Archive for May, 2015

Sustainability in Higher Education: Necessity… or Cult?

Contributed by Richard Rood, PhD

I recently attended a webinar, organized by Spheres of Influence (http://ourspheresofinfluence.com/ ), on the emergence of sustainability as a course of study. The webinar had a special focus on The New School (http://www.newschool.edu/ ) which has recently gone beyond divestiture to embed climate change into its entire curriculum. The New School is at the forefront of sustainability which fits into its vision (http://www.newschool.edu/mission-vision/ ) “where design and social research drive approaches to studying issues of our time, such as democracy, urbanization, technological change, economic empowerment, sustainability, migration, and globalization.”

Sustainability is a young and changing field of research and education. Sustainability is not as easy to define as, say, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, or urban planning. The Graham Sustainability Institute (http://graham.umich.edu/ ) at the University of Michigan, answers the question “What is Sustainability?” (http://graham.umich.edu/about/sustainability ) as, “Sustainability encompasses solutions-driven scholarship and practice that seeks to safeguard the planet’s life-support systems and enhance quality of life for present and future generations. The field is defined by the problems it addresses rather than the disciplines it employs. It draws from multiple disciplines of the natural, social, engineering, design, and health sciences; from the professions and humanities; and from practical field experience in business, government, and civil society.”

The incorporation of sustainability into university research and education is not without controversy. In a recent blog on universities divesting their endowments and pension funds from fossil fuel companies (http://www.wunderground.com/blog/RickyRood/comment.html?entrynum=333 ), one of the articles I referred to was by George Will (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/sustainability-gone-mad/2015/04/15/f4331bd2-e2da-11e4-905f-cc896d379a32_story.html ) in which Will takes the position that divestment is sustainability gone wild. Will states that sustainability is like a religion with, for example, its premises “more assumed than demonstrated.” He further argues that “weighing the costs of obedience to sustainability’s commandments is considered unworthy.” Will is riffing off of the more than 250 page document by the National Association of Scholars (http://www.nas.org ) entitled, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism (http://www.nas.org/articles/sustainability_higher_educations_new_fundamentalism1 ).

The National Association of Scholars “is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.” The National Association of Scholars was founded in 1987 by Stephen Balch, who is identified as an American conservative scholar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Balch ). The National Association of Scholars should not be confused with National Academy of Sciences (http://www.nasonline.org/about-nas/mission/ ), which is the abbreviation I associate with “NAS.”

The material I reference above strongly links sustainability and climate change, and, ultimately, takes the position that universities are taking unfounded positions based on “unresolved scientific debates.” There is suggestion that faculty are pressured “to imbed sustainability into the curricula of unrelated courses.” The document relies, sometimes deftly, on the rhetorical forms (http://www.wunderground.com/blog/RickyRood/comment.html?entrynum=222 ) that are used to nurture doubt.

These writings from George Will and National Association of Scholars pose sustainability as political or ideological. There is the suggestion in these writings of a cultish march towards sustainability across the university community, and that divestment of fossil fuels is part of that cult.

Universities and the members of the faculty at universities are not homogeneous bodies of institutions and individuals. As stated in my divestment blog (http://www.wunderground.com/blog/RickyRood/comment.html?entrynum=333 ), my faculty colleagues don’t all support divestment. In fact, based on the Figure below, I would conjecture that more universities have denied efforts to divest than have approved them.

https://i0.wp.com/insideclimatenews.org/sites/default/files/CollegeDivestmentsUpdated.jpg

Figure 1: More than $50B in divestment pledges has come from 28 universities, 41 cities, 72 religious institutions, 30 foundations and hundreds of individuals. The New School is committed to divestment. (Credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News)

Similarly, there is a wide range of opinions on sustainability and the integration of sustainability into curriculum. In science departments, there is often the opinion that sustainability is notional, and not easily defined nor easily measured; hence, it is not science. It is also true that sustainability has far broader reach than climate change.

I was first introduced to sustainability as a subject of research and education when I started my academic career in 2005 at University of Michigan. At University of Michigan, we have the Erb Institute (http://erb.umich.edu/ ) which is “Creating a Sustainable World Through the Power of Business,” the Center for Sustainable Systems (http://css.snre.umich.edu/ ), which supports “the design, assessment, and management of systems that meet societal needs in a more sustainable manner,” and the Graham Sustainability Institute (http://graham.umich.edu/ ), which fosters “sustainability at all scales by leading stakeholder-centric activities that systematically integrate talents across all U-M schools, colleges, and units.” All of these institutes have strong relationships with donors who have high success in business. Their donations paint the picture of individuals, families, and businesses that recognize the importance of sustainability to assure future societal and business success. (Disclosure: I work closely with the Graham Sustainability Institute (http://graham.umich.edu/ ), and I am a Dow Sustainability Distinguished Faculty Fellow (http://sustainability.umich.edu/dow ).)

One of the points from the Spring, 2015 Spheres of Influence webinar (http://ourspheresofinfluence.com/2015/04/29/curriculum-transformation-for-climate-a-grass-tops-story-of-change-at-the-new-school/ ) is that sustainability is emerging, and that standards and practices are maturing. Sustainability studies and education are no longer only for the early adopters (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_adopter ). For those interested in the incorporation of sustainability into education, there a number of resources, including Sustainability Improves Student Learning (http://serc.carleton.edu/sisl/index.html ), a group that includes associations of physics, chemistry, biology, and geosciences.

Adding the concept of sustainability to problem-solving requires that we think about where our resources come from and what happens to our waste. It brings into consideration the energy required to obtain resources, manufacture, and dispose of and manage the waste products. The value of the environment and ecological systems is brought into the calculation of cost. It’s true that there is nothing in that list that is an easy calculation, and there are many aspects of sustainability that are not uniquely and definitively quantified; there are value judgments made by individuals, governments, advocacy organizations, and corporations.

Since sustainability crosses many disciplines, it is, in fact, quite difficult to bring into the discipline-focused culture of universities. It brings a focus to problem- solving and participatory, deliberative process. There is a high demand from students, who increasingly see the requirement to manage our resources and wastes in order to thrive. Sustainability is an essential topic of research and education; it is something that we must learn to do right.

About the author

Professor Richard Rood is a climate scientist who teaches multidisciplinary graduate and undergraduate courses at University of Michigan. He is a Dow Sustainability Distinguished Faculty Fellow. Prior to his teaching career, he served as a scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A climate-science communicator, he uses his spheres of influence by reaching a wide lay audience by blogging about climate change for the WeatherUnderground (http://www.wunderground.com/blog/rickyrood/article.html )

May 26, 2015 at 7:17 pm Leave a comment


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