Departmental History

In 1942 Dr. O.E. Baker was hired as a Lecturer in Agricultural Economics in the College of Commerce. The next year the   College changed its name to the College of Business and Public Administration and accompanying this change was the formation of the Natural and Human Resources Program. In 1946, the program’s name was changed to the Department of Geography and listed nine faculty positions with seven of the positions being full professors and comprising European, Asian, and female members. The curriculum and courses reflected a concern for studying the major regions of the world, and analyzing causes and results as they affect economic, political, and social activities. The Department now had forty graduate students, graduate assistants, and fellows. In 1949, the department graduated its first doctoral student.  The research thrust of the Department was also evident with the addition of Research  Faculty,  Research Associates, and  Research Assistants.  By the end of the 1940’s, the Geography Department was clearly established as a major department at the University of Maryland.

Dr. Baker stepped down as chair in 1949 and Dr. William Van Royen assumed the position.  During this period there was a change in emphasis with an increase in physical geography, cartography, and human and economic geography. Special  programs were formally established with specializations in urban geography and cartography.

The composition of the faculty also started to change. The Department became more  involved in the University’s overseas courses, providing up to five overseas faculty members. The faculty on campus changed with a decrease in the number of full  professors and the exodus of some of the promising faculty with a corresponding increase in the number of junior faculty, particularly lecturers and part-time  instructors. This in part reflected Dr. Van Royen’s emphasis on  using graduate students to teach undergraduates, and part-time government geographers to staff the graduate program.

In 1965, Dr. Van Royen stepped down as chair and with his retirement, a major link with the original Department was broken. In 1967, Dr. Robert Harper was hired as a full professor and appointed chair of the Department.  This was the first chair recruited from outside of the Department and University.

During the period of Dr. Harper’s tenure, the Department experienced a significant infusion of junior faculty. Urban geographers were recruited and linkages were established with the University’s Urban Studies program, including a joint appointment. The physical geography component was strengthened with the  addition of a significant number of faculty working in climatology and geomorphology. In addition, human geographers brought on board developed a core with a strong interest in historical geography.  This core assumed an active role on campus, developing linkages with other departments, and provided leadership at the regional and national level. The Department was also aware of the chan-ges brought on by the “quantitative revolution” and recruited faculty to provide the necessary expertise. In addition to quantitative methods, they also provided the Department with training and interest in computer mapping, thereby planting the seed for what would eventually develop into a major component of the Department. In the spring of 1972, the University engaged in a major re-organization, situating the Geography Department within the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSOS).

In 1977, Dr. Harper submitted his resignation as chair.  Many of the faculty appointed in the late 60’s and early part of the 70’s were no longer associated with the University for a variety of reasons.  The entire senior faculty associated with the early period of the Department had retired, further ushering in a new era.      

In 1980, the Department moved into its new space in Lefrak Hall. The move coincided with the arrival of Dr. Kenneth Corey as Chair of the Department, in addition to heading the Urban Studies Program. Urban geography became one of the major   focal points of the Department, and for a brief period of time, both  programs merged. There was an expansion of urban geography, a decline in many of the highly  specialized regional geography courses, and the emergence of courses dealing with environmental issues. This led to the formation of an Environmental Analysis Management and Physical  Geography specialization. There was also a major effort to develop courses to serve the University’s general education requirement. The Department began offering courses that satisfied the University’s Math, Behavioral and Social Science, Physical Science,  Physical Science Lab, and Diversity general education requirement.

The availability of space, the increase number of faculty members involved in geographic techniques, and the rapid changes occurring in cartography and spatial analysis provided the impetus for major changes in the technical aspects of the Department. The research and teaching activities of the faculty generated a series of “first” in cartography and geographic information.  The Department was one of the first to use minicomputer for teaching purposes, the use of video projections from computers, and the use of a large screen projection unit.  The Department was one of the first to be involved with the use of ARC/INFO GIS software.

The Department was actively involved in the College’s new computer facilities providing leadership for the development and running of this unit.  It was also one of the top Departments doing research on  mapping of the blind.  The curriculum started to include courses in geographic information systems, and with the arrival of Professor Sam Goward, courses in digital remote sensing.  These new emphases eventually lead to the development of a new major – GIS and Cartography- which replaced the previous major in Computer Mapping. By the end of the 1980’s the Geography Department was considered one of the five top five Departments with  regard to the use of computational geography, especially with its  emphasis on undergraduate instruction.

The current Geography Department developed an initial base in technology in the 1980’s, under the guidance of Dr. Ken Corey.  It was strengthened in the area of remote sensing by Dr. Samuel Goward, who joined the Department in 1982.  With Dr. Corey’s resignation in 1988, a rapid advance of funded scholarship and external developments began   under Dr. John Townshend’s leadership as Chair. In 1995, Dr. Goward took over the chair from Dr. Townshend and built a robust internal department infrastructure capable of withstanding the increasing pressure of multimillion dollar grant administration and the doubling of department staff.  Dr. Townshend once again took over the chair reins in 2001, expanding the reach and scope of department activities and emphasizing a shared governance structure.    

Interestingly, some characteristics of the department today are similar to the Department of the 1940’s including a diverse faculty, and research faculty, associates, and assistants. In 2010, Dr. Townshend became Dean of our home College, BSOS, and Dr. Chris Justice took over as Chair.  During his tenure, we have doubled the tenure-track faculty and more than doubled external funding from $5m/year to over $10m/year.    

In 2010, the National Research Council, in its review of U.S. Geography Departments, rated UM Geography as one of the top U.S. research departments.

In 2012, in line with the 2010 National Academy of Sciences Report on Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences in the Next Decade, the Department of Geography formally changed it's name to the Department of Geographical Sciences. This name change better represents our research; bridging human dimensions of global change and earth system sciences with geospatial information sciences.

On January 31, 2012, the Department officially launched its name change with a reception held in the Samuel Riggs Alumni Ballroom for faculty, students, staff, and alums.  Department Chair, Dr. Chris Justice, former Chair and Dean of the College of  Behavioral and Social Sciences, Dr. John Townshend, and  Research Director, Dr. George Hurtt, shared their vision of the future of geographical sciences and the Department’s place within the field.  The event was in Dr. Hurtt’s words, “a chance to celebrate our growth, entrepreneurial spirit, renewed focus and new name.”

- Joseph Cirrincione