A version published in the Gainesville Sun 3 September 2021
The mission of higher education is the maintenance and renewal of civilization. This statement comes as an epiphany to many who hear it for the first time. Public higher education in the US has been diminished at the hands of legislatures and business interests who believe that higher education exists solely to serve the economy.
This is belied by the data on what makes a student successful after college which shows that skills such as critical thinking and communication are of primary importance. Such transferrable skills are not designed for a specific market or industry, but rather reflect the outcome of faculty and institutions dedicated to a higher purpose.
The University of Florida is failing in this mission, and not just because it too frequently focuses on training students for specific jobs. More importantly, it is failing to protect the future of students through a new 30-year commitment to fossil methane as a source of energy to service an ancient steam-based infrastructure, and it is failing to protect the health of the University community by not implementing a vaccine and mask mandate. Given the astonishing damages from climate change over the last few years, and as more than 55,000 students return to the Gainesville area, it is impossible to argue that these two failures do not constitute a crisis.
A watershed moment for courage on climate and COVID has arrived and UF leadership has utterly failed. Arguably the ultimate cause of mission failure at UF is the state legislature and the governor. The political mandates that ideologically driven lawmakers have imposed on the state university system make it difficult, but certainly not impossible, for institutions to service a progressive agenda. President Fuchs made this abundantly clear during the recent Town Hall meeting with the university community in which he pointed to controls emanating from Tallahassee as the excuse for his complicity and lack of courage.
The consequences of the climate crisis are beyond dispute. We are out of time and out of any conceivable excuse for not acting. Yet the administration is supporting a plan to install a new power plant fueled by fossil gas rather than retrofit our campus to remove dependence on steam, which is generally created by burning fossil fuels. The combined heat and power design of the new plant will reduce, but not eliminate, fossil emissions. This has been moving forward quietly and large sections of the UF campus will be under construction for an extended period as this antediluvian agenda unfolds.
In Florida state government there is no meaningful programming on climate change and certainly no agenda to protect people and property as the consequences of 40 years of climate change denial play out. Our students who wish to stay in Florida after graduation will need to fend for themselves. Our ecosystems are failing, and insurance underwriters are pulling back. There will be little help from the state as this nightmare unfolds.
As the capstone of my almost 40-year career, I teach three courses on climate change and one on global change ecology to UF undergraduates. This year I am advising students to develop a personal strategic plan that includes how they may adapt to climate change and cope with the mess that they have been handed. I advise them to put science at the center of their planning regardless of their major. Numerous faculty stand ready to advise them as they chart this perilous path.
Failure of the UF administration to take a stand on these issues reflects an astonishing lack of responsibility to serve the overarching mission of higher education. I was president of a small liberal arts college in Maine for almost five years. I made some tough decisions and dealt with hard situations. In 2012 I led Unity College to become the first institution of higher education in the US to divest its endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies.
Today, more than $17 trillion is in the process of being divested and this includes numerous public institutions of higher education. UF’s investments are mostly shielded from the Sunshine Law because they are housed in the University of Florida Foundation, which is not subject to public scrutiny. As a president who took a significant fiduciary risk to honor a moral commitment, I am appalled that the UF administration would demonstrate such a profound lack of courage as to simply roll over and accept the use of fossil gas for a new powerplant.
I call for a vote of no confidence in this administration. It is time for us to push back on an agenda that will contribute to destroying the future for our kids and sicken or kill many Floridians in the near term. It is time for faculty at UF to demand better of our leaders.