An Elbow in the Ribs: Prof-Prodding Toward Sustainability

Ashley Thorne

We recently learned of a 2-year-old journal called Sustainability: The Journal of Record. As we take great interest in sustainability’s influence on higher education, and since we have our own sustainability-themed journal issue coming out soon, naturally we wanted to know more. NAS President Peter Wood purchased his own subscription right away. He loaned me his copy.   

Backing the journal are the usual suspects. It is published in collaboration with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). Its editorial board includes Anthony Cortese, president of Second Nature, and Peter Bardaglio, a senior fellow at Second Nature who serves on the advisory committee for the academics portion of the AmericanCollege and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). AASHE’s mission is to “empower higher education to lead the sustainability transformation”; Second Nature’s mission is to make sustainability “the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education,” and the ACUPCC is a pledge committing signatory schools to teach and model sustainability for the purpose of achieving “climate neutrality.” These organizations are key players in the push to transform colleges into factories of politicized environmentalism.  

In the first issue (December 2009) of Sustainability that I read, one particular article stood out, advertised on the cover, “Prodding Reluctant Professors toward Sustainability.” Inside, the article’s summary line read, “How can higher education leaders persuade foot-dragging faculty members to incorporate sustainability into their classrooms?”  

Good question. We’d really like to know why this topic has suddenly become a must-teach for professors of all disciplines. Please, convince us.  

But nowhere in the article do we find any academic reasons for “infusing” sustainability into the curriculum. We have yet to see arguments for its intellectual rigor and merit. The authors all assume that sustainability should be incorporated; the only question is how to get faculty members on board.  

The authors are participants in a roundtable discussion, and the article is published as a transcript of their conversation. It’s an amusingly stiff conversation, with each person trying to one-up the previous speaker in allegiance to sustainability. The moderator is the executive director of AASHE, and the six participants are all campus administrators and leaders of sustainability organizations: 

  • Katherine Kao Kushing, Ph.D., Special Assistant to the President and Director of Sustainability, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, San Jose State University
  • James Elder, Director, The Campaign for Environmental Literacy
  • Tom Kelly, Chief Sustainability Officer, University of New Hampshire
  • Terry Link, M.S., Executive Director, Great Lansing Food Bank, formerly, Director, Office of Campus Sustainability, Michigan State University
  • Mitchell Thomashow, President, Unity College
  • William Throop, Ph.D., Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Green Mountain College 

Kushing is the only professor in the group. Both Green Mountain College and Unity College are schools devoted almost entirely to sustainability.  

“Change How They Think”

Dr. Rowland opens the discussion by asking why some faculty members are reluctant to bring sustainability into their teaching. Terry Link says that we need to organize the university, not in parts but in “wholes,” as sustainability is wholes-focused. Mitchell Thomashow says we need a fuller understanding of the global disaster at hand (once we’re all scared out of our minds, then we’ll make this a priority). James Elder says, the only way to get faculty members to “change how they think, how they teach, how they do their research” is to first change their values. One way to do that is to make sustainability part of tenure and promotion. 

Elder’s comments are revealing. Here we have a group of sustainatopians in a formal discussion intended for a sympathetic readership. Perhaps in this environment they feel more uninhibited and willing to say what they really mean. Elder is head of the Campaign for Environmental Literacy, which seeks to increase federal funding for environmental education. Using the word “literacy,” as Austin Williams notes in his forthcoming Academic Questions article, “implies that students—i.e., adults—need to be taught to read anew and to display their proficiency in the new environmental language.” In order to transform the way people read the world, Elder seeks to “change how they think,” and change their behavior. 

Tremendous Transformation

Next Dr. Rowland prompts the participants to consider the consequences of not addressing “the problem.” William Throop thunders, “The problem is severe. We have a tremendous opportunity to transform universities, but if graduate education is not transformed very rapidly there will be a tremendous time lag.”

Katherine Kao Cushing chimes in, “We do need to create a sense of urgency in some of these institutions of higher learning,” and Mitchell Thomashow declares, (I can just hear his fist pound the table) “We need an overhaul of the entire K through 16 system.” [emphasis mine; I am, of course, only extracting a few words from lengthier declarations by these participants.] 

Thomashow continues: 

By the way, from a purely educational theory point of view, who said that biology in 10th and chemistry in 11th and physics in 12th grade is the way to teach science? I mean, they are doing it the same way we did it in 1965. There needs to be a whole new orientation about how to learn. [emphasis mine] 

This is worth thinking over. While the frontiers of biology, chemistry, and physics have advanced in the last 45 years, the basics taught at the high school level have not undergone some new scientific revolution in that period, have they?  DNA is still DNA; the atomic number for gold is still 79, and light still travels at 299,792,458 meters per second. How dull. Let’s change things up! 

Tom Kelly agrees that we need to challenge the status quo: “We have drifted into a kind of mindless perpetuation of a set of practices and approaches that simply would not hold up to the light of day if we ever actually critically examined them.” Clearly the answer, Tom, is to redefine daylight. Your colleagues are on it. 

Thomashow again: “I am pleased with how quickly the Unity faculty are moving. But I have essentially given them license to radically transform the curriculum, and they hesitate.”  I have a certain admiration for that faculty, some of whom apparently prefer the known laws of biology, chemistry, physics, and math to the freeform inventions the president of their (“We get our hands dirty”) college in rural Maine has invited.   

Elder: “The final step...the step to really infusing a different way of seeing the world as a precursor to broad-based education that really produces a different type of literacy in our graduates, that is not there yet.” recap: We need an overhaul of the entire K through 16 system. There needs to be a whole new orientation about how to learn. Transform universities. Radically transform the curriculum. Infuse a different way of seeing the world. 

The theme each person reiterates is the need to manipulate education into a system that gives its full attention to sustainability. The speakers here don’t just want to drag professors along on their crusade; they want to make the crusade the center of all learning and operations on campus. If education is a voyage, the sustainatopians don’t want to just add a destination, they want to transform the vessel from a fishing boat into a battleship.  

Faculty Need to Be Retrained

Next the moderator shifts the group into a brainstorming session to discuss strategies for getting faculty members to cooperate. The first person to talk is Tom Kelly; his remarks here seem to be the only pluralistic ones in the article. He says we have to be clear in communicating to professors that we are not asking them to teach a “prepackaged set of answers.” He says: 

We need to be clear and convey to them that sustainability is a contested and plural concept. All the answers are not in place. It embodies conflicting values that need to be worked out.  

Thank you Tom. You are the only one in the roundtable to acknowledge that sustainability is contested and to suggest that it doesn’t entail a prepackaged set of answers. None of the others supports his statement or even seems to notice it. James Elder, goes right back to the question at hand and declares that “we have got hundreds of thousands of faculty that need to be retrained.”  

Need to be retrained? This is breathtaking, not least in the unconscious echo of the euphemism, “reeducation camp” that the Vietnamese communists applied to the prison camps in which they locked away  supporters of the old regime after the North’s military victory in 1975. The phrase unmistakably conveys the tone of forcing others to adopt your views. Elder’s condescension is an insult to faculty members, who have devoted years of their lives educating themselves in their fields. But his assertion gets the others going with a whole host of suggestions for compelling faculty to integrate sustainability into their teaching. Among their ideas are: 

  • Working more with the disciplinary societies on professional development
  • Getting the business faculty on board, because most students choose business as their default major
  • Inspiring faculty by bringing sustainability “rock stars” to speak on campus
  • Embedding sustainability into the general education curriculum
  • Modeling sustainability in campus operations
  • Providing recognition and rewards
  • Changing the infrastructure on campus (i.e. by building an organic research dairy farm to create professional opportunities)
  • Integrating “monster” courses team-taught by as many as five professors
  • Implementing more powerful post-tenure reviews 

Missing from the list is the public auto-de-fé, but perhaps that is reserved for those faculty members foolish enough to resist. Thomashow puts the sustainability mandate this way: “It has to be ubiquitous, it has to be done by everyone, it has to be part of the whole infrastructure.”  

The group then considers whose job it is to do the actual prof-prodding. Throop says both the chief academic officer and the sustainability coordinator bear this responsibility. Thomashow shares, “One of the things we have done at Unity is to build sustainability initiatives into job descriptions so that everyone is learning together.” While Unity, unlike most colleges, is devoted to environmental studies, such sustainability job descriptions may soon be adopted en masse in academia—especially considering that Virginia Tech did this with the ideology “diversity,” and that the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) urges universities to “strongly insist that the selection process for new campus leaders include a climate action ‘litmus test.’” 

In conclusion, the participants evaluate higher education’s progress. AASHE has set a goal that “At least 10 percent of the courses offered at American colleges and universities will enable students to synthesize an understanding of environmental economics and social forces of change and apply that understanding to real-world problems.” Some members of the group are optimistic about achieving this goal, although Throop and Link are not. Tom Kelly makes another compelling comment:  

I do not think the role of the university is to lead this radical change. I mean, that is a story sometimes people in higher education tell themselves, but it just does not square with the history of the institution.  

Again, thank you, Tom—oh wait, here’s his next sentence: “But that notion of accelerating change and reinforcing change in a new direction, we definitely have a role to play.” Never mind.  

The Abolition (of Freedom) Movement

The last paragraphs of the discussion contain some curious metaphors. Throop says the goal is “to really turn the Titanic here.” Kelly compares the task at hand to the abolition movement (I’d say it’s closer to abolishing freedom than slavery): “It took time because it was shifting patterns and institutions that were deeply embedded in society, and [in] which there were very powerful economic interests, and yet the push continued.” 

Yes, the push to bring sustainability into every college classroom continues. This roundtable provides an insider’s glimpse at the sustainabullies’ line of thinking. While Tom Kelly makes a lone and unacknowledged argument against pressing a set ideology on professors, the main message of the conversation is that we must rally our forces for revolution. Transformation is the goal. Simply educating students in math, science, literature, and history is not enough. And professors who object to being coerced into teaching sustainability—whether or not they are sympathetic to environmentalism—are subject to derision and treated as projects.  

Debra Rowe, a staunch sustainability-in-higher-ed activist, said in a presentation at Pennsylvania State University last year that uninterested faculty members are society-destroyers: “Sustainability is everyone’s job. Doing nothing is not benign – it is a destructive decision for society.” But what about the destruction to free society that comes as a result of all this scheming? Most of the ideas coming out of the roundtable are based not in persuasion but in enforcement. Two of NAS’s 10 Reasons to Oppose the Sustainability Movement on Your Campus are that sustainability shrinks freedom and that it bypasses the faculty. Ultimately the movement is about exercising control over human choice. The mandate is clear: “It has to be ubiquitous, it has to be done by everyone, it has to be part of the whole infrastructure.” Faculty members who value liberty should challenge this mandate before the sustainabullies accomplish the overhaul they have in mind. 

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