The Sustainability Inquisition

Ashley Thorne

Do you teach sustainability? Do you research sustainability? Will you promote sustainability? Are you setting an example in sustainability? Give us details.

Rather intrusive questions like these are popping up in faculty surveys across the country. This week, two Argus volunteers—one on the East coast, one on the West—wrote to us after they were each startled by the bluntness of their universities’ inquiries.

Right You Are

While using American University’s database for recording faculty publications, one professor noticed something unusual. After filling in information on authors, the title, the journal, the year, the volume, the pages, whether it was refereed, whether it was international, who publishes the journal, etc.—he came to a box asking whether this was sustainability research.

He was baffled. “What is sustainability research, anyway?” he wondered. He looked for a definition and clicked on a link where he read:

“Sustainability research” focuses on a key principle of sustainability (such as social equity or environmental stewardship); addresses a sustainability challenge (such as climate change or poverty); or furthers our understanding of the interconnectedness of societal and environmental challenges. Sustainability research leads toward solutions that support economic prosperity, social wellbeing, and ecological health.

He wrote to us at NAS, “Although I was as recently as 22 hours ago skeptical of what you said about ‘sustainability,’ right you are.”

It’s unclear whether “sustainability research” is important to American University or whether the question was simply part of the standard database provided by the host company Digital Measures, which many other institutions use. What colleges and universities intend to do with the information also remains unclear. They likely use it to compete with one another, to reward faculty who do research on sustainability, or to increase their scores in campus green ratings. American U is a member of both the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS), which gives points for faculty involved in sustainability research—and the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which calls on its signatories to “expand research” in order to “achieve climate neutrality.”

In any case, the inclusion of this question in the university reporting system is indicative of a new trend in higher ed to assess campus progress in the march toward sustainatopia.

This professor saw confirmed what NAS has been describing: that “sustainability” has a lot going on under the surface. Let’s hop over to California, where we’ll be able to see what universities really mean when they push this fashionable doctrine forward.

There’s a Lot More to Sustainability than the Environment

Faculty members at San Diego State University recently received an email from Provost Nancy Marlin asking them to “take a few minutes to respond to San Diego State's first survey on faculty teaching and research related to sustainability.”

The survey asks nine questions. The first is, “Do you teach sustainability focused courses?” Fine print under the question explains that these are “Courses in which the primary content focuses on the Environment, Social Justice, Economic Equality, Human Health; Resource Management; Environmental Ethics, Economics or Law; Sustainable Tourism Management, Conservation and/or Preservation, Land Use Planning and Development, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Management.”

While such subjects as the environment, ecosystem management, conservation, and resource management make immediate sense as names for stewardship of the earth, a few aren’t so obvious. Social justice, economic equality, economics, and law don’t seem to be specifically “sustainability focused” or fit with the environmental theme.

That’s because there’s a lot more to sustainability than just the environment. For a great many of its proponents, the environment serves as a cover to smuggle in a host of other ideologies. As the University of Delaware framed it in its 2007 residence life materials, “sustainability is a viable conduit for citizenship education and the development of a particular values system.”

Part of that “particular values system,” we’ve found, is a proclivity to big government, economic redistribution, and politically correct preferences for certain identity groups. That’s how sustainability is able to include ideas such as social justice, economic equality, economics, and law. Indeed, the top of the survey says:

Sustainability curriculum and research activities are not limited to considerations of environmental impact of human development or climate change but include content on interrelated social, economic, ethical, and environment dimensions.

The tension between sustainability’s shared aims is commonly depicted in a Venn diagram, with three interlocking circles labeled “Environment,” “Economy,” and “Society.”

This intrusion into partisan politics and economics is what makes “sustainability” unfit to be “the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education,” as powerful advocacy groups such as Second Nature are trying to make it.

Green and Greedy

But let’s move on to the second, more important question: “Do you incorporate sustainability as a distinct course component or deal with a single sustainability issue in any of your courses that are not specifically sustainability focused? Please indicate how many courses you teach that have a sustainability related course component.

Selecting a number, 0-9, is the sole possible response here. Answering “no” isn’t an option—in fact, only four out of the nine questions have a “no” option.

This question is a net to catch all courses that aren’t explicitly sustainability focused (which are themselves quite widely defined). The implication is that there is no course that sustainability can’t touch, no subject too self-contained for sustainability to be squeezed in.

There’s where that phrase “the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education” comes in. Sustainability, say its advocates, should be the primary goal of academic learning. Not only if you’re studying to be an environmental engineer—or even an economist or lawyer—but also if you want to be a nurse, a mathematician, or a philosopher. Like diversity, sustainability doesn’t stop with administrators but turns a greedy eye toward the curriculum. And it won’t be content with just some of it.

The third question presses for specifics: “How do you incorporate sustainability into your courses that are not sustainability focused? Check all that apply:”

Readings on sustainability topics/ nature

Guest speakers or experts

Research activities

Service learning or study abroad components

Case studies

Internship/ Internship Courses

Projects or assignments

Provide information on co-curricular or community activities

Personal example (going paperless, saving paper etc)

Other, please explain 

Perhaps the most interesting option here is “personal example.” Even if a professor has legitimate reasons for not bringing in guest speakers or doing sustainability related activities in class, there is no reason he can’t adapt his own lifestyle to set the “example” for impressionable students. Leaving that box unchecked makes the professor look like a bad role model. The real mistake is that the university put it there in the first place, as it sets up a sort of trap.

Indeed, the questionnaire as a whole serves to back faculty members into a corner, to make them feel obliged to check something in order to appear to be doing what the university says they ought. The very creation of this survey shows the pressure put on faculty to conform.

A follow-up question to this one is intended to gauge faculty members’ commitment levels: “Would you be willing to integrate (or integrate more thoroughly) sustainability concepts in the courses you teach that are not sustainability focus [sic]? This may be phrased as a question, but its message is loud and clear. Essentially it means, “Get on board with our agenda.”

“No, it does not relate to my subject,” and “No, I am not interested in sustainability” are in the drop-down menu as options. It would be interesting to know how respondents who select these answers will be marked in the university’s records. Will they be asked or given incentives to reconsider?

Conforming Students to the New Ethics

The answer set for the fourth question is where things really get strange. Most courses are now required to announce in advance a list of student learning outcomes—things students should have mastered by the end of the semester. Student learning outcomes as a concept tends to encourage professors to come up with low aims and high-sounding words. Here are the ones SDSU wants to see, some of which sound as if they came from the educational jargon generator:

Do the courses you teach include any of the following student learning outcomes? Check all that apply:

Understand and be able to effectively communicate the concept of sustainability

Develop and use an ethical perspective in which students view themselves as embedded in the fabric of an interconnected world

Become aware of and explore the connections between their chosen course of study and sustainability

Develop technical skills or expertise necessary to implement sustainable solutions

Understand the way in which sustainable thinking and decision-making contributes to the process of creating solutions for current and emerging social, environmental, and economic crises

Contribute practical solutions to real-world sustainability challenges

Synthesize understanding of social, economic, and environmental systems and reason holistically


 “An ethical perspective”? We’ve seen sustainability’s strange, non-humanistic definitions of “ethics,” its stricter-than-Puritan moral codes, and its overtly religious nature. We’ve also seen that a nation’s manner of educating shapes the character of its people. So what character quality does sustainability ethics seek to instill in students? The ability to “view themselves as embedded in the fabric of an interconnected world.”

What does that even mean? It sounds more like burying your face in a planet-sized pillow than using “an ethical perspective.” The word perspective is also troublesome. Higher education’s role is not to tell students which perspectives they should adopt, but to give them the tools to develop their own.

Another checkbox item in this list is meant as a reminder of that Venn diagram. Can you spot it?

The survey’s last page asks respondents to indicate their department and whether it offered “sustainability-focused immersive experience programs.” It prompts them to list all “sustainability focused” courses they or others in the department teach, and to indicate whether they do any sustainability focused or related research.

There Is a Right Answer

In her email, Provost Marlin said that taking this survey is “critical” in order to “ensure that San Diego State is more competitive in many of the external ‘green’ ratings and rankings, which are increasingly important to students.” She does not point to any evidence that incorporating sustainability into more of the curriculum will give students a better education or give faculty members a deeper knowledge of their disciplines. The rationale, instead, is to do something that students think is important. This seems on plane with parents who appease their children by giving them whatever they want. Is that wise? Is it good for students in the long run?

SDSU’s choice to conduct this kind of assessment has some serious implications. Such a survey has the weight of institutional authority behind it. If you’re a faculty member and receive Provost Marlin’s email, you’re going to feel obliged to answer a certain way, and to indicate some eagerness to get on the bandwagon. Again, while there aren’t known incentives or consequences for answering one way or the other, this one-track survey says clearly, “Follow the pattern we laid out for you.”

This pressure means that many professors will exaggerate their interest in sustainability, which likely means the university will brag about its high faculty involvement rate. Green ratings will soar and outsiders (including prospective students) will get the “right” picture.

As of today, hundreds of college and university presidents have vowed to make sustainability “part of the curriculum for all students.” The president of Unity College declared, “It has to be ubiquitous, it has to be done by everyone, it has to be part of the whole infrastructure.” Colleges and universities are on the verge of a major overhaul of higher education to refit it around sustainability. Questions such as, “How do you incorporate sustainability courses?” are only the beginning.

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