• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


How saving the planet can save higher ed

"There can be no higher value proposition [for higher education] than offering students effective means to address the sustainability imperatives of the coming decades." - Stephen Mulkey (President, Unity College)

October 9, 2013

I've been spending the front half of this week in Nashville.  Compared to Backboro (or any place I can think of in the northeastern US), Nashville strikes me as stereotypically "American" (franchise outlets, loud music, overdressed women of all ages) and humid.  Still, in many ways, it's not a bad town.  And it's where this year's AASHE conference just concluded.

Like a lot of conferences, this one struck me as over-scheduled and under-curated.  I have no idea how many presentation proposals were declined, nor what the correlation is between proposals accepted and attendee revenues.  I just know that the median quality of the sessions would certainly be enhanced if at least half of the accepted proposals had gotten the spike.

Which isn't to say that there weren't good presentations.  Indeed, several of the sessions were a step above anything I've seen at previous AASHE conferences.  As it happens, many of these shared a theme of disconnect leading to crisis, but crisis of a type which enshrouds opportunity.  (And no, I'm not talking about the crisis of confidence in AASHE itself.  That's another topic.)

The emblematic presentation of this theme was delivered by Steven Mulkey, the President of Unity College.  Offering one of four simultaneous "parallel plenary" addresses (interesting concept, that -- kind of reminds me of "partial zero emission vehicle"), Mulkey's topic was "Organizational Leadership for Sustainability Education".  It's far too soon for proceedings or media from this particular conference to be available, but Mulkey's presented related material in other contexts.  Last year, he spoke at the University of Southern Maine.

More eloquently than I've ever managed, what Mulkey's saying is that our current society needs college and university graduates to be educated in a transdisciplinary manner so that they can focus on solving the wicked (that's a semi-technical term) problems the 21st century has already started to present.  That might sound threatening to anyone whose career (and career prospect) is defined by a particular academic discipline, but the truth is that the need for disciplinary knowledge doesn't go away.  We'll still need natural scientists and social scientists and artists and humanities specialists.  The difference is that our BA/BS alumni need to be taught to navigate across all those disciplines rather than being semi-deeply imbued with material from only one or two.  We need to turn out problem solvers, not disciplinary applicators.

Mulkey doesn't go as far as I've gone in the past -- he doesn't say (although he may well believe) that part of what got us into this mess has been our structuring of higher education into disciplinary silos.  But he does point out that the mess we're in is immense and profound and complex.  Policies and management techniques that seemed to make sense in the past (often because they were being viewed through disciplinary lenses with a tacit assumption of ceteris paribus) will only aggravate our problems in coming decades.  Problem-solving doesn't operate on the simplistic assumption of ceteris paribus.  It operates by empirical observation and manipulation, systems thinking, an understanding that any change introduced to a system creates multiple effects and unavoidable normative judgments about what tradeoffs are acceptable.  Disciplinary approaches to complex problems produce clear, logical answers which are always wrong at some level; what higher education needs to start turning out isn't graduates who can create those logical answers but, rather, graduates who understand what's wrong with them, what the tradeoffs are, and what normative values must come into play.

The good news for humanities and social science departments is that these tradeoffs, like the unintended and erroneously unvalued societal effects which create them, aren't technical in nature.  Qualifying, quantifying, clarifying and communicating the human implications of policy and technical decisions requires no deep expertise in "hard" sciences.  Scientific specialists may be the only folks qualified to delineate what the technological options are, but "deep generalists" are required to evaluate the likely implications and ethical considerations that need to be factored in to selection among technically-feasible options.

The good news for higher education as a whole is that if we start teaching people by exposing them to real-world problems and helping them learn to identify both solutions and implications, we can create a generation of ethically informed "deep generalists".  With such a raft of crises on our horizon, the employment prospects for such folks are already pretty darn good, and only going to improve as crises worsen.  No other social institution is in a position to develop such people.  If (when) we start doing so, any questions about the value proposition of higher education will disappear as dust in the (ever warmer) wind.

(BTW, if you're wondering what the implications of Mulkey's proposals might be for your institution, his (Unity's) five year implementation plan is sketched out here.  It's not all that scary.)


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