• Getting to Green

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


Don't know much about ...

... history. Don't know much biology. Don't know much about science books. Don't know much about the French I took.

June 24, 2009

... history. Don't know much biology. Don't know much about science books. Don't know much about the French I took.

Friend WTF suggests I leave sociology to the sociologists. Would only that I could. In the same comment, he agrees that sociologists aren't much interested in the subject of class, because the dominant paradigm says that we live in a classless society. Of course, the only folks I've ever known who really believe that are the ones who grew up in privileged circumstances, kind of like the way the only folks who really believe race doesn't matter in the USA are ones who grew up white.

See, dominant paradigms are like that. The way they maintain their dominance is by organizing what we all do, and what we all know without even thinking about it, in their own terms. They take on an air of inevitability, like the way things are is the way they should be -- the only way they could have turned out -- the best of all possible worlds. That's why folks don't typically refer to "the dominant paradigm", or even "the paradigm". To even mention its existence is to suggest that alternatives are possible, which is to question the inevitability of how things are now. To be a trouble-maker.

As a campus administrator, I've run into this within the systems of campus administration. Administrative departments, of all stripes, get formed in order to solve problems organizations -- operating in terms of the dominant paradigm -- believe they have.

For example, accounting departments and accounting systems are set up to keep track of money, because money makes the world go 'round -- with money, all things are possible. But our accounting (and, when we're doing that accounting in the future tense, our budgeting) systems end up doing more than keeping track of our money. They end up having a major effect on how we use our money -- what we do with our money -- what we can do with our money -- what we can do at all.

The classic case is one that's well known among facilities administrators and sustainability advocates: the split between capital and operating funds. The low-hanging fruit among projects which will make any campus more sustainable consists of the ones which address energy efficiency. Spending a little more (often a truly trivial amount more) in the construction or renovation of a building can create tremendous operating savings down the road. But many campuses can't realize those savings, because construction is paid for out of capital funding streams, while building operation is paid for in (and hence any savings are realized within) annual operating budgets. The capital/operating split is an important one for campus management, because it recognizes the importance of paying for this year's expenses out of this year's income, while also allowing long-term investment (and long-term borrowing) to create assets like buildings with long useful lives. Nobody chose to differentiate capital from operating funds in order to encourage building design and construction decisions which promote energy inefficiency, but that's what's happened for years. Decades. Pretty much ever since the end of World War II.

For all those years, construction and campus planning departments have been rewarded -- and have rewarded their employees -- for getting the most building(s) out of the fewest capital dollars. The people in charge of building at Greenback aren't bad folks, and it's not that they don't appreciate that investing a nickel now can return a dollar down the road. But their performance gets measured on whether or not the nickel of capital gets spent, not on whether the dollar of operating savings gets accrued. It's their nickel, but it's someone else's dollar. Because that's the way the accounting/budgeting system works -- the (seemingly) only way it can work -- the way we've found to get answers to the questions that running a campus within the logical frame of the dominant paradigm causes us to ask.

Now, to be fully truthful, I should acknowledge that the capital/operating chasm isn't as wide as it once was. The planning folks at Greenback are starting to look more at life-cycle costs -- at the impacts capital decisions can have on operating expenditures -- and they're tweaking their designs in the direction of energy efficiency. But the battle's far from won -- the old paradigm is still dominant, it's just no longer omnipotent. Designs for buildings on our campus still look a lot like what was being built a couple of decades back; energy efficiency improvements are just that -- improvements tacked on after the basic skeleton of the building has already been laid down -- not features which figure into the basic nature and concept of what we determine to create. The question that's being asked isn't "how can we create the most efficient building within the capital funding constraints which exist?", it's "how can we make marginal improvements to the kind of structure we're most used to creating (based on long-ingrained habits of capital cost minimization) in order that it not be grossly energy inefficient?".

The other thing that's important to realize is that the reason even the "marginal improvement" question is being asked at all is because a relatively few folks, working through organizations like AIA, NACUBO, SCUP, and ACPA under the influence of the radicals at the Rocky Mountain Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, the ACUPCC and others (both lists are grossly incomplete -- my apologies to the dozens of hard-working individuals and outfits I've left out) have been asking questions which conventional thinking has a hard time answering. See, a dollar is (in the final analysis) still a dollar, the ratio between the capitalized portion of life-cycle building costs and the operating portion has been shifting towards operations for years, and at the highest levels of university administration all the different expenditures and all the inconvenient decisions tend to come together in one place and time.

But if leverage exerted at the top of a complex organization like Greenback can accomplish (only) marginal change, what's required to make profound change possible? What will it take to start asking questions like "how can we create the most efficient campus we can afford"? or -- even more important -- "how can we create the most efficient university we can imagine?" Shaping questions which will (with luck) influence the thinking of high-level campus decision-makers (who got to where they are by succeeding within the rule structure created and required by the dominant paradigm) isn't likely to move us that far. To move Greenback towards real sustainability, we need to find a point of greater leverage. We need to change not just the questions our systems get asked, but the vocabulary they get expressed in. We need to change the culture by which the campus operates.

One of the hopes for higher education's ability to lead the move towards sustainability is that -- as a microcosm -- campus culture might be more easily shifted than can the culture of Western Civilization as a whole. Not that it's easy by any means, just that it's not totally impossible. And if campus culture shifts, that shift will filter out into society in general -- both because it will demonstrate another (perhaps even more successful) way of doing business and because it will become inherent in the decision-makers of future society who (after all) are our primary product. But cultural shifts (on campus as elsewhere) don't start at the top. People at the top are too invested, intellectually if not emotionally, in the current way of doing things. It's not that they don't want to think outside the box, it's that -- more often than not -- they don't see the box any more than a fish sees the water. If you're really comfortable in the box, you don't see it, in part because you don't really want to see it. The people most likely to be able to see the box are the ones who feel constrained by it (think sustainability advocates) and -- perhaps -- the ones who are cramped by it.

Most campus administrators I've spoken to at Greenback feel cramped by the way the place runs. They see the gross inefficiencies in energy utilization for heat, for lighting, for transportation, for lots of uses. But they feel powerless to change anything. They've been told for years that change is practically (if not theoretically) impossible. And, since real change almost never happens (and happens only slowly even in those rare instances), they've come to believe it's true. As a phenomenon, it's not limited to campuses -- I've seen it in every industry I've ever worked in or with. Lower-level employees learn early on not to make waves, so they accommodate themselves to the size and shape of the boat they're in so that -- if and when they ever advance to a level where they could significantly influence that size and shape -- change becomes difficult to conceive, much less consider.

Years ago, my dame gave me a coffee mug. On it was written, "If we all work together, we can totally subvert the system." (I love my dame -- she was a troublemaker before me and is a far fiercer competitor than I'll ever be. But that's another story.) What she didn't fully appreciate was that if we all work together, we don't so much subvert the system, we become the system. Subversion is based on seeing the system in its own terms, so that you can interfere with it. Subversion, alone, doesn't get you to where you need to be.

(Which relates to why I have an affection for WTF's moniker. I got my son a t-shirt with that question printed on it, which he wore it fairly regularly to high school after cleverly subverting initial teacher disapproval.)

And that gets me back to why I can't leave sociology to the sociologists. I need to understand how people at all levels experience the university. If I'm going to subvert the systems and structures which deliver the message that change is impossible, I've got to understand how those systems and structures operate and why they have the effects they do. Given the range of folks who work on campus, that requires me to understand better something (one among many) which I've thought of in the past as social class. To the extent that my attempts to understand its operation yield up a model which is useful in the design of effective subversions, I don't really care what label we use. (One of the characteristics of folks at my level of university society is that we would never think of possible misuse of an abstract term as creating a "trainwreck". Like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, we try to find words which will express what we're trying to say, not thoughts that fit into the ostensibly authoritative and approved vocabulary.) Call it "class", call it "stratum", call it "aardvark"; I don't really care. What I do care about is loosening some of the bonds that keep Greenback operating the way it always has, so that change becomes possible, so that sustainability becomes possible. And ...

What a wonderful world [that] would be.


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