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How to Study Sustainability in College: As a Separate Degree or as Part of a Traditional Program?

Should universities offer distinct undergraduate degrees focusing on sustainability or should the ethos of sustainability be integrated into existing degree platforms? This question is not trivial. Treating it as an either/or choice has derailed efforts to promote sustainability at institutions of higher education.

Arguments within the academy about whether to offer degrees “in sustainability” can become heated and fractious. Superficial reasons against offering such degrees are that sustainability is too broad a topic, that sustainability means everything and thus nothing, or (most commonly) that there is no clear career path for graduates. These reasons fall apart under careful scrutiny. There are career paths, as I have blogged previously, and their numbers are increasing. Moreover, sustainability offers a way to organize a liberal arts education, and thus prepare students for graduate studies in business, public administration, law, build environment, planning, environmental professions, and a host of other career paths that increasingly demand sensitivities to the broader context of the human condition sustainability offers.

Arguments for using sustainability as an organizing principle for liberal education are resisted because sustainability challenges the hegemony of the Western Classics model. Seen in this light, sustainability is a radical idea. It provides an ecological frame—interconnectedness and interdependence—from which to view the world, and thus provides a different, and I believe necessary, perspective with which to evaluate progress, justice, and humanity.

But the biggest reasons sustainability initiatives are resisted on university campuses are as old as the institutions themselves: turf and identity. Turf battles exist in all institutions. Administrative units in universities, such as departments, colleges, centers, and associate provost offices, get established, funded and staffed. New ideas and programs that might compete for resources, visibility, and status meet with resistance because of a zero-sum-game mentality: we lose if they grow. Sustainability initiatives, thus, get viewed suspiciously from every administrative unit on campus, even if in the end they may help all programs achieve their missions.

Sustainability also threatens the identities of faculty. We faculty are an egotistical bunch. We have invested years, sweat, and, sometimes, financial sacrifice in advancing and defending our ideas, our science, or profession. We write and speak to audiences who think and feel like we do—we call it peer review. We voraciously seek new information, but mostly we mine only from within the narrow silos containing ideas similar to ours. We spend our careers developing and testing tools that solve our problems and training students to think like us and carry those ideas in to the future. In short, the people and ideas we know—who we are and how we know the world—are tethered to the ideas we have planted in the past.

Then someone comes along and says we should instead be emphasizing sustainability? They have the gall to suggest that what we’ve been doing is not sustainable? Are they suggesting that our careers have been wasted? That we are no longer relevant? That those long hours of sacrifice were misdirected? That cannot be so! Everything we do is a sacrifice for and investment in the future—is about sustainability. To suggest otherwise is to challenge our very identity. You must be mistaken.

And there discussion stops. When identities become threatened, heels dig in pretty deep.

Universities from Appalachian State to Arizona State and from Columbia to Florida have navigated these minefields and are offering degrees focusing explicitly and specifically on sustainability (see the complete list at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education). I applaud the leadership of these universities and encourage others to follow, using sustainability as an organizing principle for new degrees. Don’t let egos stop the change we need. And yes, I also believe we need to raise the profile of sustainability in existing degrees, disciplines, and professions. Business majors need to understand the environmental and ethical dimensions of their economic enterprises. Engineers should examine the life cycle analysis for their designs. The social sciences must explicitly embed their problems in the biosphere. Chemists and biologists must see beyond the molecule or cell, to consider broader social and environmental scales. And arts and humanities must challenge and inspire us to deal with one of the greatest challenges facing humanity—how to live together on this planet.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.

Posted on: April 4, 2011, 9:00 am Category: Sustainability and Education, View from the Lectern Tagged with: , , ,

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. How to Study Sustainability in College and Universities | Alliance for Sustainable Colorado linked to this post on April 5, 2011

    […] R. Bruce Hull’s blog How to Study Sustainability in College: As a Separate Degree or as Part of a Traditional Program? on the Getting to GREENR blog sheds more light on the internal debates happening on campuses among […]

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