How might academia grapple with the climate emergency over the next years and decades?
Today I’d like to offer a simple schema to start conversations. Some of you know I’ve been research this topic for years (Universities on Fire is available for pre-order!). Now I want to share a quick and productive (I hope) way into the topic.
The schema has four pieces. Each one embodies and imagines one strategic direction a college or university could take. That’s a general way of understanding its allocation of scarce resources, including money, labor, and attention. It can represent a whole institution or parts of it.
The parts are Conservation, Adaptation, Mitigation, and Migration.
- Conservation A campus focuses its resources on maintaining itself into the future. Its population, from senior administration to students, may or may not see that future as meaningfully shaped by the climate crisis. The vision of what these academics seek to conserve may be drawn from the present or recent history.
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It could also be partial, neglecting some details – i.e., a focus on one swath of the curriculum, for example. We could imagine an alumnus wanting to conserve the business program, their fraternity and sister sorority, plus the school’s sports teams, while a current student hopes to see the physical campus and the undergraduate program persist, etc.
- Adaptation The institution recognizes the deep and present threat of the climate crisis and seeks to modify itself accordingly. Depending on the school’s situation, this could involve work on the physical front: building barriers against growing waters or desert; elevating buildings against flooding. It may include curricular and research efforts to meet anticipated student and intellectual world needs, such as: increasing climate research efforts and support; expanding climate-related classes, departments, and programs. On the town-gown side, the adaption mode may mean partnering with the local community on resilience efforts. Campus digital activity may change as well, perhaps by offering more online work to reduce in-person travel as that becomes costly financially and reputationally, or reducing computing efforts deemed too productive of greenhouse gases.
- Mitigation A college or university sees itself not just reacting to climate dangers, but playing some active role in fighting the unfolding crisis. This could take many forms. On the physical campus side, the institution could take many steps to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions: shifting its transportation fleet to electrically powered vehicles and encourage academics to do the same; changing food services and agricultural programs to reduce both CO2 and methane emissions; re-sourcing campus power away from fossil fuels, either by offshoring or on-site production; etc. Faculty, staff, and students may reduce travel by CO2-intensive means, especially jets and individual cars. Academics engage the local community in greenhouse gas reduction.
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- Migration A school decides to move its physical location away from a danger zone, such as a coastline, desert edge, or site where wet bulb temperatures will likely reach dangerous heights too often. This migration might be total, as in moving the entire suite of institutional offerings and much of the physical plant to a better spot. It could also be partial, such as opening and expanding a branch campus, gradually transferring more operations there over time. It could take the form of a multi-institutional merger, gradually shifting population, classes, research, and other services to a school in a safer location.
To begin with, we can use this four-fold schema to describe a given college or university’s stance towards the climate crisis at a given moment. Further, an institution could select one of these frameworks and stick to it for years. Alternatively, one could switch between these four options, depending on leadership changes, how the crisis plays out locally, the impact of large-scale politics, and the community’s understanding of the crisis, among other factors. For example, one campus might start in the Conservation mode, then change to Migration with the arrival of a new president and new board members, then, with the next administration, abandon that position and do Mitigation instead.
It’s also possible that a given institution adopts two or more of these positions at the same time. That could be done as a deliberately mixed policy – i.e., “we’ll plan for Migration while doing Adaptation in the meantime.” Multiple modes could also occur in a decentralized institution, as when, say, a very autonomous graduate program Adapts while the undergraduate school Conserves.
We might also use this schema to depict a range of attitudes and practices within a single college or university. To clarify, we can visualize the overall scheme easily, like so:
A campus could occupy, simply, one of those four cardinal points. Or, as said earlier, it could change positions over time, zigzagging across the schema.
And another institution might occupy several points at the same time, with divided ideas, views, and practices:
Note the group in the middle, not taking a cardinal position. Some proportion of any campus will likely occupy that space, at least for a time.
In conversation about this scheme, my friend and colleague Ruben Puentedura suggested adding a systems level of analysis. That lets us think of which systems a given campus choice engages, as well as what kind of feedback loops result. I noodled with this and produced a table:
A different idea arose from my Patreon supporters (you can join them!), who wanted to make space for a fifth campus category, one which went further than the four. This one describes a campus which adopts a crisis stance, mobilizing its population and different institutional parts to struggle with global warming at its most important mission.
Several Patreons offered the term Revolution, which fits neatly in with the previous four at a grammatical level.
Four positions or five, I invite readers to build on and experiment with this schema, and welcome your feedback to this post.
(thanks to my brilliant Patreon supporters and several friends, plus my daughter for essential graphic design advice)