Heat domes, low-density campuses, and what we can do: two excellent readings

As I write this post two major crises are hitting the world in ways which bear closely on higher education’s future. Across the world very high, even extraordinarily steep temperatures are striking certain regions from Siberia to Canada, causing humanitarian and environmental damage while reminding people that the climate crisis is proceeding. At the same time colleges and universities are adjusting, amending, tweaking, or just tossing out plans for fall term operations as they track COVID-19’s potential impact during the race between vaccines and variants. Once again we cope with the overlap of coronavirus and climate change.

So I’d like to recommend two excellent articles, one on each topic.

To begin with, many academics were anticipating a return to wholly in-person activities as COVID infections declined and vaccinations spread.  Yet that picture of the short term future is now cloudy. A sizable chunk of people in some developed nations are steadfastly refusing – excuse me, “hesitating” – getting vaccinated, pushing the date of populations hitting herd immunity further and further away. At the same time new virus strains are racing across the globe, notably the delta variant, at least keeping the disease at pandemic levels, if not kicking off new regional or local outbreaks.

What does this mean for fall 2021?  What should campuses do to prepare? Only a few campuses are mandating vaccines for their student population, and fewer still for faculty and staff.  As of this writing 327 American colleges and universities have issued such a mandate, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s tracker.  That’s around 12% of academic institutions in the United States.  Clearly most campuses here are holding off on such requirements for now.

Yesterday’s Future Trends Forum session raised another strategy.  Karen L. Pedersen, the dean of Kansas State University’s Global Campus, Kim Siegenthaler, associate provost for Online Strategies at Georgia State University, and the Forum community explored what remote work for faculty and staff could look like.  We touched on various policies, mechanisms, and general possibilities for campuses to require in-person, on-site work versus off-campus operations.  I floated the idea of a HyFlex work configuration. Here’s the full recording:

What about remote students? We didn’t deeply address various forms of remote teaching.

That’s where my friends and colleagues Eddie Maloney and Joshua Kim come in.  This morning they published* an update on their low-density university model, and that’s the first article I wanted you all to read.

Maloney and Kim start by referencing Karen Pederson’s Kansas State University, which has published a framework for faculty and staff locations, a “Remote Work Continuum.”

Remote Work Continuum

Note that it positions two extremes as polar opposites (I think of them as “fall 2019” and “spring 2020”), but it also provides three different modes for blending them.  KSU breaks those down by scheduling, space, and population.  Note, too, how faculty and staff can choose options – again, you can see why I think of this as HyFlex work.  (Here are our two discussions with the creator of the HyFlex model, Brian Beatty: 1, 2. The Frank Nerd offers a remarkably brisk summary.)

Eddie and Josh then compare this workforce question to the educational one:

Decisions among campus academic units to move to some version of remote and hybrid work serve as much to create the low-density university as the decision to shift residential courses to blended and online delivery methods.

They compare the Kansas model to their own continuum of teaching across different levels  of presence:

Low Density U 15 versions_Maloney and Kim

Which leads them to this conceptual reframing of fall:

Instead of thinking about the future of academic staff work as either “on-campus” or either “100% remote”, we should instead be thinking about the range of “more on-campus” and “more off-campus.”

Then, taking this further than 2021:

Going forward, the “traditional on-campus model” may end up being the exception. Reserved for those ever-rarer cases where some form of hybrid work does not make sense.  And the extent to which 100% remote work will grow remains an open question.

Read on to see where they take this idea.  Call it low-density, hyflex, blended, but we seem to have glimpsed a new median for academia.

The second article I’d like to recommend focuses on the other crisis, climate change.  Journalist David Wallace-Wells starts off by summarizing the past month’s string of dangerous heat events, including both excessive dryness and drought as well as too-high humidity. He goes further, raising different ways we can think through such events. One is to see them as confirmations of climate science. Another is realize that these occurrences are the latest in a series, that we’re already waist-deep in the climate crisis.

A third is to consider extremes.  Wallace-Wells cites Sarah Miller’s personal reflection on the crisis, and quotes her conclusion: “[A]ll the right words about climate have already been deployed. It’s time for different weapons.”  Those links are to a Swedish activist’s argument in favor of violence as a tool in pushing humanity to decarbonize.  Some of you know this is a theme I’ve been tracking for a while.  Campuses may be early sites for its appearance.

A fourth is to consider that we are living in an ongoing emergency, and to act practically to adapt out of it with minimal damage.  He offers an impressive list of things to accomplish now:

early warning systems, dramatically expanded cooling centers, and forecasts featuring wet-bulb temperatures, when it comes to heat waves; rebuilding infrastructure, energy infrastructure particularly, to make it resilient in the face of new climate extremes; retrofitting homes and “future-proofing” agriculture by developing new strains of crops that can thrive, or at least survive, in our brutal new world…

[D]efensive infrastructure, such as sea walls and levees, or large-scale controlled burns of forests in places like the American west, or driving mosquitoes extinct through genetic engineering so they don’t begin spreading tropical diseases like dengue or malaria as far north as Scandanavia in the decades ahead. According to models developed by Portland State’s Vivek Shandas, simply “greening” cities through more grass and green roofs, lighter building colors and more tree canopy…

This is different from sounding the alarm. This is a call for practical action.

The author cites University of Waterloo professor Moreno-Cruz, who urges “climate realism”:


How much of the world is in that mental space?  How much of higher education?

Two powerful articles.  Now I’m off to work on more chapters.  Stay safe, everyone.

*How do they write so much?!  Josh is a column-generating machine, writing nonstop for years at IHE while working full time at a major research university.  And Eddie manages to teach, run the amazing CNDLS office, help run a graduate program, and still co-author articles and books.  They are astonishing people.

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6 Responses to Heat domes, low-density campuses, and what we can do: two excellent readings

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, when you get the chance please get an interview with Robert D. Bullard, the father of Environmental Justice “EJ”). The effects of climate change will not be felt evenly, and there continue to be vested interests, including major donors, who will profit from the latest wars, famines, and pestilence.


    • Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

      In 1979 Bullard’s wife, attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, represented Margaret Bean and other Houston residents in their struggle against a plan that would locate a municipal landfill next to their homes.[5] The lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc., was the first of its kind in the United States that charged environmental discrimination in waste facility siting under the civil rights laws. Houston’s middle-class, suburban Northwood Manor neighborhood was an unlikely location for a garbage dump except that it was over 82 percent black. Bullard, having received his doctoral degree only a couple of years before, was drawn into the case as an expert witness. In this role Bullard conducted a study which documented the location of municipal waste disposal facilities in Houston. Entitled ‘Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community’, the study was the first comprehensive account of ecoracism in the United States. Bullard and his researchers found that African American neighbourhoods in Houston were often chosen for toxic waste sites. All five city-owned garbage dumps, six of the eight city-owned garbage incinerators, and three of the four privately owned landfills were sited in black neighborhoods, although blacks made up only 25 percent of the city’s population.[6] This discovery prompted Bullard to begin a long academic and activist campaign against environmental racism. “Without a doubt”, Bullard has said of his experience, “it was a form of apartheid where whites were making decisions and black people and brown people and people of color, including Native Americans on reservations, had no seat at the table.”[1]
      From wiki.
      Sadly, when it comes to corporations and their flunkies, we’re all mouse-potatoes now.

  2. Joe says:

    We either adapt or collapse. Earth will abide without our civilization just fine. One of my students who is very active in women’s issues put it best. She reminded me “put a human face on climate change and people will begin to act, just as they do on women’s issues.”

    We also have the actuarial fact that more young people believe in this than do their elders, at least in my personal experience. For that reason I am guardedly hopeful.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Agreed on the first point. More human stories are usually good.

      Also agreed on the second. This may require generational succession.

  3. Jeremy Stanton says:

    It’s interesting to consider the intersections between post-covid models and climate adaptation. Assuming the remote learning and work is to all be done digitally, it requires internet/digital technologies powered by cheap and stable sources of energy. But, thinking about the recent (and forthcoming) extreme heat events in CA and the US West, how much digital remote work can be done in an era of increasing “de-energization events” (see https://www.bloomenergy.com/bloom-energy-outage-map/)?

    I wonder if we can leverage the low-density University models to create models that are also low-energy, to create new models that are resilient and adaptive in the face of pandemic and climate events. If some campuses ultimately must be abandoned due to sea-level rise or extreme heat, low-energy+low-density models might be best positioned to continue operating.

    Could the hybrid experience go beyond “recorded lectures, digital learning materials, online discussions and digitally formative assessments” to also include on-site experiential learning activities, teaching/learning that is embedded within communities, distributed university models, and de-institutionalized higher education systems?

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