dichos” is, “En boca cerrada, no entran moscas.” That literally means, “In a closed mouth, flies do not enter.” I’m still learning, I guess, but good leaders know how to listen first and speak later.
What’s something about your job that might surprise people?
As the dean of a small college, I wear many hats—administrator, teacher, and researcher. I absolutely love what I do and wish that I could add another 40 years to my career. Having so many incredible colleagues in the humanities, social sciences, engineering, business, the arts and music, and so on, creates an atmosphere for lifelong learning. Being a professor is the best job on earth.
What are some of your hobbies or favorite things to do in your free time?
I used to golf, fly airplanes, sail boats and do a lot of diving for work and pleasure. It is hard to find the time and opportunity for such things now, but I am passionate about music of all kinds, especially classical, jazz and country. I attend concerts and recitals regularly, and I have served on the board of the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra. I’m a good cook and entertain a lot.
What are some of your best productivity hacks?
Hire smarter people than oneself and let them do their thing. Maybe one day I will figure out how to cope with all the paper and clutter.
What is one of the best vacations you’ve ever taken and what’s a vacation you hope to take in the future?
My wife and I went on a Baltic cruise for our 40th anniversary, and it was spectacular. But with many friends and family there, Italy is like a magnet to Jenny and me. We go there quite often, and especially to a little village, Castelfranco in Miscano, in hills of the Province of Benevento where my paternal grandparents were born. It is remarkably restful being in that beautiful, bucolic place.
What have been some of the most rewarding experiences in your career to date?
First and foremost, working with great people is incredibly rewarding. That includes students, faculty, colleagues and my incredible staffs and technicians over the years. Secondly, I have traveled a lot in my career to do research. Probably the most exotic and remarkable research and travel experience I have had was spending two months during graduate school on the 25-person Symbios Expedition to Enewetak in the Marshall Islands. We conducted coral reef research, and I got a lot of data for my Ph.D. dissertation. I have been enthralled by coral reefs ever since.
What do you love most about living in the Capital Region and what would you like to see change to make it an even better place to live and work?
I love LSU, plain and simple: Geaux Tigers. The Capital Region offers a lot of affordable, big city amenities at small town prices. For example, the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra offers very affordable tickets. I love to see the seasons change at BREC’s Bluebonnet Swamp Park or drive to Lake Martin in the spring to watch wildlife. I wish that we had more nature parks nearby, and that everyone in our area could experience the wonder of Louisiana’s enchanting bayous and wetlands.
Can you name someone who has had a great impact on you as a leader, or someone who has been a mentor to you in your life or career? How have they changed your outlook?
I worked at the University of Maryland for many years, and Dr. Rita Colwell was a mentor after I was hired there in 1977. She was my boss for more than a decade when I served as director of Maryland Sea Grant. She is brilliant and thinks on a grand scale. By the way, she later served as the director of the National Science Foundation and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. At 84 years old, she still leads the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative that was established after the BP Macondo Oil Spill. She is indefatigable and visionary. She loves people and is creating a huge legacy that few others could ever match.
What is something you are absolutely determined to do in life?
Learn how to speak Italian fluently. I can get by with my rudimentary Italian now, but I’d like to study it formally.