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The Need for Sustainability Studies in Higher Education

Climate chaos, food riots, ocean dead-zones, culture wars, rising inequities and other indicators of change suggest human civilization must soon address the challenges of sustainability.  Universities–one of our greatest assets–can play a critical role.

Responding to this need, and riding the wave of student interest in things green, colleges have begun offering new courses, minors, certificates and whole degrees in sustainability. The Princeton Review, a popular guide for students choosing colleges, now publishes a Green Rating Honor Roll to help prospective students find institutions of higher learning with environmental practices, policies and classes that match their green interests.

There seem to be two models for teaching sustainability. Both have merit.

Universities can insert sustainability content into existing majors, expanding on and adding to traditional disciplinary and professional expertise.  Students in engineering, literature, chemistry, forestry, business, music, medicine and every other academic program can be helped to see their world through the lens of sustainability and affect change with the tools and talents at their disposal.  We certainly need capable people to staff the current institutions that run society.  The time for excuses is over.  Every major should address sustainability.

Alternatively, universities can create new programs out of whole cloth, programs that inspire a new way of seeing the world and problem solving.  Robert Costanza, respected sustainability scholar and director of the Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices at Portland State University, argues that “universities in the U.S. have not yet risen to this challenge and many sustainability initiatives have dissolved into fragmented, tinkering reforms that fail to address the underlying workings of our complex socio-ecological systems.”

I agree.  The challenges of tomorrow can’t be fixed with the tools of yesterday.  We need to weave together environmental, economic, and ethical principles and practices into new degree platforms that empower people to create a future different than the one being created by 20th century degrees and institutions.

What should these college degrees and majors look like?  We need to experiment. Numerous examples are emerging.  Students, employers, and politicians must help shape them and protect against greenwashing the ivory towers.

Editors Note: Look to this blog in the future for some answers to this question, and please feel free to offer some of your ideas in the comments section of this blog.

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 GREENR.

Posted on: August 18, 2010, 11:29 am Category: Opinions, Sustainability and Education Tagged with: , , , ,

3 Responses

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  1. R. Bruce Hull said

    Departmental structure, disciplinary silos, and promotion and tenure constraints are easy targets, in part because they present real barriers to the interdisciplinary collaboration needed to meaningfully address topics related to sustainability. But they are not insurmountable! Budget issues, student demand, teaching technologies, and the shifting emphasis between teaching and research all create opportunities for change and the emergence of sustainability programs. The university of today will look very different 10 years from now. What do we want the sustainability programs to look like in those universities of the future?

  2. I agree with Daniel’s comment–decentralized departments that don’t communicate (and worse, don’t see a need to), undermine campus sustainability efforts. Students are the ones who suffer. –Alison Erlenbach

  3. I agree that sustainability presents a core challenge to the “silo” mentality that has existed in academia since the middle-ages. For too many, the question about sustainability in higher education is “Where to put it?” when the real question is whether academia should undergo a radical restructuring in order to address and actually respond to today’s growing environmental and social challenges. I look forward to following this discussion.

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