Keeping the Torch Lit: Higher Education During The Great Disruption

squalid-campusA condemned campus building.

“….the way we have structured research and organized universities is not consistent with how reality works…..the sciences and universities are stuck in the disciplinary status quo they have been in for centuries.”  – Anders Wijkman & Johan Rockström in Bankrupting Nature. 2012.

“…..there has never before been a geological force aware of its own influence.”  – David Grinspoon in Earth in Human Hands. 2016.


Recently, while interviewing for an executive position at one of the few public autonomous environmental universities in the nation, a member of the faculty asked me why I would want to work at that institution. Although this seemed to be a standard interview question, I sensed a deeper meaning behind the query. Like most institutions of higher learning in the US, this university is facing administrative and financial challenges and has experienced several years of diminishing resources. It seemed to me that the question reflected the increasing loss of self-worth so common among faculty across the nation. In my over thirty years in the academy, I have never known faculty to feel so besieged and on the ropes.

My response was simple. I am an ecologist, so why wouldn’t I want to work at an environmental university?

In the face of accelerating climate and biosphere disruption, for me, there is no more Important task than reforming higher education. Beginning in the 1990s higher education has been increasingly treated as if it is not a responsibility of good governance and no longer part of the Public Trust. All US States have disinvested to the extent that public funding is now insufficient to ensure the creation of an informed and prosocial citizenry. The cost of higher education has been progressively shifted from society to students and parents. Adjusted for inflation state appropriations have declined by 25 percent between 1989 and 2014, a time when costs for labor, employee benefits, insurance, operations, and energy have skyrocketed.

Nationwide, tuition at public institutions has increased more rapidly than medical care, housing, food, and the consumer price index. In addition to the loss of public funding, tuition increases have been driven by administrative bloat and by excessive spending on facilities to compete for students and enrollment revenue. These trends have resulted in a continuous downgrade of the accessibility and quality of public higher education. Today, only those students with significant family resources or those willing to incur significant debt at market-based interest rates can pay for college.

Because of this progressive devaluation, the vaunted reputation of US higher education is not deserved. Here are some data from selected sources and a scholarly review of this crisis in The Great Mistake:

· For the first time in its history, younger people are demonstrably less educated than their parents. The US ranks 38th of 43 nations covered in a standard international sample of aggregate progress in attainment relative to the previous generation.

· The US college completion rate is now 56 percent, which is 29th of the 30 OECD nations.

· In another survey, the US ranked 19th among 23 developed nations in the proportion of entering students who graduate.

· California, the sixth largest economy in the world and long regarded as the greatest higher education system in the US, has shown some of the most striking changes. Its completion rate has fallen from 66 to 44 percent between 1996 and 2004. California’s per capita investment in higher education among states has declined from 5th to 47th. Tuition increased 60 percent from 2004 and 2008 and increased 32 percent between 2009 and 2011.

· The highly respected University of Minnesota system has seen funding per student fall 29 percent since 2008, and 45 percent since 2001. Data show similar trends for all big Midwestern universities.

· Nationwide, net student tuition doubled between 1989 and 2014.

· The US Department of Education now administers over $1.3 trillion in student debt.

The demise of US higher education is occurring at a time when we desperately need it to fulfill our ethical obligation to serve the renewal of civilization. In his recent book, Thank You For Being Late, Thomas Friedman identifies three simultaneous exponentially accelerating drivers of planetary change. These are (1) economic and cultural globalization, (2) global climate and biosphere disruption, and (3) astonishingly fast technological innovation. Paul Gilding has referred to the impending exhaustion of our natural resources and accelerating climate change as The Great DisruptionAlthough Gilding trivialized these trends by noting they will cause the “end of shopping,” the term “Great Disruption” accurately describes our unfolding global situation. Many observers agree that we are approaching the event horizon of an irrevocable transformation of our living planet. The central question remains — To what extent can human systems adapt to these changes?

The classically wicked problems created by accelerating global change require complex management rather than politically expedient solutions predicated on command and control. Higher education, especially the social sciences and humanities, lays the foundation for collaboration rather than conflict, which is utterly essential for the survival of civilization. We need people who can integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines and understand tradeoffs among possible solutions. Investment in higher education is a keystone investment in strategies for adaptation to the accelerating transformation of our planet.

However, public colleges and universities have responded to the withdrawal of government support by adopting business strategies that have increasingly privatized higher education. Although good business practices are valuable in the public sector, the application of business models that treat various parts of the university as cost centers and revenue centers has progressively subverted academic autonomy and forced institutions to pass costs to students and parents. Many of the support functions necessary for the operation of colleges and universities have been externalized to private vendors, which may sometimes reduce costs, but in many cases, incurs higher overhead and sacrifices accountability and quality. Private industry and business have benefited from an increasing focus on training for specific employment tracks, thus externalizing their costs for training new employees. Because different aspects of higher education are managed on a return-on-investment basis, like most commercial enterprises, the mission of public higher education is increasingly secondary to the means of its survival.

It is no surprise that parents and students are demanding evidence of the payoff of their enormous investment in a college education. A college degree has increasingly become a commodity with an assessed dollar value over the lifetime of a graduate. Unfortunately, the overarching public good of producing critically-thinking informed citizens does not have an accepted market value.

The processes of privatization, externalization, and commodification have constrained the curriculum in dangerous ways. We need graduates with a holistic perspective and interdisciplinary skills in problem-solving. Often a degree track is so crammed with required coursework that the kind of interdisciplinary synthetic thinking so critical for understanding our long emergency has no place in the curriculum. I see four innovations that will improve our ability to rebuild a community of interdependent scholars and produce generations of problem solvers.

Creation of Integrative Curricula. In curriculums packed with requirements derived from an earlier era, it is impossible to sequentially teach the basics and expose students to new models of problem-solving. Presently, most institutions have requirements designed to achieve minimum standards of written and quantitative literacy. Students need far more. Expectations of minimum literacy must be expanded to include verbal, digital, information, normative, ecological, and sustainability fluency. Various curricular programs have been proposed that are integrative and include foundational skills in the context of understanding processes and systems. An example of a forty-year experiment in integrative undergraduate programming is the curriculum at The Evergreen State College in Washington. A more recent innovative curriculum is offered by the Olin College of Engineering. It matters less which of these approaches we implement than that we move quickly to foster students with these basic skills who can learn across multiple disciplines.

Creating Program Coherence. University curricula should represent something greater than the sum of their parts. But, degree tracks often exist mostly in isolation from allied disciplines. In an era of rapid environmental change, the connections to these other disciplines can significantly enhance the effectiveness of graduates who will face complex realities. Even intentionally interdisciplinary programs in environmental science are often little more than a smorgasbord of courses derived from traditional departments. Interdisciplinary synthesis should not be relegated to a capstone course or to the one or two electives that a student might take outside of their degree track. Degree programs should include linkages to allied areas of study at every level of instruction. Explicit program goals should reflect the need to train holistic practitioners who are familiar with a range of related disciplines. Highly successful programs such as those in sustainability at Arizona State University and those in resource management at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies gain distinction through coherence created by synergies among related curricular tracks.

Refocusing and Expanding Research on Critical Issues. As human and natural systems respond to Friedman’s three drivers of exponential change, I challenge all research faculty to ask themselves about the critical relevance of their work in the context of global disruptions of climate, ecosystems, and human systems. Rather than viewing the need to address these challenges as a hopeless exercise in the restoration of what is being lost, I suggest that we focus on managing for a regenerative natural and human ecology. The concept of regenerative ecology can be applied to more than just the rapidly transforming biosphere. It should include human social systems and governance. Rather than strict preservation, the overarching goal of research should be the development of management strategies that can maintain the form and function of ecosystems and human systems as manifold transformation ensues.

Developing regenerative capacity will require us to refocus and expand research in sustainability science, including the social sciences and the humanities that support interdisciplinary scholarship. Scientific literature is replete with papers describing the adaptive management of natural systems, but many of these studies fail to connect those systems to the human social and economic systems that determine the success of management. Rather than being treated as a second-class citizen of the sciences, social science must move to a respected seat at the table. Funding research that integrates natural and social sciences to focus on sustainability should be a top priority for federal agencies. Although NSF has recognized this critical need, this priority is often not reflected in the deeply held biases within the academic community.

Rapid Adoption of New Technology for Delivery and Creation of Knowledge. Higher education will continue to be revolutionized by innovations in IT that are occurring at blinding speed. We are at the beginning of what John E. Kelly III at IBM refers to as the Cognitive Era of computing. He notes that networking via Cloud Computing supported by countless servers and virtually infinite streams of data will produce algorithms that anticipate trends and provide solutions based on complex probability functions. In many fields of design, this has the potential to result in a cascade of breakthroughs. Instructional design is no exception. We should embrace these new tools for curriculum design and the creation of new pedagogies of teaching and learning. In a hyper-connected world, no institution can successfully sequester knowledge. Thus, program coherence will be enhanced through real-time sharing the delivery of knowledge among similar programs worldwide. The application of this enormous power for collaborative research holds promise for the discovery of new ways to address our global sustainability crisis.

History shows that an important determinant of the widespread adoption of a breakthrough technology is the time it takes for a generational change in users. Technology will never replace the need for human mentorship or the need for face-to-face collaboration. However, we cannot afford to be mired in the past and fail to use these tools to transform the delivery and creation of knowledge. The sophisticated tools of IT are a rare gift to higher education, and we should eagerly accept them.


Suggestions similar to these have been around for at least a couple of decades. Concerning environmental programming, these basic ideas were in wide circulation in the 1970s. Some institutions have made significant progress in curriculum reform and transdisciplinary research, but the majority continue to operate within the same disciplinary silos that existed in the 1950s. The typical divisions of the arts and sciences and applied disciplines within the university no longer adequately serve the needs of generations of students who will face the complex rapidly changing environments of this century.

Although austerity and the gratuitous forces of self-preservation have damaged the academy, as scholars we are not powerless. The tenets of academic freedom will continue to allow faculty considerable autonomy in their scholarship and the curriculum remains mostly the purview of the faculty. Faculty can take more control of their fate by capturing the efficiencies and economies of scale to be achieved through curriculum reform. We should insistently work with administrations to develop academic governance that can unleash the creative power of the academy for public outreach. Key improvements in teaching, learning, and research could make living with the privatization of higher education more bearable while preserving our ability to prepare generations to face the stark challenges of this century.

As Christopher Newfield points out in The Great Mistake, reversing the cycle of decline and dissolution in higher education will require society to assume responsibility for higher education once again as part of the domain of the public trust. Good business practice and efficiency will always have a role in the proper functioning of institutions, but foisting the collective public support of colleges onto the backs of individual students and parents endangers the American experiment to democratize education. There can be no American Dream without equal access to higher learning.

Lawmakers have accepted the assertion that institutions and faculty will axiomatically spend whatever resources are made available. This perspective is refuted by respected studies that reveal the nature and consequences of financial drivers in higher education. The “great mistake” was believing that austerity would foster ongoing gains in efficiency while not harming the quality, autonomy, and accessibility of American higher education. The evidence shows that this policy has so damaged higher education that nothing short of massive reinvestment can put us back on track.

Tony Cortese, a founder of the sustainability movement in higher education, suggests that it is time for a “grand bargain” to renew higher education through concerted engagement of “government, socially-committed industry, philanthropy, and the nonprofit sector.” The essential first step in this is for the academic community to reassess its contribution to the renewal and sustainability of civilization. The public needs expert guidance through civic engagement by those who understand the complexity of the human/nature dynamic. We have abundant knowledge about imminent threats and about the mechanisms of collaborative management, and we should immediately expand outreach and engagement with the public. Surveys show that scientists and scholars remain highly respected members of society. As research and innovation continue, we should create a pipeline for rapid communication of results to the public. Like the practice of “translational medicine” whereby the results of clinical research are quickly incorporated into clinical practice, translational regenerative natural and human ecology could quickly enhance strategies for adaptive management.

The academy is often a hyper-competitive work environment characterized by bullying and abusive conditions. The great irony is that being paid to be an intellectual should be joyous, but many early career scholars are working inhumane hours with meager prospects for success. Federal agency funding is the essential nutrient for academic success, but this is increasingly scarce with every passing budget year as more and more scholars compete. Congress continues to suppress funding for politically sensitive areas such as climate change and stem cell research, and this is likely to get much worse under the Trump administration. Competition for tenure-track academic appointments has never been so extreme, and the bar for achieving tenure continues to move higher. It is no surprise that many new Ph.D. candidates are purposefully developing their portfolios for a professional life outside of the academy.

I usually end my columns with a plea for building strong communities and here my plea goes out to the academic community. Additional resources for scholars are unlikely to come our way anytime soon. We must acknowledge this reality and make every effort to take care of ourselves. Despite appearances, we do not operate in a zero-sum work environment. If one team “wins” in the grant lottery, it does not mean that the other teams are less worthy or less adept. The single most important thing that administrations can do to foster a more humane, civil, and inclusive workplace is changing the reward system to recognize contributions of value that are presently minimized or not recognized at all. Your value as a scholar is not measured by the length of your CV or the dollars you have acquired, but instead by the integrity and impact of your work and the lives that you touch. To get through this dark period, we must build a strong community of intellectuals in which collaboration, outreach, and innovative knowledge delivery are valued, and scholars feel safe to share their dreams and fears.