• Getting to Green

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


But we like silos

I probably shouldn't have been surprised by the mid-career faculty member who didn't know her way around her own campus. Why would I expect her to know the names of buildings she doesn't work in? Or of faculty she doesn't meet with? Or of events on campus outside her disciplinary field?

November 24, 2010

I probably shouldn't have been surprised by the mid-career faculty member who didn't know her way around her own campus. Why would I expect her to know the names of buildings she doesn't work in? Or of faculty she doesn't meet with? Or of events on campus outside her disciplinary field?

The structural disciplinarity of higher education has long bothered me. I see it as being at the core of our industry's difficulty in addressing issues of sustainability. In truth, I see it at the core of our industry's contributions to creating the current issues of sustainability. But it's kind of a chicken-and-egg problem -- universities are organized as they are because of who works here, and the people who work here do so in large part because of the way universities are organized.

Let's face it. It's a commonplace that, as a student moves from high school to college to graduate school, he or she learns more and more about less and less. We call it specialization and honor it because, in a very real sense, it's the only model by which anyone can delve deeply into any subject matter. Humans can learn broadly or deeply, but our brains are rarely large enough to do both well.

So we have created many institutions where the minimum standard for faculty members is typically a PhD -- proof that you've delved deeper into some subject than anyone else on the planet. We require that each professor be the world's leading expert in something, but most of those "somethings", by necessity, turn out to be extremely specialized (which means extremely small). Then we create a system of graduate education which prepares people to be that specialized. And so we attract faculty (and aspiring faculty) who desire that sort of specialization. We attract strong introverts.

Not that there's anything wrong with being introverted, of course. Some of my best friends are introverts. If you want truly original creative work done, an introvert is probably your (wo)man. But it's hard to organize any sort of change initiative, any sort of movement, any sort of project using only introverts. They can inform and strengthen a movement, but they rarely form one. (After all, when was the last meeting of the American Introvert Society?)

So if this introversion thing is progressive -- if populations self-select (at least in part) for introversion as we move from high school through college to grad school and faculties -- how can higher ed become an effective leader on sustainability issues?

One possible answer is exceptional leadership. Get the right leader, and any group of intelligent people can achieve almost anything. But exceptional leadership is . . . ummmm . . . truly exceptional. While some large universities have received great acclaim for their sustainability efforts, I'd say maybe half of them truly deserve it. The others do reasonable work and top-notch marketing -- they're not all hat, but they're more hat than cattle.

Another possibility is small scale. Most of the truly "greenest" campuses in the USA are relatively small colleges. And small colleges behave differently than research universities. For one thing, it's more likely that faculty members in different departments know one another; they may even have enough interaction to be able to hold interdisciplinary discussions. The faculty of a small college can (need not, but can) take on the same sort of group identity as a church congregation or a volunteer fire department. And a cogent group identity makes cooperative movement far easier to achieve.

But hidden behind the small scale of those green two- and four-year colleges may be another factor. Maybe these smaller schools are more able to effect change because they aren't so dominated by introverts. Students who are still generalists, and faculty who self-select (or condition themselves) to teach generalists. Folks who may know about broader subject areas, albeit in somewhat less depth.

If the solution to sustainability issues were likely to be some sort of future technological discovery, I'd want the brightest introverts I could find going heads-down on the effort. But the solution (if we ever create one) is much more likely to be a change in the way society operates, and the way societies solve their problems, and the problems societies choose to address, and the way we measure success. To address those types of issues, and to create cultural change, we don't want to start with introverts. We want to start with socially-oriented problem solvers who will shape the questions that the introverts will then be needed to delve into.

At Greenback U., the sustainability staff has been splitting our efforts to create momentum on campus. Part of it has gone to working with faculty, and part to working with students. Within the student body, part of our effort has focused on grad students and part on undergrads. Moving forward, I don't want to rule out faculty and grad students, not by any means. I want to make it easy for those who are interested to find me, and to get involved in changing the campus culture to facilitate sustainability wherever possible. But I intend to focus my recruitment/advertising/propaganda efforts on undergrads. Particularly (if I can figure out how) the extroverts.


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