Proven Commitment to the Climate

Ashley Thorne

It’s good to be right. ...Or is it?

During this past year, NAS has been saying that as the leading dogma in higher education, sustainability is becoming the new diversity. We’ve projected that as “diversity” melds into uniformity, sustainability’s turbines will get pumping. And sure enough, Inside Higher Ed now reports that colleges are ready to use a “climate action litmus test” in hiring new campus leaders.

“Diversity,” of course, enjoyed its heyday. Six years ago, Peter Wood noted in “Proven Commitment to Diversity” that “for almost a generation, large numbers of colleges and universities...have stipulated that every senior administrator declare himself or herself ‘committed to diversity.’” Back then, a group of university presidents and higher education organizations urged President Bush to file an amicus brief supporting racial preferences in the Gratz and Grutter Supreme Court cases. At the time career ads for colleges’ top executive positions openly specified that qualified candidates must possess a “demonstrated commitment to diversity.” They didn’t mean a principled commitment to making the university open to all. They meant a hang-tough approach to identity politics that favored racial preferences in admissions and delivering resources for grievance-based groups on campus. The word “diversity” was (and still is) a rainbow-colored smokescreen.  

These stipulations are still seen today. Applicants for Vice Chancellor of Administrative Services in the Yuba Community College district must submit a “Diversity Statement.” A candidate for Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at the Pennsylvania College of Technology is only qualified if he/she shows “sensitivity to diversity and multicultural issues.”

And in the current story of Virginia Tech’s new promotion and tenure policy, faculty members’ jobs depend on whether their university service makes “contributions to diversity.” The Promotion and Tenure Guidelines state, “The committee expects all dossiers to demonstrate the candidate’s active involvement in diversity.”

But on the whole, policies like these seem to be losing their capacity to excite students and faculty members. They now seem so shopworn, so routine, so yesterday. Diversity was always a top-down ideology, invented by establishment figures and useful as a way of domesticating more radical energies. It didn’t even come from academic theory, but from some haphazardly argued Supreme Court opinions—first, the Bakke case in 1978, and then the Grutter case in 2003. It must be hard for the campus left to get itself ginned up over a theory first enunciated by the former Richmond, Virginia school board chairman turned Supreme Court Justice, Louis Powell, and ratified (in 2003) by the Reagan Republican Arizona lawyer, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.   In any case, the sense is palpable on campus that “diversity” is now more an administrative ideology than a coherent system of belief. In that regard, it bears some resemblance to communist ideology in the waning days of the Soviet empire. The only people who profess to believe it are those whose paychecks depend on it. 

Unfortunately, the exhaustion of the diversity ideology doesn’t mean the stage is being cleared of illiberal, utopian fix-everything-now schemes. We aren’t going to enjoy an ideology-free interregnum. Like a pendulum in a Newton’s cradle, the next ball has already come swinging out as the trend’s successor: sustainability.


As we have also previously pointed out, the two doctrines are not incompatible. Sustainability generally has three pillars (or circles, illustrated in a Venn diagram): social justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. Each of these justices aims to set right “the oppressive systems that have existed and continue to function in society.”

We first began to notice sustainability when it was used in conjunction with the residence life program at the University of Delaware. Ideological in character, the program imposed a new pedagogy in Residence Life: agree or be shamed. Its curriculum declared that the educational priority was to teach “citizenship,” in which a student must “become an engaged and active citizen by understanding how your thoughts, values, beliefs, and actions affect the people with whom you live and recognize your responsibility to contribute to a sustainable society at a local, national, and global level.” Sustainability, it seemed, was the most direct avenue to progressive activism that liberal administrators could come up with:

Sustainability provides a mechanism to take a comprehensive look at the interconnections that exist between ecological, economic and equity issues such as global warming, pollution, health and poverty and work towards lasting solutions (Edwards, 2005). While students will not be prepared to, nor are they expected to tackle these complex topics during their freshman year, it is imperative that they begin to develop a value system that considers how their actions contribute to the further augmentation of these issues. As such, sustainability provides a viable conduit for citizenship education and the development of a particular values system.

The program’s director, Kathleen Kerr, was considered a pioneer of a new kind of “educational” dorm life in which students are urged to develop a “libratory consciousness” and “learn change agent skills.” She wanted to debunk the myth that “sustainability is mostly about the environment.” On the contrary, she argued, sustainable development could be expanded to cover “social justice aspects” such as "Gender Equity," "Affirmative Action," "Multicultural Competence," and "Domestic Partnerships."

Since discovering sustainability at the root of the Delaware indoctrination regime, we have seen it spring up in various forms throughout higher education. UCLA last year began offering sustainability themed housing. Unity College, the University of Washington, St. Petersburg College, Baldwin-Wallace College, Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of South Florida, and others have launched new programs in sustainability. Still others, including Arizona State University and Benedictine University have added concentrations in sustainability and business College graduates around the country are moving into jobs as eco-administrators. An anthropology professor at Emory University has argued that sustainability is a sensory “way of knowing” that is “separate from the rational.” And in this financial crisis, when employees are being laid off left and right, sustainability officers’ jobs remain secure.

Like a tidal wave sweeping over thawing icebergs, sustainability has swept over academe. By now, 620 college and university presidents and chancellors have pledged their institution’s allegiance to fighting global warming. The American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) is worth examining sentence by sentence. First, the statement of belief:

We, the undersigned presidents and chancellors of colleges and universities, are deeply concerned about the unprecedented scale and speed of global warming and its potential for large-scale, adverse health, social, economic and ecological effects. We recognize the scientific consensus that global warming is real and is largely being caused by humans.

Richard S. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at MIT, recently wrote a paper (“Climate Science: Is it currently designed to answer questions?”) in which he tells how the myth of scientific consensus is created. He notes that simply declaring that all scientists agree on an issue is strategic in two ways: “First, the bulk of the educated public is unable to follow scientific arguments; ‘knowing’ that all scientists agree relieves them of any need to do so. Second, such a claim serves as a warning to scientists that the topic at issue is a bit of a minefield that they would do well to avoid.” These college presidents are recognizing, not scientific consensus, but political consensus.

Next in the Commitment, the rationale:

Campuses that address the climate challenge by reducing global warming emissions and by integrating sustainability into their curriculum will better serve their students and meet their social mandate to help create a thriving, ethical and civil society.

The most telling line here is “meet their social mandate.” Colleges have created a campus atmosphere that prompts students to become activists, lobbyists, change agents, protestors, agitators, fist-raisers, justice warriors, solvers of the world’s problems, builders of utopia on earth. And advocacy isn’t simply an option (“Get involved if you want to”). Rather, “Meet your social mandate” is their way of saying, “Fulfill your destiny—the one we made up for you.” And then we see the not-so-altruistic reason why colleges feel a need to set students’ agendas:

We further believe that colleges and universities that exert leadership in addressing climate change will stabilize and reduce their long-term energy costs, attract excellent students and faculty, attract new sources of funding, and increase the support of alumni and local communities.

Ultimately the push for sustainability, like the push for diversity, is tied to competition. You can imagine the thought process: If this is what attracts students, donors, and alumni support, this must be the way to go. It’s worked for other colleges...Our competitor just inserted diversity language into its mission statement; we better do the same...Down the road they just put in a new rock-climbing wall; we can’t let that lure students away from us...I heard that this college is giving iPhones to all new freshmen—what can we give our freshmen to beat that?


Potential Achilles Heels

While it may be good that “healthy” competition exists between institutions, some kinds of competition tend to lead to profligate conformity. This is why 620 college executives have gotten on the climate commitment bandwagon. Below the document’s belief statements are a list of practical steps to achieve “climate neutrality.” But that’s not all. The Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), which sponsors the commitment, has created a supplement providing further guidelines for the committed. Launched in April, AASHE’s wiki/book, Climate Planning for Campuses: A How To Guide, is a lengthy, detailed eco-textbook filled with delightful little subheadings like “Aiming for ‘Deep Conservation,’” “LEED Silver is Not Good Enough!” and “Some Potential Achilles Heels—Ventilation, Lighting, Windows.”

Section 2.8: CAP [Climate Action Plan] Institutionalization shows the need for universities to make climate action a business priority, not just another option:

Success requires that climate action become an integral part of the way your college or university does business – day to day and over the long run. In other words, climate action needs to become institutionalized, part of “business as usual.” The challenge here is making sure that successful institutionalization doesn’t push climate action into the background. Your CAP and climate commitment need to be raised to a high profile and remain there.

A major part of institutionalizing climate action means implementing it into the academic curriculum:

Higher education has an obligation to lead in creating a healthy, just, and sustainable society.

It is essential that campus climate action plans address the curricular component of this problem by making climate change and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students. Curriculum changes should involve all students given the critical nature of the climate and sustainability challenges we face and the urgent need for future professionals, leaders and citizens in all disciplines to be engaged and part of the solution to these problems.

AASHE is currently putting together an academic guidance document, to “assist with the transformation of higher education for the 21st century.” Transformation—that’s another concept we’ve been observing. It has connections with another architect of the Delaware res life program, Shakti Butler. According to Butler, transformative learning is an "intuitive, imaginative, or spiritual process" that produces "structural shifts in thoughts and feelings." Butler elucidates, “Expanding and evolving human consciousness supports social transformation that embodies joy, peace and equity for all people.”

We’ve called these folks “sustainatopians” for good reason.

In any case, eco-activism is marching on into the classroom. AASHE provides a list of “some other specific ideas for greening academics.” Here are a few:

  • Establish a sustainability graduation requirement
  • Conduct your greenhouse gas inventory or campus environmental audit as a student or class project
  • Participate in national climate change awareness raising and action initiatives like “Focus the Nation” and the “National Teach-In on Global Warming”
  • Encourage and empower student environmental activism and clubs
  • Organize an annual campus climate summit
  • Invite nationally renowned expert speakers on climate change and sustainability to your campus
  • Create Student Life residential environmental education initiatives such as “Eco-Reps,” on-campus sustainable living opportunities, etc.

Students aren’t the only ones who may face something like a “sustainability graduation requirement.” Section 10.4: What if Your President Leaves? boldly prescribes a climate action “litmus test” when hiring new campus leaders:

One danger or contingency all colleges and universities face is that a supportive campus president will leave and be replaced by a new leader who is not as interested in developing or implementing a CAP. If this happens, a lot of ground can be lost. Thus it is imperative that campus supporters of your climate commitment and CAP strongly insist that the selection process for new campus leaders include a climate action “litmus test.” While all new college and university leaders can be expected to bring to their job a list of their own priorities, it is essential that climate protection and climate leadership be among their top concerns.

If despite these efforts the new president is less supportive, it is important that there is a broad and deep awareness and support of your campus climate action plan among faculty, students, staff, alumni, and trustees, so that any loss in momentum is minimal.

Have universities already begun to administer climate action litmus tests to measure whether faculty, students, staff, alumni, and trustees possess “a broad and deep awareness and support” of the reigning CAP?  As far as we can tell, not yet. Only one out of all the current Chronicle of Higher Education career ads requires candidates to “support Board adopted sustainability principles.”

But with 620 colleges and universities stampeding on in allegiance—now steered by AASHE’s how-to guide, that litmus test is not far off. The case of Virginia Tech’s diversity assessment was enough to chill the atmosphere for faculty there. We’ll be watching for the sustainability equivalent, which will sacrifice freedom of conscience for a green regime of ideology supreme.

Coming soon to executive job ads in higher ed: “proven commitment to sustainability a must.” Which might be translated in advance, “Those committed to free inquiry and academic integrity need not apply.”

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