bSci21 Exclusive Interview: Criss Wilhite and the Fresno State Sustainability Project

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

Tell us a little about yourself. What is your background in behavior analysis? 

I received a Master of Arts in Experimental Psychology in 1986 from California State University, Fresno. I had two mentors, the well-known social psychologist, Robert V. Levine, and the late Gene Steinhauer who did research in operant conditioning. Much of my graduate work involved testing mathematical models, including Rescorla-Wagner, the Matching Law and the Daly and Daly. I was hired at Fresno State upon graduation and taught both Social Psychology (always from a behavior analytic perspective) and Learning and Behavior for many years. In 1997, I began doing applied work to supplement my income. This opened my eyes to the need for trained behavior analysts in the area. I proposed an undergraduate ABA program to our department and it was implemented in the fall of 1998. I became a BCBA in 2001. By 2004, we had a graduate program which is currently directed by Marianne Jackson who joined the faculty in 2008. We now have three additional full-time faculty (JP Moschella, Steven Payne, and Sharlet Rafacz) two part-time faculty, and the Behavioral Science Institute, with Timothy Yeager at the helm. The Institute provides early intervention, behavior intervention services, positive parenting, and social skills training. We have five BCBAs and BCBA-ready staff members in addition to faculty and the director.


Tell us about the Fresno State Sustainability Project. What is its mission and how did it come about? 

The FSSP started just two years ago. The focus on sustainability at ABAI in 2009 prompted me to begin individual sustainability behavior change projects with students that fall. I realized that I was not having a large enough impact on the problem with my 100 or so students doing individual projects each year. In late 2012, JP Moschella, who teaches our undergraduate OBM course, and I had been discussing developing sustainability projects at the cultural, rather than individual level. My daughter, Chelsea Wilhite, a doctoral student in the University of Nevada, Reno’s behavior analysis program, helped us refine our view of cultural change using the model developed by Ramona Houmanfar (Houmanfar, Rodrigues & Ward, 2010). At the College of Science and Mathematics holiday party, we met Mara Brady and Beth Weinman, two new faculty in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and discussed sustainability with them. We agreed that making Fresno State a model of sustainability could positively influence practices in Central California. We formalized the group in the January of 2013, started teaching in each other’s courses, and proposed the goals of FSSP to our Dean, to Plant Operations, to anyone who would meet with us. The Houmanfar et al model was very helpful in that we constantly strove to find reinforcers to deliver and aversives to meliorate with each group we met. By the end of the semester, we had some buy-in on campus and a grant from the CSU Chancellor’s office. The grant allowed us to bring students on board, with stipends, for the academic year 2013-2014. We were fortunate to have 10 students, many from Fresno State’s Smittcamp Honor College, and one of our ABA graduate students, join us. The students put on monthly Green Bag Lunches and a week-long Earth Day Celebration in April. A major project, in coordination with Plant Operations and the Richter Center for Community Engagement, was the installation of a water-wise garden on campus. In the fall of 2014, we received approval and funding to put on a Sustainability Summit as a kick off to develop a sustainability institute. We had faculty and students from almost every college on campus along with representatives from business and government participating.

Tell us more about the team and its projects. 


The Fresno State Sustainability Project (FSSP) consists of a core team of about 15. It now includes faculty, plant operations staff, and students. In the fall of 2014, we submitted a proposal to create the Institute of Sustainable Education and Engagement (ISEE) on campus. It was accepted. University President Joseph Castro and his office are actively supporting us. As a central hub of activity related to sustainability, ISEE will promote synergies among learning, scholarship, teaching and practice. ISEE will contribute to the common goal of improving the campus and greater community through promoting and informing individual and institutional practices that improve quality of life, the economy and the environment.

What is the long-term vision for the FSSP?


We will promote ISEE which will coordinate and further develop all the wonderful projects, research and coursework on campus. The faculty, which now includes Steven Payne, have encouraged the FSSP to become a student-driven group. We have seen these students work, solve problems, promote sustainable practice, do research, present at conferences and train the next generation to do the same thing. I expect FSSP to continue in a robust way in coordination with ISEE.

In your opinion, what is the state of sustainability research in behavior analysis today? 


The 2009 ABAI conference with its sustainability track was seminal. Bill Heward and Paul Chance did a great job with the special edition on sustainability in The Behavior Analyst in 2010. The Sustainability Conference at Ohio State was a success. I think more behavior analysts are involved with sustainability because of these events. One big impediment is that we are so swamped with practice and research related to our clinical work that most of us have too little time. Unlike our efforts with people with special needs, there are few fee-for-service activities available to us in sustainability. Although grants are available for this work, they are more competitive and less lucrative than those found in clinical work. On the plus side, this area requires we work with geologists, biologists, chemists, journalists, social scientists and agriculturalists. They know behavior analysis is essential for their work and we have been wholeheartedly accepted as an integral part of the teams. Together, we have been able to secure funding and actually get things done.

How can more behavior analysts get involved sustainability? 


I say, just start behaving relative to sustainability. Your behavior will be shaped quickly. I also recommend becoming very familiar with selection at the cultural level…read Mark Alavosius, Tony Biglan, Aubrey Daniels, Sigrid Glenn, Ramona Humanfar and Mark Mattaini. Go to OBM Network talks. Sustainability is inherently dynamic and interactive. We work with groups involved with social justice, food recovery, alternative energy, recycling, air quality, transportation and governmental administration. Behavior analysts interested in environmental issues can find something they love in all this diversity. Globally, we are at a tipping point. Ten years from now, most people will be engaged in sustainable practices at some level. Just jump in!

What would you like readers to take away from this interview?


One of the first articles I read in graduate school was B.F. Skinner’s 1981 Science article, Selection by Consequences. I was hooked for life. It was a call for us to use our powerful science to help solve pressing cultural problems. For me, the most serious societal problem is the degradation of the very environment that supports us. Working in sustainability is not only exciting and effective, it is also what we need to do…nothing, in the long run, is more important.

How can interested readers get in touch with you? 


Email is best. [email protected].


Be the first to comment on "bSci21 Exclusive Interview: Criss Wilhite and the Fresno State Sustainability Project"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.