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Home » Discover Rackham » Alumni Spotlight: Todd Bryan

When Dr. Todd Bryan, Senior Program Manager at CDR Associates in Boulder, takes his place at a mediation table, he does his best to help all stakeholders negotiate decisions that respect the needs of government agencies, local communities, companies and, last but not least, the natural environment.

After earning a B.S. in Agriculture (University of Kentucky ’73) and a M.S. degrees in Landscape Architecture and Water Resource Management (University of Wisconsin-Madison ’78), this passionate, compassionate alumni spent several years working in environmental advocacy. But before long he began to notice that while he won battles, lost battles, and “fought the good fight,” he did not, as he set out to do, change the hearts and minds of the people he was most trying to influence. That discovery led him to question the effectiveness of his career choice and search for new ways of achieving the environmental goals about which he was most passionate.

So, in order to become a more effective advocate for the environment, Dr. Bryan launched the second part of his educational career, focusing not so much on the environment, but on the people who affect itand the relationships among them. Dr. Bryan then spent the next several years honing his expertise with educational resources at both Harvard University’s JFK School of Government (M.P.A. ’85) and the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (Ph.D. in Resource Policy and Behavior ’08). At Harvard, he learned the art of negotiation and conflict resolution. At the University of Michigan, he was able to take his experiences and explore them more deeply. “Getting my doctorate at the University of Michigan allowed me to take particular phenomena I had observed as a mediator and learn much more about them.”

Dr. Bryan also wanted to do justice to the complexity of the conflicts and people he encountered as a mediator. “It’s interesting,” he says of these conflicts, “It’s one of the things I tend to think about the most—how complex the situations and stakeholders really are. They are seldom as narrow as their “stake” in the conflict implies and their complexities often overlap in ways that can open doors rather than close them.”

His dissertation seemed to be a symbolic marker in his career, a culmination of his past experience and future aspirations. He says that the completion of his dissertation was perhaps his greatest achievement, not only because it was such a huge undertaking, but because completing it allowed him to “make an impact” on the “broad” academic field of conflict resolution.Bryan used a case study approach to explore and explain an infamous conflict: the “timber wars” of northern California (1988-1996). He credits the process of earning his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan for allowing him to “go deep” into a subject—using the time and resources of the University of Michigan to emphasize the importance of embracing both depth and complexity.

The depth and nuance of his contributions were not unnoticed. Bryan was awarded the “Best Dissertation Award” by the Academy of Management’s Organizations and the Natural Environment Division; “Distinguished Dissertation Award” from Rackham Graduate School, and the “Ayres Brinser Award for Best Dissertation” from the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan.

He had a specific vision for his dissertation, and he saw very plainly how it could contribute to several bodies of knowledge. So what advice does he have for graduate students who want to achieve similar accomplishments?

“What was meaningful to me was to understand that I wasn’t trying to describe something in my dissertation, I was trying to explain it. For the most part, you’re trying to explain why something is happening, not what is happening. I knew that, but I didn’t fully understand it. I wanted to tell a compelling story. I was finally able to do that in my dissertation, but I had to tell the story through a well-researched theoretical lens that helped the reader make sense of the situation in a way not previously understood.”

Even several years after receiving these awards, Bryan seemed deeply grateful, yet considerably nonplussed by the recognition he received for his dissertation. What matters ultimately for him are the fruits of his labor. He has invested a great deal of his life into doing his best work for something bigger than himself: the health of communities and the protection of the environment.

Therefore he brings to the mediation table a deep capacity to understand the many complex motivations and webs of identity that come to bear on new projects that affect the environment.

30 years into his career with an education with a breadth as great as its depth, how does Dr. Todd Bryan define himself? He meditates on two words that seem to anchor him: “complexity” and a “bridge.”

“The word ‘complexity’ really resonates with me. By the time I reached my doctoral program I already had my natural resource requirements, so I took most of my courses in other disciplines: organizational behavior, organizational theory, group psychology, and research methods. In courses within these disciplines I learned the importance of embracing the complexity around a situation. And, in all of my career choices, I’ve migrated towards the role of the bridge between things, like science, planning, and public policy for example. Or between people, like environmentalists and developers. Too often opportunities for collaborative solutions exist but are overlooked because the bridge is not obvious. I like to fill that role.”