As Temperatures Rise, Universities Must Change


Guest blogger Marcus Peter Ford is the author of Beyond the Modern University: Toward a Constructive Postmodern University. He lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he is involved in creating a new, ultrasmall college focused on earth-centric education.

We are currently on track to having the hottest year ever, breaking the record established last year. We also set records for warmth in 2013 and 2014.

common_good_slideAnd yet, to date, climate change has had little impact on how we understand the purpose of higher education. On university campuses, almost no attention has been given to transitioning our global society into one that is ecologically sustainable and just. In their current manifestations universities emphasize employment, scholarship, research, and personal enrichment as their educational missions. Under different circumstances, these are admirable goals. But in a time of global environmental crisis, they are not sufficient.

Institutions of high education ought to serve the greatest needs of the civilization in which they exist. The greatest need of our civilization today is understanding how to live justly and joyously within the bounds of the natural world.

In my recent essay in the September–October Academe, “Education for the Common Good,” I argue that we must create a different kind of university. What would a university given to these ends look like? How would it be structured and how would it be evaluated in terms of success? These are matters we need to be attending to. There is no reason to believe that the current structure and modes of evaluations would be appropriate to a university given to these new ends.

Repurposing universities does not happen often, but it does happen. The universities of today bear only a family resemblance to the great universities of the Middle Ages. Universities are remarkably stable institutions because the needs of a civilization on themselves relatively stable, but sometimes the needs of society change dramatically. We are living in such times.

I am not at all confident that universities will take a leadership role in transforming modern culture or in enabling young people to understand the social and environmental implications of modernity. The odds are slim, about the same as the chances that a sitting Pope would resign and a new Pope from a developing nation would be elected. My point is that sometimes the improbable occurs.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.




4 thoughts on “As Temperatures Rise, Universities Must Change

  1. I’m not sure I agree, although I did attend college in Jamaica where virtually no one debates about whether or not climate change is real.

    At my university, for instance, environmental studies was a mandatory course. We studied the environment, and how human and commercial activities affect nature for the worst, and how that in turn affects us.

    I think we also covered climate change and industrial activities quite a bit when we talked about economics, and business management.

    • Alexis,

      I am very pleased to learn that, at least in Jamaica and perhaps elsewhere, environmental studies is a required course. So far as I know, this is not the case at any major US university. It certainly has not been at the three universities I have taught at. I am also pleased to learn that, at least in Jamaica, courses in business management make human-caused climate change a topic of concern. I think that this is extremely common in business management courses in the US.

      • There were a number of universities in the 70’s and 80’s that had a major focus. AASHE, the american association for sustainability in higher education has a large and growing membership and have their conf 9-12 2016 in Baltimore. The Society for Ecological Economics and many other academic disciplines have included these issues in their curriculum. Certainly if you review the areas of agriculture, environmental engineering, architecture and many others, these ideas are included. Other than the Earth Institute in Costa Rica there are few that have this as a core around which they revolve their entire institution.

        It is encouraging that academics are integrating these ideas into their courses. This is how the renewables succeeded rather than trying to recreate academia whole cloth. But the models for this and the experience is there to do this.

        Education is a lagging indicator but this is changing, probably rather rapidly.

      • Thank you Marcus,

        They first started teaching us about climate change from as early as 1st grade and drilled it into us every year. So being forced to do it again in university came as no surprise.

        I’m sorry to hear that American education doesn’t follow a similar path. I wonder why not.

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