Report from the sustainability meetings in LA: Why sustainability is THE mission.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education is holding its annual meeting in the City of Angels this week.  Jesse Pyles and I flew out to represent Unity College, and to network with principals from other institutions that share the goal of bringing sustainability to higher education.  Without too much hubris, I believe that Jesse and I make a good team.  He brings an understanding of state of the art operational sustainability, while I am an advocate for the integration of Sustainability Science throughout the curriculum. Jesse’s workshop for other sustainability coordinators was well attended and a smashing success.  You may not know it, but Jesse is a rockstar among his peers.

In contrast, it seems that I have a steeper hill to climb.  While AASHE leadership strongly supports bringing sustainability to academic programming, this aspect is clearly in its infancy relative to operational sustainability.  Folks understand solar PV and recycling, but they are less likely to be conversant with the framework of Sustainability Science, which has been endorsed by the US National Academy, NSF and AAAS as the way forward.  Although operational sustainability on America’s thousands of campuses is hugely important, I believe that this barely scratches the surface of what can be accomplished through higher education.  The real gold lies in making sustainability programming the primary mission of higher education.

Wait a minute, you say.  Really?  Sustainability should be THE primary mission?  What about all the other wonderful things that higher education is supposed to do for society?  What about making sure that graduates can get jobs or get into graduate or professional school?  Surely this is too narrow a mission for all of higher education.

I think not, and here’s why:

  • As David Orr has written, “all education is environmental education” as determined by what we teach, or  by what we fail to teach.  Failing to teach sustainability at this point in history will have grave consequences for our species.
  • We have exceeded the safe operating limits of our planet with respect to climate disruption, biodiversity loss, and reactive nitrogen, and we are now pushing the limits with respect to water use, land use change, and a variety of other components of our life support system.
  • Failure to reduce emissions will have catastrophic consequences (more than 5C average global warming), and the dynamics of the biosphere dictate that this will be largely irreversible for 1000 years.

Simply put, I don’t know how the stakes could get any higher.  HIgher education is positioned to determine the future by training a generation of Solutioneers.  As educators, I believe that we have an obligation to do so. Unlike any time in the history of higher education, we must now produce cutting-edge practitioners able to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, and understand social, economic, and resource tradeoffs among possible solutions.  Imagine being a faculty member and looking in the mirror twenty years from now.  What would you see?  Would you be looking at a professional that did her best to avert catastrophe?  For me, the alternative is unacceptable.

Folks of my ilk, i.e., other presidents and vice presidents, frequently wring their hands and worry about the future of liberal arts education.  Indeed, the number of institutions embracing the mission of liberal arts education has declined 39 percent over the past 20 years.  The industry is beset by a suite of mutually reinforcing disruptive innovations and constraints.  These factors include the impact of massive online programming, the skyrocketing cost of bricks and mortar, and tuition that has risen faster than health care, energy, and housing. Without doubt, the cost and financing of higher education is unsustainable, and it is likely that there will be a significant market shake out over the next decade.

Last July when I was at President’s Camp at Harvard, I listened while my classmates worried about how to define their mission.  Obviously, if we are to prevail, we must be clear about what is being called the Value Proposition of liberal arts education.  What is it that we offer that is so valuable?  Why would a student agree to spend four years and significant coin to acquire a Bachelor’s degree?

I would like to assert that there can be no higher Value Proposition than offering students the means to thrive in the Environmental Century.  I believe that Sustainability Science offers the means to address the sustainability imperatives that more than 9 billion souls will face when we reach mid century.  The class that is in college today must be the Solutioneers.  We must equip our students with the tools and thought processes that allow them to solve problems related to optimizing the flow of energy and materials.  Sustainability Science is a framework that does this, and in a later post I will describe how it can be integrated throughout existing courses and majors.

But, what about jobs?  Will learning Sustainability Science help me to buy a home, or contribute to the support of my family?  The clear answer to this is a resounding “yes!”  A 2011 study by the Brookings Institute showed that the Clean Economy (which we can call the Sustainability Economy) is larger than the economy generated by fossil fuels or bioscience.  The only sector exceeding the Clean Economy is information technology.  Moreover, during the recession, the Clean Economy grew while the rest of the economy faltered.  This statement is true even when you remove government jobs.

Thus, it is ironic to me that other presidents would agonize about their mission.  To me, the mission of higher education is clear, and it is a mandate.  Because of this, I believe that Unity College graduates have a brilliant future.  As we develop the capacity for solution focused training, our graduates will be increasingly in demand.  This is good news for our graduates, and good news for the society that they will serve.

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About Stephen Mulkey

Stephen Mulkey is an environmental scientist dedicated to developing undergraduate and graduate programming to build society's capacity for environmental mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. Mulkey was the president of Unity College in Unity, Maine from 2011 through 2015. His leadership and forward-looking vision resulted in Unity College being the first college in the U.S. to divest its endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, and the first college in the U.S. to adopt sustainability science as the framework for all academic programming. Mulkey believes that higher education has an ethical duty to prepare generations of graduates for the extreme sustainability and climate change challenges of this century. After taking his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent over twenty years as a forest ecologist affiliated with the Smithsonian. Mulkey has served as tenured faculty at three doctoral granting universities.