What might colleges and universities do about the unfolding climate crisis?
Several months ago* I had the opportunity to join a meeting of campus presidents. Nearly all were from the United States, fairly dispersed geographically. Institutions ranged in size, but tended to the small and medium. I also met with other people in this setting: some deans and provosts, plus a range of vendors pitching themselves to presidents.
I was invited to lead a discussion about climate change and higher ed. Our session was moderately attended, neither ignored nor crowded, and did compete with a clutch of competitors. I kicked things off by speaking quickly to the main themes of Universities on Fire: multiple levels of academic engagement and impact; the grand strategy big picture; potential political drivers for institutional action; the problem’s urgency. I compared change to great historical crises which academia participated in, such as WWII and the Great Depression. I also pitched the idea of campuses expanding climate operations to attract students.
Next, Colorado College’s president described a whole series of things they had done: targeting, then achieving net zero emissions, including through renovating many buildings; creating a campus Office of Sustainability; some carefully chosen carbon offsets for travel; more climate-focused classes (“28 out of 30 academic departments at CC offer courses that focus on sustainability”); student-professor research collaborations; a teaching and research in environmental education (TREE) semester where students “live sustainably” and teach K-12 kids; environmental- and sustainability-themed study abroad; convincing the local city to use more renewable energy; decommissioning a local power plant. One key point appeared from this impressive report: students taking climate action helped their mental health.
Pacific Union College wasn’t to be outdone. They did a lot of work on fire threats, which climate change is escalating, as I wrote about in Universities on Fire (p. 41): cross-training faculty and staff on emergency response, clearcutting a firebreak around buildings, massively thinning underbrush in the remaining woods, hosting a helipad for airborne assistance, and more. They also did water reclamation, put some acres in a…