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

Inside information #3 - A detour about dark
August 20, 2008 - 7:37pm

When I think about information, I usually think about it at rest. Kind of like, when I think about water, the image of a lake or an ocean pops into mind before the image of a river. Maybe that's largely a function of where I've lived, but it's also about how many of us on the wonky side learn and think -- combining and recombining bits of data from various sources, trying to form a comprehensive understanding. "Information", then, is the material of which a stable (if only temporarily) understanding is formed.

But information at rest is incapable of inducing change. Change requires communication -- information in motion. And the topic of information in motion was raised last week, by a set of news articles about an experiment in quantum physics conducted by the University of Geneva.

You can read a quick intro to the experiment here, or the full paper (published in Nature) here. What caught my attention was the conclusion that, between entangled quanta, the speed of communication (if not truly instantaneous -- that's hard to measure) is at least 10,000 times the speed of light.

Now, I don't have to deal much with phenomena that take place at the speed of light, much less 10,000 times that fast. At Greenback, most of the initiatives and projects I'm pushing move more at a glacial pace (although, admittedly, that's not as slow as it used to be). Being a private institution, we're not in the habit of responding quickly to executive mandates like the budget cuts which are affecting an unfortunate number of state university systems. Instead, our campus is used to treating "mandate", especially when it comes from Greenback's Office of the President, as only slightly stronger than "suggestion". After all, Greenback was here before this president arrived, and Greenback will be here after this president has departed. The ostensible concerns of the Lynne Cheneys and Margaret Spellingses of the world aside, universities (Greenback included) are inherently conservative (albeit paleo-conservative) social institutions.

Which isn't to say that universities, and indeed higher education as a whole, don't change. They do, but it takes time. Putting a new face on an existing small college, as Bill Durden has successfully done at Dickinson or Tony Marx at Amherst, can be done fairly quickly given exceptional leadership. But large universities move far slower, and changing the internal value scheme of a super-stable institution takes quite a while. The transformational leaders of the past ( e.g., Andrew Dickson White at Cornell, James Bryant Conant at Harvard, Robert Maynard Hutchins at Chicago, Clark Kerr at California) all had tenures of at least 15 years. And even that span of time was insufficient -- the changes these folks introduced continued to ripple through their institutions for years (and through higher education for decades) after their respective departures.

The bad news, then, is that light dawns slowly within Greenback and other universities (that is, of course, when it dawns at all). The potentially good news is that the unit of change is no longer the individual university; increasingly, it's higher education as a whole. New sustainability organizations (like AASHE) arrive with explicit agendas and gain traction in a matter of only a few years. Older groups (like SCUP) already have some traction, and are applying it as their agendas expand into areas relating to sustainability. With luck and perseverance, administrators like me can use information about what other schools are doing to stimulate the competitive juices of our own institutions. As our opposite numbers on other campuses do likewise, the overall effect can be a ratcheting up of sustainability levels and expectations in general.

Figuratively, then, the "speed of dark" on campus probably hasn't changed one iota. But, given the leverage provided by communication amongst like-minded agents provocateurs, the speed of light may -- in effect -- be increasing as the quanta which we call "universities" become more entangled.

 

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