Universities on Fire, one year later: glimpsing the present and a hopeful future

One year ago Johns Hopkins University Press published my book on the future of higher education and the climate crisis, Universities on Fire.  Today I wanted to look back on the book’s progress in the world, how academics and others have responded, and what I think I’ve learned.

Copies of the book on sale at Colorado College, where I gave a talk.

How do you measure a book’s fate?  Sales is a typical metric, and they have been good, higher than anticipated, according to my excellent editor.  That’s especially positive for a scholarly book published by a scholarly press, too (that means less marketing reach than a trade book).  I hope for more this year, especially from classes, so we can nudge forward paperback, audio, and second editions (so get yours now!).

What’s more important for me is that the book seems to have succeeded in stirring up some conversations.  I can see evidence for that from reviews (mostly positive) and articles, to begin with.  For example, Inside Higher Ed hosted a series of columns referencing Universities on Fire, as Josh Kim called on higher ed to act now on climate change.

Beyond articles, a good number of academics have written me with questions and support.  Some have invited me to give virtual presentations to classes, workshops, and conferences.  Various podcasts and other programs interviewed me about the book. (Let me know if you’d like me to Zoom, Skype, Teams, etc. into your event of choice.)

Some conversations are also what I’ve seen when giving talks in person.  From California to Qatar, Michigan to Virginia, I’ve traveled to present, speak, lead workshops, be in meetings, and to sign and sell books, all the while talking up the vital importance of the climate crisis for academia’s future and present. As a result there have been many discussions in conference rooms, hallways, bars, restaurants, vendor booths, and lines. (Let me know if you’d like me to visit your event.)

Meanwhile, while I’ve been traveling around, giving virtual presentations, and being interviewed for the past year, around us the climate crisis continued to ratchet up by all kinds of measures.  Global temperatures continued to rise.  Here’s the latest from the European Union’s Copernicus program:

Sea temperatures also rose to the highest level on record.  Here’s from the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer:

global water temperatures Maine Climate Reanalyzer 2024 March 31

See the thick black line on the top left?

Meanwhile, we’re had a run of various climate-influenced and -caused disasters.  Campuses have been hit, too,  in Canada (a terse campus communications sample: “A fire is burning near UBC Okanagan Campus. Evacuate.”), in California and Mexico. Smoke from those Canadian fires reached south as far as my family in Virginia. Some scientists saw climate warp or destroy their research subjects.  Desertification pressed on Mauritanian libraries. All of this should surely encourage public and academic attitudes to change, for actions to be taken, right?

Not exactly.  WWhile I’ve been stirring up conversations with my Universities on Fire tour, I have also experienced the opposite.  To be clear, I haven’t gotten much pushback this past year, and have yet to hear from a single academic climate denier. Instead, what I often encounter in public spaces is… silence.  Silence and resignation.

It’s easy to see when I give a talk on multiple trends facing higher ed, including demographics, technology, and climate change.  When I switch from AI to climate, audiences tend to become very still and quiet.  When questions follow at the end of the talk, they tend to avoid global warming in favor of other points from the presentation.  When I sign and sell copies of all of my books, people usually prefer the older ones.

In private, ah, I’ve had all kinds of fascinating discussions which expand on this silence.  College and university senior leaders (presidents, deans, chancellors) have told me that politics stops them from taking action or even making noises. They don’t see much interest from their faculty (none have yet mentioned students to me) and anticipate bad political risks.  I suspect the wave of controversies around Gaza protests since October solidified that attitude.

Faculty and staff give me other reasons for not acting, starting with being exhausted.  People will tell me they’re worn or burned out from the pandemic, from politics of various kinds, or from fear of institutional financial woes.  Some say they have very limited bandwidth and prefer to focus on topics which feel closer to their mission and for which they think they can have a greater effect: defending their profession from antiintellectualism, advocating for social justice, caring for their students.  A few told me that higher ed was too small or ineffectual to work with on the climate front, and that we’d be better off working with governments, businesses, or other nonprofits.

Across the board academics have told me they don’t see what they can do that would make a positive impact.  Many will mention things they’ve done in their personal lives which they see as small: switching from plastic to cloth bags, buying a hybrid or electric car, eating less meat. Beyond that they can’t identify any points of traction in their professional lives.  That’s where the resignation comes in.  Climate change is happening and we’ll have to bear it as we can.

That’s been the overall tenor of higher education, from what I’ve seen in my limited view as researcher. Personally, it’s been depressing at times.  There’s the frustration of spending years to craft a book and then see people deliberately turn from its message.  Widely circulating news of the worsening climate crisis heightens the frustration.

And yet.

The past year has also stirred my optimism.  For every ten academics who fall silent when the topic arises, one will tell me about what they’re thinking and doing.  Professors share what they’re teaching on the topic and discuss their pedagogical development. Grad students tell me about their studies and how climate impacts them – one told me they were rethinking their PhD work in light of its carbon footprint. Physical plant staff described how they are shifting power sources to renewables.  Food services staff and vendors outlined their shift towards plant-based offerings.  Grants officers told me about getting funds from governments, nonprofits, donors, and companies to pay for transitions. Librarians have pondered collection development and protection.  Some academic scientists have become more focused and more outspoken about global warming.  New York state started to set up a climate change university on Governor’s Island.  Harvard students and faculty protested a professor sitting on an oil company’s board.

A happy Universities on Fire reader

A happy Universities on Fire reader

Architects and campus planners have been the most energetic on this topic.  Builders are trying to figure out how to make structures succeed for decades and their eyes are focused on climate impact: CO2 emissions during construction and operation, materials, carbon capture, biophilic design, the impact of temperature changes, and more.  An Illinois university re-sourced its electric power away from carbon.  Bowdoin College is redoing buildings to reduce their CO2 footprint.

Meanwhile, students are far, far more passionate on this topic than anyone else in academia, overall. Many have told me about being disappointed with what their campuses have to offer – even colleges which already do a lot with classes, internships, and local farming.  Some ask me about climate careers, and how to get their institutions to support them in them.  Students at six campuses filed legal complaints with their respective states.  Students are various campuses pressed their administrations to divest from fossil fuel holdings (for example).

I’ve seen some formal campus coalitions starting to appear.  For example, a Cornell University group of faculty, students, staff, and community members has been organizing and holding events – their name a humbling homage to my book, Cornell on Fire.

Outside of academia, various institutions are taking steps which impact higher ed on climate.  The Indian government mandated climate classesHealth care organizations around the world called on governments to reduce carbon emissions and to take other steps; this clearly involves faculty, students, and staff who work in allied health.  Insurers have stopped writing new policies for danger-prone areas like California, which suggest rising insurance costs and/or other problems for campuses in those places. And the governments of the world’s most powerful nations, China and the United States, asked academics to work on the circular economy because of the climate crisis.

Some of these thoughts are practical, material, tactical, immediate.  How can we change a building’s renovation? What should we ask our food vendor about meal options?  Other considerations reach farther afield, pondering the larger issues of how academia and humanity as a whole can transform in response to this awful challenge.

What I think we’re seeing is this:

If you don’t recognize it, it’s one example of Everett Rogers‘ innovation diffusion model.  Read it from left to right.  Any new thing appears in a population first with people who are innovators and early adopters, curious folks who tend to like change.  Then it might progress into the early majority, people who will try something if it offers a chance at incrementally improving their lives.  Next up are the late majority, who’ll adopt the innovation if it keeps their work from getting harder or worse.  After them are the laggards, who make a point of defying everyone else.  It’s a good model.  Not universally applicable, not perfect, but very handy.  There’s a lot more going on – check Diffusion of innovations fifth edition, which I happily teach every year – but this graph is enough for today.

You might guess I think academia as a whole is in the innovators-early adopters stage, and you’d be right. It’s a small number, a statistical minority of outliers and odd people who get climate change and are trying to do things about it. This is more than I saw two years ago. I think it’s rising.

But it hasn’t hit those big majorities yet.  Remember that they change behavior for different reasons than the early folk.  In fact, there’s a big leap to make from the latter to the former.  One book calls it a chasm and that’s not bad as a term.  Staff, senior administrators, and faculty in that circa 70% middle will have to decide that climate action is a good and useful thing, that it’ll help their work in certain ways.

Will this happen soon?  I’m not sure.  I noted obstacles up above. More, the 2024 American election will probably make things worse in the United States and elsewhere, especially if it shambles into 2025.   A Trump insurgency/second administration/etc. would likely embolden climate deniers and also give we academics a political priority to work on.  Other geopolitical events can have similar results.  So I’m skeptical about the short term.

Yet I think of the students I’ve met and otherwise heard from. They are aging into being grad students and staff.  Greta Thunberg’s generation will gradually grow across colleges and universities worldwide. I suspect they’d push for climate changes in their institutions.  Next, they become administrators, presidents, trustees. What might they do with that power?  How will they look back on our work today?

…and there I’ll stop.  Happy birthday, Universities on Fire.  Thank you to everyone who hosted me, talked to me, shared plans, and generally thought and acted on the climate crisis.  May your seeds grow.

(Rogers’ diffusion curve image via Wayne W. LaMorte)

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2 Responses to Universities on Fire, one year later: glimpsing the present and a hopeful future

  1. Elizabeth Dalton says:

    I don’t know if the usual innovation diffusion model is right for this topic. It works well to describe uptake of a new idea that provides some benefit to individuals, but in this case we have quite an old idea that has some frightening, even depressing implications that people are actively avoiding. There is no new skill or idea that will improve the outlook for the individual if adopted. The “stages of grief” metaphor might be a better fit (yes, I know it’s not backed by research). We are collectively grieving our loss of confidence in a future as enjoyable as what we have had (however irresponsible), and our realization that our survival depends on all of us acting to change. Most people seem to be stuck in the second or third phase: anger (at the messengers, at everyone who doesn’t seem to be listening) and bargaining (But I recycle my plastic water bottles! What if we buy carbon offsets for air travel?) I myself shuffle between depression and acceptance (which includes trying to act). When people told you they thought “higher ed was too small or ineffectual to work with on the climate front” I think that’s how everyone feels who accepts the problem.

    At a conference, you once called me an “astronaut from the future” (a memory I treasure). Now I feel like a refugee from the future. I know we can’t give up, no matter how bleak things look. I also have sympathy for those who are too overwhelmed to act.

  2. Bret Bernhoft says:

    I appreciate some of the core insights about how your book is doing. I’m presently writing a book, and was searching for advice, when I came upon your article.

    I can see why you wrote this book. And the impact that you’re searching to have with it. Which is inspirational for newbie authors like myself.

    Much appreciated.

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