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Institutions of higher education are, to use Robert Orr’s phrase, “in the crosshairs and at the crossroads” of polarized public debates. The crosshairs are easy to describe -- student debt, rising tuition, freedom of expression, racial tensions -- and the list is endless. But the crossroads are harder stories to tell, or even to predict. What kinds of changes are possible, and do institutions of higher learning possess the collective will to make them?

We know that one crossroads is already here: climate change and the opportunity of colleges and universities to turn the corner in addressing the challenges before us. It’s not only because, in 2018, so many reputable scientific organizations issued reports that demonstrated the seriousness and economic impact of current climate change trends. It’s also because institutions of higher learning have two major advantages. First, academic communities have a greater degree of consensus around climate change issues than exists in the wider public. Second, they still possess governance structures, even if at times unwieldy ones, that can achieve manageable, locally defined environmental goals.

Last month the community at Middlebury College came together to make its announcement about Energy2028, its bold new energy plan for the next 10 years. Using those two advantages, we outlined a new commitment that the news media said put us on the cutting edge of environmental progress. We promised to:

  • reach 100 percent renewable energy sources;
  • significantly lessen our energy consumption;
  • reduce and eventually eliminate our investment in fossil fuels while protecting our endowment; and
  • mount a large educational initiative addressing climate change.

We could not have created this plan without those two advantages -- and luckily, every institution has them. If we’re stuck at a national and a global level, colleges and universities can employ the power of the local -- the power of community -- to address climate change.

Here are the principles and practices that worked for us -- the ways we put those advantages into practice.

Use basic consensus to stay at the table. For years. Middlebury has the oldest environmental studies program in the nation, and we take pride in our achievements and traditions. But that didn’t mean we agreed on the next steps. Should we focus on an environmental pledge? An environmental studies requirement? Create a new graduate school of environmental studies like our language schools? Most of all, we argued vociferously about the investment in fossil fuels in our endowment.

There were literally years of impasse. Most leaders would have “prioritized a winnable battle” and moved on. I was tempted. But despite the fact that I was thinking about turning to other, more fruitful projects, I noticed that everyone around me -- the environmental council of students and faculty members, the student environmental group, and others -- kept meeting anyway. Even more amazing was that trustees kept meeting with students and disagreeing about divestment. They sat and disagreed for years.

I didn’t quite understand it. Why do they keep meeting, I wondered, if they never come to consensus? But then it occurred to me: what kept them together was the fact that they took pride in our environmental education, and they needed to keep that pride. There was an unspoken bond between all of the people who were faithfully disagreeing for years. That’s why they kept coming together.

Use basic consensus to imagine change. Once I understood this sense of common pride in our environmental educational traditions, I began to understand how we could come together. We needed to focus on the educational aspect of the issues, not the political ones.

Of course, it’s hard to untangle the political and the educational -- especially now, when common educational values have become politicized. But the students asked us one thing: “As educators, what is your intergenerational commitment to us?” They didn’t ask what our different “stances” were on any of the issues before us, but rather, how we were going to educate them, as our mission statement promised, “to address the world’s most challenging problems.” That simple question focused our minds to work together in a way that no political debate ever could have.

That sense of educational tradition also allowed us to keep imagining a common ground, even if sometimes we felt we were losing it. At the beginning, there didn’t seem to be any common ground -- just many student, faculty and staff groups who had their own agendas. The people who were focused on divestment didn’t seem to worry as much about renewables. Those who were focused on the economic feasibility of the carbon tax didn’t have much to say about solar or hydro or bio-methane capacities in the community.

But once we were united by a common educational mission, we started to imagine things together, rather than separately. What if the internal carbon tax was related to a commitment to reduce energy consumption? What if divestment advocates envisioned a gradual model related to our commitment to 100 percent renewables? What if faculty members could lead in an educational program that allowed us to think through the advantages as well as the trade-offs in all of these decisions? Everyone at the table moved a little. And if everyone at the table moves 10 percent, you’ve got a whole lot of movement.

Use governance structures to build on local collaborations and successes. Academic governance is notoriously slow, time-consuming and unwieldy. Middlebury’s is no different. “I love democracy, but it takes up all my evenings” is a quip that is perhaps more well deserved in our hallways than in any others. That being said, once people saw momentum in our environmental conversations, small and large forms of governance began to coalesce into something like organizational power.

The students and faculty members knew that there was an openness to the conversation in the administration and on the part of the trustees. Buildings and grounds personnel saw we needed new infrastructure to measure energy consumption. The students held a referendum. The faculty composed a “sense of the faculty” motion and began energetically to imagine new curricula. The trustees began to talk to our endowment manager about new tracking technologies.

Middlebury is also lucky in that it has a long tradition of collaboration with the community of Addison County and the rest of Vermont. College groups began to reach out to their local partners to think about new solutions in solar, hydro and bio-methane possibilities. Green Mountain Power officials told us we could do even more than we were imagining. Every group began to use the governance tools at its disposal to take the next step in imagining the plan that became Energy2028.

Use governance structures to create interdependent leadership. Once these things began to happen, the risk was clear: even as a small academic community, Middlebury could become competitive and siloed again in “virtue signaling” all our different environmental commitments. So when we designed the final plan, we focused on interdependence. No single part of the plan was going to work without the other, and no part of the plan could be approved without the other.

Our insistence on interdependence reduced the potential toxic competition among groups that would undermine our common purpose. But it also preserved the collaborative competition among them that would increase our common purpose.

Each group accomplished their particular goals as a result. When Divest Midd students traded in their orange patches for equally bright ones that said “Energy2028,” that was sheer brilliance on their part, and I was inspired.

On the day we announced Energy2028, the city of Chicago was sending warnings about instant frostbite due to record low temperatures, and the city of Melbourne, Australia, was closing down tram routes due to record high temperatures. Minneapolis city workers were setting up warming shelters, and Tasmanian firefighters were battling widespread blazes. It is a deep 21st-century irony that the experience of climate extremes has become increasingly “normal,” if such a paradox can be possible.

Higher education has enough local wisdom and local practices to fight the new normal. The word I kept hearing last month was pride. Pride in our educational commitment provided the consensus that kept us at the table for longer than most reasonable people would stay. It was also the consensus that allowed our conversations to focus on local renewable energy solutions.

Even if such a high degree of basic consensus doesn’t exist on a college campus, colleges and universities have traditions of scientific and humanistic inquiry that can create a baseline for climate change conversations. Every campus needs to use that baseline and the pride in that tradition of inquiry to keep faithfully disagreeing. Wendell Berry once wrote of human relationships and creative practice, “If time has apparently proved it wrong, more time may prove it right.” In this most crucial of environmental ages, educational institutions have the distinct capacity to persevere in pursuing local change.

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