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  • Getting to Green

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

One possible future
July 9, 2008 - 5:06am

Vance Fried's proposal for a "$7,376 Ivy" isn't intended to be about sustainability, unless we're talking about the sustainability of the economic and political health of the higher education industry within the USA. His intent is merely (if that term applies) to create a conceptual prototype for what an undergraduate institution would look like, if it were created from scratch and designed to deliver maximum value for the price charged. But Fried's article, and forthcoming study from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is something every higher ed sustainability professional should be interested in. Several of the features of the prototype presented have positive impacts for sustainability.

First, there's a coherent, largely standardized curriculum. Fried looks at this from a productivity/efficiency perspective, but it's good for sustainability as well. Education which will facilitate a society which is both economically and ecologically sustainable must create a common base of knowledge, and promote a common core of values. A standardized curriculum can achieve both of those without being dogmatic. (After all, valuing diversity is a member of the necessary core.) Fried would require half of undergraduate courses to be taken by all, increasing the likelihood that each student will discuss a wide range of material with other students from a variety of backgrounds and socio-political perspectives. Gen Ed on steriods (and I mean that as a good thing).

Then there's the consolidation of majors. Like the standardized curriculum, this has the effect of giving students a broader perspective than many achieve now. An interdisciplinary humanities major. A broad-based business major. One emphasizing the broad interconnections among the sciences, and how these interconnections lead to useful new technologies. "Public affairs", which I take to be an interdisciplinary social sciences major. Rather than being constrained to intellectual silos created by narrow academic disciplines, Fried's undergraduates would be required to explore larger intellectual warehouses. Specialization, but not overspecialization at a young age. Exposure to trade-offs and the consequences that result from them.

And Fried puts great value on the "college experience", which is key both to learning and to creating model sustainable communities. By driving instructional costs down, the prototype makes it possible to include on-campus room and board while still hitting a price point no higher than most state universities now charge for full-time tuition. On-campus living has many advantages, only one of which is the fact that students living on campuses greatly reduce their personal carbon footprints (at least for 4+ years).

Will something resembling Fried's model actually come into being? I have no idea. But I suspect that, like most innovative proposals, much of the initial reaction this one receives will be skepticism that it could ever happen. Such skepticism would be ill-founded.

While most of us have been exposed only to modern higher education as it's existed since World War II, what we're familiar with is only one narrow set of data points on an historic continuum over a thousand years long, containing many and various organizational and educational models most of which are far different than what we see now. Universities have evolved tremendously, for better and for worse, over that span of time. Higher education has changed, radically, at times in the past. By implication, it can and will change (perhaps radically) at some times in the future.

Fried's prototype presents a reasonable concept of what the near future might look like. It appears to make economic sense. It appears to make educational sense. It appears to contribute to sustainability. I look forward to reading the full report, when it becomes available (it's supposed to be only about 40 pages). I hope many of you will, too. Then, let's talk.


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