Sunday, October 25, 2009

Accountability for the PSU sustainability movement

"It is my firm conviction that the great universities of the 21st century will be judged by their ability to help solve our most urgent social problems."
—William R. Greiner, President, State University of New York, Buffalo,
Universities and Community Schools, 1994

Three weeks ago Penn State held its
Educating for Sustainability conference. I just want to follow up on that and show people a little bit about what came out of it in the form of voluntary commitments.

We decided on some "Top priorities" as follows:

1) Multi-pronged marketing (including social networking) to shift the culture, internally and outward to society.
University-wide Sustainability Council to promote systemic change and culture shift.
3) Shifting curricula - throughout the disciplines and in the general education core.
4) Professional development required in sustainability for faculty and staff.

These four seemingly simple things will take some time to accomplish but we need to not drag our feet. As a group we are part of 1, 2, 3, and 4. We hope to change our culture and its values. If there is to be a council on sustainability, then as a group we need to make sure that our voice is represented and that we participate responsibly. As future teachers we have to be concerned about curricula that we are being taught and will be teaching. Finally, as professional educators, the systems of rewards made available to us and that we develop should reflect our values and good practices that emphasize sustainability.

In an article I've just read, Ira Harkavy of the University of Pennsylvania wrote:
If colleges and universities are to fulfill their potential and really contribute to a democratic devolution revolution, however, they must function very differently from the way they do now. To begin with, changes in “doing” will require colleges and universities to recognize that, as they now function, they constitute a major part of the problem, not a significant part of the solution. To become part of the solution, institutions of higher education must give full-hearted, full-minded devotion to the hard task of transforming themselves and becoming socially responsible, genuinely engaged civic universities. To do that well, they will have to change their institutional cultures and structures and develop a comprehensive, realistic strategy.
And that means, foremost, sustainability. What universities are "doing" right now through
our curriculum, operations, purchasing, development, missions, and culture is educating the future graduate to be the neediest, most consumptive, wasteful, parasitic organism that has ever lived on planet Earth. I don't say this because I believe people want to be this or that this is the only effect of a college education. But it is the most important ecological outcome that has profound economic and social effects as well. Harkavy's "genuinely engaged civic universities" should use the term "civic" to be a comprehensive environmental term such that the university helps to shape culture that addresses needs and not wants, obligations not entitlements, responsibilities and not whims.

I think it's our duty to make the quotation that opened this post true. We must judge our institutions by how well they help us solve the greatest problem humanity has ever faced - climate change. So keep your eyes peeled on these matters because we have to move the Penn State juggernaut toward more and more sustainable practices. As part of the conscience here, we have to act as it and hold it accountable.

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