Talking with college presidents about the climate crisis

What might colleges and universities do about the unfolding climate crisis?

somewhere over the midwest from a plane 2023 January

Over the American midwest.

Several months ago* I had the opportunity to join a meeting of campus presidents.  Nearly all were from the United States, fairly dispersed geographically. Institutions ranged in size, but tended to the small and medium.  I also met with other people in this setting: some deans and provosts, plus a range of vendors pitching themselves to presidents.

I was invited to lead a discussion about climate change and higher ed.  Our session was moderately attended, neither ignored nor crowded, and did compete with a clutch of competitors.  I kicked things off by speaking quickly to the main themes of Universities on Fire: multiple levels of academic engagement and impact; the grand strategy big picture; potential political drivers for institutional action; the problem’s urgency.   I compared change to great historical crises which academia participated in, such as WWII and the Great Depression. I also pitched the idea of campuses expanding climate operations to attract students.

Next, Colorado College’s president described a whole series of things they had done: targeting, then achieving net zero emissions, including through renovating many buildings; creating a campus Office of Sustainability; some carefully chosen carbon offsets for travel; more climate-focused classes (“28 out of 30 academic departments at CC offer courses that focus on sustainability”); student-professor research collaborations; a teaching and research in environmental education (TREE) semester where students “live sustainably” and teach K-12 kids; environmental- and sustainability-themed study abroad; convincing the local city to use more renewable energy; decommissioning a local power plant. One key point appeared from this impressive report: students taking climate action helped their mental health.

Pacific Union College wasn’t to be outdone. They did a lot of work on fire threats, which climate change is escalating, as I wrote about in Universities on Fire (p. 41): cross-training faculty and staff on emergency response, clearcutting a firebreak around buildings, massively thinning underbrush in the remaining woods, hosting a helipad for airborne assistance, and more. They also did water reclamation, put some acres in a land trust, made their cafeteria all plant-based (some religious backing here), added more climate classes, and set up a conservation technology major.  The latter is pretty rare.

The audience (a mix of presidents and other folks) had some questions. How to incentivize faculty to work on climate? Several answers from the panel: a growing number of faculty will be interested anyway; set up an interdisciplinary climate research or teaching center; built the topic into gen ed.  A TIAA representative asked about changing campus investment strategies. I mentioned student activism on endowment divestment (ex: Harvard). One president described following an ESG policy. Someone else warned about greenwashing. One president wanted to know about data showing students were attracted to climate classes; I didn’t have this to hand.  One nonprofit head argued that students are very passionate about the climate crisis.  The president of one non-US university wanted to say the energy crisis (caused by Russian war) was relevant to climate change.

I also took in a panel on technology and higher ed and asked panelists to talk about green computing, or how campus tech should change to respond to the climate crisis. One president candidly said they hadn’t thought about it and would look into the topic.  Another said he thought of the question in terms of space, as in technology enabling their institution to potentially need fewer offices and perhaps no new buildings.  He also noted that we are finally making progress towards the paperless office idea, which has good environmental effects.

Beyond those two panels, I visited every session I could and spoke with many people in hallways and wherever I could find them, from presidents to vendors and staff.  One president told me she wanted to install a solar panel array on campus to generate some power sustainably, but ran into two problems.  First, it wasn’t cheap and their state government wasn’t supporting such efforts. I think she meant expenses both financially and politically – i.e., convincing stakeholders to undertake the capital layout. Second, there was another political challenge. That campus bought electricity from a local  source (I wasn’t clear if it was a utility or non-utility business), and the president didn’t want to offend them by started to compete with them.

Another president from a conservative campus in the southeast told me her students weren’t interested in climate change.  “Mostly, they want bigger trucks,” as she put it. I asked if her institution might develop a brand of *not* doing climate action, and if that might attract some students.  The president wasn’t sure.

There was a very interesting session on dealing with institutional boards in hyper political situations. Its chair asked the crowd to volunteer stories along those lines, and there were several. One only addressed the climate crisis. A president described her  campus as facing two different populations, geographically: one group passionately devoted to fracking as an economic growth engine, and another, more urban, keenly interested in environmental activism. Both had representation on the institution’s board, so how to handle these opposites?  The solution: first, the president said she never made ideological statements on climate issues, aligning with neither bloc.  Second, she helped faculty (and staff, I think) win grants, which pleases nearly everyone.

Several food vendors were interesting.  One appeared twice, in their normal guise and also with a green food unit. When I asked each business about climate change, every one had a response ready to go, concerning serving less meat and fewer animal products, or trimming their greenhouse gas emissions, or taking other steps.  Yet beyond the one green food unit none led with these – except their photos tended to be of plants, not meat.  Plenty of fruits and nuts, in other worse, and no steaks.

Some climate change themes emerged across these discussions.  First, presidents seemed more interested in climate when it was a local matter than as a national or global issue.  Second, nearly nobody brought up the topic.  Climate just wasn’t a leading issue.  There were plenty of others to worry about!  DEI, enrollment, finance, state politics, changing students, COVID, and more.   Now, presidents often spoke of  “sustainability,” but that was usually in the financial sense.

My overall takeaways: schools like PUC and Colorado College are outliers, early adopters, the first wave of potential change to come.  Institutional leaders are interested in pragmatic, not ideological or political, efforts.  Many are nervous about climate’s political charge; I think they saw plenty of downside risks in publicly committing to climate adaptation or mitigation and few upsides.

*Details relatively anonymized. At least one reporter openly roamed the event, but I’m not sure every participant felt they were speaking publicly.  Colorado College and PUC were happy to share their work.

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1 Response to Talking with college presidents about the climate crisis

  1. Robin Cox says:

    It is interesting, that none of these universities or colleges seem to be focussing on climate, adaptation education. I recently designed and launched a masters program in climate action leader ship with an emphasis on transdisciplinary learning, climate, adaptation, and using an open pedagogical framework. see: MACAL@.royal roads.ca. Post-secondary education has a critical role to play, and responsibility I would argue, to lead in the upskilling of our workforce to address, both climate mitigation and the greening of the economy, and climate adaptation. This is a Cross Centre Cross disciplinary skills gap and opportunity. It is my experience that students are interested in and looking for ways of integrating climate concerns in their education whether it is specialized and focused on climate, as the MACAL program is, or integrated in existing programs through the addition of courses and course content. Post-secondary education and training institutions should be leading this work, especially as the climate action space intersects with and should incorporate EDI (climate Justice and just transition) and engages students in developing 21st C competencies such as collaboration, effective communication, inter- and trans-disciplinary thinking, agile and adaptive mindset etc.
    Robin

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