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Is your college prepared for climate change?

Bryan Alexander’s new book, Universities on Fire, is a structured series of speculations about what that might mean. It’s a useful, and sometimes harrowing, reality check.

Is your college coastal? If so, what is it doing to counter likely sea level rise? Is it in the South or the Southwest? If so, what is it doing about extreme heat? Has it started to change policies on faculty and other employee travel in light of airplanes’ emissions of greenhouse gases? Is it encouraging interdisciplinary research and teaching around the dilemmas of climate change?

Alexander assumes the reader is already broadly familiar with climate change, so the bulk of the brief volume is dedicated instead to how to respond to it.

To his credit, Alexander doesn’t confine his analysis to the United States. He includes examples of colleges and universities from around the world, both positive and negative. He notes, too, that many of the populations most affected by climate change had little to do with causing it, and that the ones who have profited the most are able to buy their way out of the worst of it. That raises difficult questions of justice around who should bear the cost of adjustment and how to make that happen.

At times, the sheer magnitude of the forecast impacts seems to overwhelm the topic. In the context of global disaster, there’s no shortage of institutions likely to be affected. Higher education is one, and an important one, but it’s one among many.

Still, as a reader from the community college sector, I couldn’t help but notice that much of Alexander’s analysis implicitly assumes the residential research university as the model of higher education. Some of his questions look different from here.

The most basic one is the political importance of place. Most community colleges have defined service areas, and they’re sponsored (in part) by governments with clear geographic boundaries. Private universities can relocate, at least in theory; community colleges (and, to a lesser degree, state colleges) can’t move very far. The CUNY colleges, for instance, need to be in New York City to be CUNY colleges; knowing that New York City is directly in the line of sea level rise doesn’t change that. Community colleges in coastal counties are meant to serve those counties. If those counties start to empty out due to people fleeing sea level rise, those colleges are likely in for a rough ride. They don’t have the option of moving hundreds of miles away.

Alexander spends a chapter outlining curricular possibilities for addressing climate change, some of which are quite appealing. But from a community college perspective, the current systems for transfer largely rule them out of bounds. Interdisciplinary seminars often don’t transfer cleanly because they don’t fit easily on a checklist. The “guided pathways” movement tends to push out anything that doesn’t have a clear correlate upon transfer. That may be an issue of timing; once the four-year schools ramp up their interdisciplinary game, one could argue, the path would be clear for community colleges to do the same. But that largely hasn’t happened, even with universities that pride themselves on interdisciplinary seminars.

In going through the options for various disciplines, Alexander mostly leaves out business. That seems like a major omission; it’s one of the most popular undergraduate majors, and we can count on some folks to see climate change as a business opportunity.

Even within higher education itself, institutional self-interest seems likely to push against some systemic reforms. It would be lovely if consciousness of danger led to a willingness to experiment, but at least as often it leads to defending the past. Impulses toward restoration may be irrational and self-defeating, but they’re powerful. And attempts to overcome them cost valuable time, making the eventual adjustment that much more painful.

Still, Alexander’s book isn’t really about answers. It’s really about questions. It’s about provoking people who care about higher education to address some likely concerns while there’s still time to affect the outcome. In that, it’s a tremendous service. I won’t be able to stop thinking about this one for a long time.

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