The future of higher education and climate change, part 6: California on fire

For two weeks I’ve been blogging about possible futures for higher education in an era of climate crisis (all posts found here).  I wanted to take this post to address what looks like an early example of climate change hitting academia, and hitting it hard.

California fires, 2019Let’s start from the assumption that climate change bears at least some causal responsibility for this month’s California wildfires.  Changing temperatures and weather patterns have led to a drier season than normal, leading to larger and more destructive firestorms.

How have they hit Californian colleges and universities?  What can we learn from this experience?

Elin Johnson has an excellent account at Inside Higher Ed.  Read it, of course, but here I’ll extract some of what seem like key institutional actions to me.

Offering social services Colleges and universities may choose to provide non-academic support.  For example, counseling: “When it reopens, [Santa Rosa Junior College] will be offering mental health services and support groups for students and employees impacted the situation.” Or providing food and space: “Humboldt has opened the doors of its dining hall, the Jolly Giant Commons (the J), to students, staff, faculty and their families to eat for free during the shutoff… On Sunday night… they served 1,500 people.”  Or medical supplies: “San Francisco State provided faculty and students with masks for the poor air quality…”

Repairing the campus physical plant Damages must be repaired, of course.  For example, “[Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park  associate vice president for strategic communications Paul] Gullixson…  noted that Sonoma State will need to do a lot of cleanup regarding landscaping due to the high winds.”

Relocating members of the campus community Not every student can relocate themselves away from campus and to safety.  For example.

Sonoma State evacuated those who live on campus. Around 3,000 students of 8,000 enrolled live on campus at Sonoma State and have had to find housing elsewhere… For those few dozen students who had not gone home or could not find housing nearby, Sonoma State provided space in their workforce housing facilities.

Adding new communications Emergency communications are challenging now, as so many platforms are available and none is universal.  The web might be one of the best options:  “Humboldt has created its own page on its website exclusively meant to update community members on the power outage situation.”

Humboldt State closure notes

Suspending research work Some research effort depends on high levels of infrastructure support.  Without that support: “Power outages earlier this month threatened research projects at the University of California, Berkeley,”

Suspending certain services and activities Some institutions paused some offerings: “The unhealthy air quality in the area has led to Mills [College] canceling outdoor classes like physical education and closing the pool.” Nearby, “San Francisco State’s Estuary & Ocean Science Center activities and field trips were canceled.”

Modifying the academic calendar Every climate crisis incident can mean delays to intensely structured academic schedules.  For example, “Mills officials… have built flexibility into their academic calendar in case they need to add seat time to the semester…”

Using digital tools Beyond purveying announcements, digital technology can help campus communities continue their work when people are no longer colocated.  “Chinyere Oparah, provost and dean of faculty at Mills College in Oakland… noted that the increasing use of digital tools has made adaptability smoother.”

There is also the problem of competing technologies.  NPR reports that helicopter pilots are trying to avoid drones.

Working with local public services Campus don’t always act on their own.  For example, “Mount Saint Mary’s Chalon campus was evacuated by the Los Angeles fire department…”

Closing campuses temporarily This happened across the state:

  • “The University of California, Berkeley, canceled its Monday daytime classes…”
  • UCLA announced Monday that it was canceling classes…”
  • “Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park closed through at least today…”
  • “Humboldt State University in Arcata will be closed through Tuesday…”
  • “Santa Rosa Junior College announced closures through Wednesday due to impacts from the Kincade fire such as ongoing evacuations and power outages.”
  • “San Francisco State University’s… Romberg Tiburon campus closed due to Marin County power outages.”

Note that reasons for closures were various, including fire damage, electrical power cuts, and dangerous air quality.

Coping with knock-on effects It’s not always a simple case of cause and effect.  Notice what led Sonoma to evacuate some of its population: “the university’s water-pumping mechanism was impacted by the power outage, which meant their fire-suppression capabilities were restricted…”  Bad weather->electrical outage->internal fire-fighting is weakened->student evacuation.  What other causal chains should we anticipate?

Collaborating with other colleges and universities It seems obvious, but isn’t easy to do, so it’s good to see inter-campus aid occurring.  “Gullixson painted a picture of campuses coming together and supporting each other, saying that Chico State, San Francisco State and others have reached out offering their support.”

What can we learn from all of this?

First, the California fires story shows us a range of actions that colleges and universities can take, from closing to collaborating, offering mental health and evacuations.

Second, many of these are costly.  Campuses may be advised to put money away for such incidents and to draw on insurance.

Third, campuses need flexibility and vision in dealing with such climate threats.  The pressure may be simple of complex, and hit different institutions in different ways.  We have to be ready to change operations just about anywhere in the full range of college and university functioning.  We also should be ready to collaborate.

Fourth: communication is vital.  I’ve been hearing negative reports of California’s utility failing to convey correct information in a timely way; this is inexcusable.

Fifth, and related: I’m unclear about how each of these campuses reacted in terms of governance and populations.  Which offices and people organized those actions and reactions?  What was the faculty role?  How informed and empowered were students?

Keep an eye on how academia scrambles to deal with the climate crisis.  It isn’t going to get easier.

Final note: all best wishes to everyone hit by these fires.

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