Professor Francis Magilligan stands alone within the Ivy League — he is the chair of the Ivies’ only remaining geography department.
Magilligan explained that Columbia and Harvard used to have geography departments but that at present, Dartmouth is the only Ivy with one. For that, Magilligan credits the College’s focus on the liberal arts.
“Dartmouth is a traditionally liberal arts institution, and geography is at the core of the liberal arts education,” he said.
Other Ivies do teach the discipline, Magilligan said, but they do so by incorporating it into other social science disciplines rather than having separate geography departments. Magilligan said, however, that he could not visualize Dartmouth adopting the same approach.
“I could not imagine Dartmouth without a geography department,” he said. “It’s been here for a long time.”
He said that “the geography major is strong in an array of institutions across the United States” and has been expanding to more colleges and universities in the past few years.
Geography is “quite strong” at land grant universities — like Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Minnesota and Penn State — Magilligan said. In England “it is perhaps one of the top two or three majors at the undergraduate level,” he added.
According to Magilligan, geography is popular at Dartmouth. Each year, between 700 and 800 students take courses in the field. Magilligan also noted that geography is popular in modified major choices as a modifier to environmental sciences, economics and government.
Still, only about 25 geography majors graduate from Dartmouth each year. This major number is drastically less than those of similar social sciences. In June, around 90 students majored in history, with a similar number majoring in government.
Magilligan said that geography is neglected because “people have the idea that geographers either make maps or memorize capitals.”
“That’s not geography as a discipline,” he said.
The academic discipline of geography has two main components — physical and human geography. Magilligan said that at Dartmouth, the geography department offers in-depth study on both types.
“Some of the things that we’ve developed well into our core are race, identity, migration and political geography,” he said. “We’ve been trying to be particularly active in urban geography –critical urban studies.”
Kathryn Greenwood ’04 decided to be a geography major because she was interested in studying “human-environment interaction.”
“I was encouraged to take a geography class by a friend of mine, and it was exactly what I was looking for,” she said.
Greenwood said that when she tells some people that she is a geography major they sometimes respond, “ooh, I love geology” or “do you know all of the state capitals?”
She admits, however, that she thoroughly enjoys geography because “it bridges together physical and social sciences in an effective way.”
“It is one of the few areas in academia where physical and social scientists actually work together in one department,” she said.
Greg Barry ’73, a geography major with an emphasis on urban geography and statistics, said that his study in the field has served him well in life.
“Geography thoroughly taught me critical analysis,” he said.
Following college, Barry got his first job working for “some MIT professors” and put his geography degree to good use. His job was to help devise a plan to solve the urban population problem of Athens, Greece.
In Athens, “there is an incredible amount of migration into the city from the countryside and there is no infrastructure to support them,” he said.
“The idea was to figure out how to give incentive to people to build stores and set up businesses outside of Athens to spread out population.”
Although his first job turned out to be his only job in the field of geography and urban development, Barry does not regret studying geography during his time at Dartmouth.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I almost went to the University of North Carolina to get a Ph.D. in it.”
If Barry had decided to study geography further at UNC in the early 1980s, he may very well have met NBA great Michael Jordan. Jordan attended UNC then, and he too studied geography.