Changing the Norms: Sustainability at Penn State

Ashley Thorne

Michael Mann, one of the global warming scientists implicated in “Climategate,” is a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University. Mann and two other researchers are the originators of the “hockey stick” curve, a graph of temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere over the last 1,000 years that purportedly proves the trend of anthropogenic global warming. Nowadays Mann (his head, at least) is the unlikely star of a hit YouTube video called Hide the Decline, created by the Minnesotans for Global Warming to the tune of the song “Draggin’ the Line.” 


The group created the video based on the recently surfaced emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. One of the most widely circulated of all the emails is one from the director, Phil Jones, which says, “I've just completed Mike's [Michael Mann’s] Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline.” Other smoking-gun emails in the set were written by Mann, including one in which he advises his colleagues to “ignore” a paper written by global warming skeptics in an effort to prevent its publication in the journal Climate Research. The CRU emails do not necessarily prove that the theory is wrong, but they do show evidence of shady behavior among climate scientists.  

Penn State U released a statement announcing its intention to investigate the evidence against Mann. The statement, at the same time, defended Mann, saying that his research has withstood a previous investigation by the National Academy of Sciences and praising him for having published in “well respected peer-reviewed scientific journals.”

Mann himself said that Climategate is only “a distraction and I think policy makers in general are smart enough to recognize that.” With the Copenhagen climate conference meeting this week and last week, Mann and other climate change scientists are hoping that public confidence in global warming remains unshaken.  

Raising Global, Ethical Anti-Capitalists 

But in the meantime, what about Penn State itself? The university is in the midst of a major push for “systematically integrating sustainability into higher education.” Sustainability, global warming’s friendlier cousin, has overwhelmingly positive associations for most people today, but beneath its slick bamboo exterior is a coercive, fist-raised, narrow-minded reality. But let’s look at sustainability in its own words.  

PSU boasts a well-staffed Center for Sustainability with a mission to develop “global citizens,” advance “the ethic and science of sustainability,” and cultivate “values, attitudes, and actions” attuned to “the economic, social, and environmental goals of sustainability.” 

What do these buzzwords mean, and why should we be worried about them? Let’s take them one at a time. First, global citizenship. Global citizenship stands in contrast to national citizenship; it sneers at “bad” American social systems, attitudes, and traditions. As Peter Wood noted in “Macalester Preps for World Domination,” global citizenship “embraces—all at once—diversity, common humanity, moral relativism, transcendent truth, an end to inequality (of all types), a new inequality (those who are not global citizens are excluded from the new equality), and raising everyone to the highest common denominator.” 

Second, the “ethic” of sustainability. In “Sustainability Education’s New Morality,” I looked at the language of morality and ethics used by the sustainability movement. This new eco-morality is one that cares little about telling the truth, having self-control, or asking for forgiveness, but cares much about using florescent light bulbs and buying reusable shopping bags (see for instance this Mastercard commercial: “Helping dad become a better man: priceless” says the narrator as a little boy looks self-righteously up at his eco-clueless dad). 

Third, cultivating “values, attitudes, and actions” according to “the economic, social, and environmental goals of sustainability.” Sustainability masquerades as a purely environmental endeavor, but we know from what advocates call the “triple bottom line,” with its social and economic elements, that there is more to it. Ultimately sustainability sells eco-stewardship but delivers big government, economic redistribution, and loss of individual freedoms. And cultivating an appetite for such systems is what sustainability centers at universities around the country are working to do. 

Infusion and Confusion 

The Center is only one node in the sustainability star at PSU. In October 2009 PSU’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence sponsored an Educating for Sustainability national conference. Note that such a conference was put on, not by an office of sustainability but by an institute for teaching.  

This conference is part of a movement to fulfill the dreams of groups like Second Nature, an organization founded in 90s by John Kerry and Teresa Heinz, and a leading force in the campus sustainability movement. Second Nature’s stated mission is to make sustainability “the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education [emphasis in the original].” 

While study of the environment and natural science has a rightful place in the university, sustainability—a subject more political than academic—is unfit to be the bedrock on which we build higher education. It is fundamentally at odds with the purposes of the academy. As Peter Wood put it: 

The environmental sense of sustainability emphasizes curtailing the use of resources; simplifying; going without; substituting less energy-demanding alternatives; trying to leave the conditions of nature as little perturbed as possible. This ethic of self-erasure is antithetical to much of what is truly foundational to the university, which elevates man’s pursuit of knowledge, not his determination to render himself carbon-neutral [...] What the sustainability movement aims to sustain above all is the earth. What higher education aims to sustain above all is civilization. 

“Infusing” sustainability into all aspects of the campus is about as good an idea as infusing red paint into the blood stream. But it’s just what PSU is encouraging. The anticipated outcome of the Educating for Sustainability (EFS) conference was to “establish a cohesive community committed to integrating sustainability into the curriculum and making it one of the defining features of a PennState education.” Conference goals were to: 

  • Present the case for environmental sustainability as a university/institutional core value
  • Promote sustainability in all sectors of higher education, but particularly the scholarly/academic arena
  • Showcase PennState experts who are national leaders in the ethics and science of sustainability
  • Design a plan for infusing sustainable development concepts and good practices throughout the curriculum
  • Publicize the need for inclusion of educational experiences addressing the urgency of climate change and provide opportunities for students to consider related career choices
  • Provide avenues for taking action, such as opportunities to endorse statements by disciplinary communities, Freshman pledge and graduation pledge
  • Offer tracked sessions for administrators, faculty, staff, and students 

The conference was intended as a sort of pep rally to ignite zeal for the sustainability-in-all-sectors-of-higher-education movement. This tone of fervor is carried throughout the conference presentations, which are available online.  

Weaving a Value System 

PSU director of sustainability David Riley defines sustainability in his presentation[1] as: 

A pursuit that weaves economic, environmental, and social impact metrics in the assessment of decisions.

A value system to weave into the fabric of our university. [emphasis in the original] 

Wait, is it weaving or infusing? Or just confusing? In any case, this is a highly ideological definition. Is it the sustainability officer’s place to weave a values system into the fabric of the university? Is it right for him to place a spider-webby wall in the path of every campus decision—compulsory consideration of “economic, environmental, and social impact metrics”? What about those who don’t agree with the sustainability values system? 

Riley’s main goal, a “transformational learning outcome,” is that “students become change agents” and that they become engaged on a graduated scale. First they are to “possess awareness of the global impact of personal decisions,” then they become “skilled in the application of sustainable practices in practical settings,” then they turn into “experts in a critical technology, practice, or policy,” and they finally end up as “integrators.” As they move up the engagement “pipeline” (funny he would use that term), their enlightenment increases.  

Rowe, Rowe, Rowe Your  Boat to Sustainability

The next presentation from the conference agenda is by sustainability czarina Debra Rowe[2]. Rowe is a professor of sustainable energies and behavioral sciences at OaklandCommunity College in Michigan and has gotten her name out by serving on every sustainability-in-higher-education committee in existence. She is president of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, senior advisor to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), and a senior fellow at Second Nature, to name a few. 

In her presentation on the national context for sustainability, Rowe stresses an imminent threat of global warming disaster if people don’t change their behavior. “A rapid shift in mindset is needed and education to action is the key [emphasis in the original].” 

Rowe’s language throughout her presentation is striking as she commands her audience to “Change norms so all students and the community become environmentally responsible, socially responsible, economically responsible.” She repeatedly uses terms such as “institutionalize,” “create a shift in the norms,” and “create a culture.” She urges faculty and administrators to “Be more methodical and systematic in all your efforts to create a shift of the norms here in curricula, policies and culture, and nationally (e.g. institutionalize it into annual reviews).” Sustainability for her is clearly not just an academic subject; it’s a way of life. It’s an overarching point of view that must be introduced, cultivated, habit-forming.  

Rowe echoes Riley’s goal to have “All of us engaged as effective change agents to create a sustainable future,” having moved “from apathy/overwhelmed to caring, effective involvement.” 

The key idea, Rowe says, is to “involve all disciplines.” Thus, no subject is sustainability-free. Not aerospace engineering, art history, or astrobiology. In her second presentation on the role of faculty in integrating sustainability, she provides assignment ideas for courses in various disciplines: 

Finance or Accounting Course? Life cycle full cost analysis.      

Economics Course? Analyze what national policies are needed for a sustainable future.

Public Affairs Course? Educate legislators about the above policies.

Writing course? Write sustainability oriented grants for non-profits 

She goes further. Sustainability should be spread beyond all disciplines to all departments and aspects of the university; we should be “making sustainability an integral part of planning, operations, facility design, purchasing, investments, community partnerships, alumni donations and curricula.” From slide 38 in Rowe’s first presentation: 

Key Places to Place Sustainability: (Academic Assignments can include this!) 

  • Mission
  • Strategic Plan
  • Budget
  • Orientation
  • Campus Map and Signage
  • Building Policies
  • Operations and Purchasing Policies
  • Gen Ed Core
  • Student Life
  • Residential Living
  • Infused throughout curricula
  • Curricula Review
  • First Year Experience
  • Community Partnerships
  • Workforce Development
  • Community Education
  • Job Descriptions/Reviews

Furthermore, Rowe wants to see sustainability factored in to promotion, tenure, accreditation, and “professional identity as an academic.” This is exactly what Virginia Tech tried to do with “diversity accomplishments” this spring. The university had made such accomplishments a requirement for promotion and tenure, essentially setting up an ideological litmus test for faculty members in its College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. 

We pointed out then that not only did this move flout academic freedom, but it also showed great insecurity on the part of Virginia Tech diversiphiles. If faculty members were really that interested in diversity, there would be no reason to coerce them into getting involved. The same applies to sustainability, diversity’s successor as dominant campus ideology. 

Indeed, coercion is the sustainabullies’ tactic of choice. Rowe praises Sweden, where “it is a law that all students from youth through graduate school be educated about sustainability.”    

Much of the content in her two presentations is taken directly from previous lectures she has given as a member of the sustainability taskforce of a group called the American College Personnel Association (ACPA). And it’s important to observe that portions of Rowe’s content are identical to that of Kathleen Kerr, the director of residence life at the University of Delaware, in her own ACPA sustainability presentations. Her lecture at a living-learning conference in Syracuse in 2006 contains slides that match slides from Rowe’s 2009 PSU talks. These include Rowe’s slide on “Key Places to Place Sustainability,” the one on “All of us engaged as effective change agents,” and one on “Learning Outcomes”:

Learning outcomes:

1.      Each student will be able to define sustainability.

2.   Each student will be able to explain how sustainability relates to their lives and their values, and how their actions impact issues of sustainability.

3.   Each student will be able to utilize their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality.

4.      Each student will be able to explain how systems are interrelated.

5.      Each student will learn change agent skills.

6.      Each student will learn how to apply concepts of sustainability to their campus and community by engaging in the challenges and solutions of sustainability on their campus.

7.      Each student will learn how to apply concepts of sustainability globally by engaging in the challenges and the solutions of sustainability in a world context.

Kerr was the architect of the U Delaware residence life program that was shut down in fall 2007 after being exposed by the National Association of Scholars and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The program, nicknamed “the treatment,” required freshmen living in campus housing to attend mandatory reeducation sessions in which they were pressured to agree, among other things, that all white people are racist and that America is an inherently oppressive society. For more details on the case, see this page at FIRE’s website. 

Rowe continues Kerr’s bulldozer approach. On one slide she anticipates faculty and staff members’ excuses for not wanting to getting on board with the movement. The two she lists are “Already busy” and “Don’t know all this stuff.” Notice how “I don’t really care about sustainability and would just like to focus on teaching, please” is not an option. The “solutions” she provides aren’t reassuring. She calls uninterested people society-destroyers: “Sustainability is everyone’s job. Doing nothing is not benign – it is a destructive decision for society.” And she calls sustainability activism “good business and smart academics.” 

Does Higher Education Need a ‘Whole System Shift’?

Smart academics? More like, “You’ll be smart to do whatever we say—or else you’ll be sorry.” Rowe and sustainability advocates are moving in on the university with the intent to change individuals, higher education, and the culture at large. One set of notes from the conference called for a “whole system shift” to change the paradigm, purpose, policy, and practice of higher education. 

Is the university in need of a whole system shift? The National Association of Scholars thinks so. We believe that higher education is true to its purpose when it transmits civilization’s legacy in an environment of rational discourse, intellectual openness, and respect for individual merit. Few institutions meet that standard, which is why the NAS exists. We are a reform organization; we see something wrong with how higher education is conducted today and we think many changes are necessary if it is to move in the right direction. But our view of the ideal university—a place where competing ideas are debated and weighed on their merits and where the pursuit of truth informs education—stands in contrast with the ideal of sustainability advocates—a place where one idea reigns over all and the pursuit of sustainatopia informs education. 

The drive to enlist all college students as “change agents” by creating a “shift in the norms” and a new “culture,” is at bottom a movement to undermine higher learning. It makes learning lower by adding in an unnecessary element to disciplines like mathematics that have no use for sustainability in the curriculum. It creates an ideological litmus test for faculty and staff members when sustainability is implemented into university policies. And it takes away students’ choices by asking them to make lifestyle choices like trayless dining, bans on bottled water, and sustainability pledges. Most importantly, the sustainability movement is based on advocacy, which distracts from education rather than adding to it. 

Advocacy, insisting on a certain point of view and suppressing those who dissent, seems to have been the motive behind Michael Mann’s troubling emails. Will Penn State, so nurtured in sustainability, give him a fair investigation?

Environmental stewardship may be a worthy cause, but it should be an option, not a mandate. Penn State must remember why it exists and stick to its educational mission.

[1] Download Riley’s Powerpoint

[2] Download Rowe Powerpoint 1, Download Rowe Powerpoint 2

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