To boldly go ... (or not)
BSR, the global consortium of over 250 businesses for social responsibility, just issued its second global report. Sustainability is not only a theme, it's pretty much the theme -- the inside front cover bears the message "Our business is clear: We work with business to create a just and sustainable world." And while that statement may seem concise, it's actually slightly redundant; no world (especially in this age of asymmetric warfare) can be sustainable without being just.
Nit-picking aside, the report is a damn fine piece of work, and I don't say that often. In addition to analyses of trends and challenges, it contains summaries of eight project summaries -- a wide enough variety to provide an analog for almost any corporation. No case studies about higher ed, of course; this is Business for Social Responsibility. Still, there are lessons Greenback can take from the report. (Whether we will is, of course, a separate question.)
BSR's major recommendations fit together pretty well: think big, take a long-term perspective, presume that technological innovation will occur, partner beyond the corporate arena, build relationships of trust.
Interestingly enough, at least the general pattern of BSR's advice is consistent with the thrust of the most recent book from NACUBO, Peter Bardaglio and Andrea Putman's Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change. Bardaglio and Putman not only describe how colleges and universities can save money by reducing their environmental footprints, they explain how a profound commitment to sustainability is the basis for defining higher ed's 21st century market sector. (Promotional material for the book describes it as a "niche"; I see is as far broader than that.)
In a very real sense, sustainability and the rethinking of society that will be required to achieve it provide a response to a concern I heard from a professor at a SLAC a couple of years back. The topic of online education came up, and he stated that if it ever became truly effective, it would mean "the death of this place".
I don't agree. My take is that online education is becoming quite effective at conveying specific content on a broad range of subjects, but that it's inherently limited in its application because it treats learning as a largely solitary endeavor. (Having 100 "friends" on your Facebook page isn't the same as having 100 friends. Not even close. The communications bandwidth simply isn't broad enough to let that happen.) If it's something you could learn in a lecture hall, it's something you can learn from a streamed video of a good lecturer. And if it's a skill you could gain by working a number of well-structured problem sets, it's something you can gain from those same problems in an online environment. But online learning (at least in any form similar to what's been implemented to date) will never be an effective medium for challenging students' underlying world views, their basic operating assumptions, the way they view themselves and society. For generations to come, students will need to go through just that sort of unlearning/revisioning process to be able to contribute to true sustainability in ecological, economic and societal terms. Face-to-face interaction with a great teacher and with a number of peers grappling with the same issues is -- at least so far -- the mechanism best suited to such a profound level of learning. "Mark Hopkins on a log" may be too narrow a definition, but the basic image isn't too far off.
So what about Greenback? Well, "bold" may be too strong a word. We want to base our plans on conservative assumptions -- technologies that already exist, efficiencies we can calculate confidently, investments sure to have an acceptable payback period. We're not locking ourselves into these, you understand. When better technologies are available, we'll be willing to consider them. But the ship of Greenback is safest while it's still inside our harbor, and the idea of "voyage" seems more than a little daunting.
Which is why part of my job is to get a big skiff, a lot of strong rowers and a thick cable. We may not be able to pull the good ship Greenback all the way out into blue water, but we can keep her headed in that direction. We hope.
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