Higher Education and the Gift of Desperation

A version of this appeared in Medium 17 July 2018. 

1_l4G88i80VlcMfTcpvkRpOQ.jpegA fully integrated complex adaptive system. Angel Oak, S. Carolina


“….. a faltering economy has raised questions in the public’s mind about the value of a college education and every revenue stream upon which institutions of higher learning depend has come under pressure.” – Drew Faust, President of Harvard 2013


 

I recently helped to conduct a workshop for a group of faculty facing large program cuts at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. UWSP will eliminate 13 majors, including English, history, philosophy, art, sociology, political science, geology, geography, Spanish, German, and French. Layoffs of tenured faculty are unavoidable and imminent. To justify the cuts, system administrators cited large budget shortfalls and falling enrollment. My colleague and I brought current thinking on curriculum design and program development to help this coalition of the willing envision a future. The situation is dire and it is legitimate to ask why upper administration had not long ago taken steps to cushion the blow of downsizing. Continue reading “Higher Education and the Gift of Desperation”

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. Continue reading “Keeping the Torch Lit: Higher Education During The Great Disruption”

Higher education in the environmental century

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

 “….what we’re doing today with greenhouse gas emissions — which is just a moment when you look at the geophysical timescales — has consequences for decades, centuries, millennia.” —Ricarda Winkelmann, Climate Scientist, Potsdam Institute, 2016

“Mobilizing to save civilization means restructuring the economy, restoring its natural systems, eradicating poverty, stabilizing population and climate, and, above all, restoring hope.”Lester Brown, Environmental Analyst, 2008

Planetary_Boundaries_2015.svg_-e1443474306989
Planetary Boundaries (Image credit: Azote Images/Stockholm Resilience Centre; Wikimedia Commons) Planetary boundaries according to Rockström et al. 2009 (doi:10.1038/461472a) and Steffen et al. 2015 (doi:10.1126/science.1259855). The green areas represent human activities that are within safe margins, the yellow areas represent human activities that may have exceeded safe margins, the red areas represent human activities that have exceeded safe margins, and the gray areas with red question marks represent human activities for which safe margins have not yet been determined.



Two overarching imperatives have come together to provide the framework for my lifework. The first of these is the long emergency driven by the existential threats of climate change and biosphere transformation. As a scientist, I have felt compelled to make my academic life relevant to these threats, which are illustrated above as safety margins for human activities. My research on the ecology of tropical forests has been meaningful in this context, but in early 2000, I became increasingly aware that higher education is broadly failing to prepare generations of students to face the unfolding crises of the environmental century. Thus, the second imperative is the need to transform higher education to provide students and professionals with the understanding to respond to profound disruptions of our biosphere and civilization. This represents a new paradigm of relevance for higher education, and increasingly students are asking how they can be a part of a meaningful response to these challenges. Continue reading “Higher education in the environmental century”

Higher Education in the Environmental Century LLC

Gainesville, Florida, 9 February 2016.

HEEC v1.1

Stephen Mulkey, PhD, principal

 

Today I am announcing the creation of an LLC dedicated to providing practitioners in higher education guidance for administration and curriculum development to support a sustainable civilization.

(Mulkey CV)
Continue reading “Higher Education in the Environmental Century LLC”

Curriculum for sustainability in the environmental century

This is the opening keynote address to the national conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education held in October 2015 in Minneapolis. Here I outline my argument for the curriculum reform necessary to meet the environmental and sustainability challenges of the coming decades.

I don’t know that my recommendations are the only path forward, but I assert that it is high time for higher education to get off its duff and embrace a new form of relevance. When I have presented these ideas at various institutions, I typically get nodding heads and smiling faces, and utterly no willingness, or perhaps ability, to act. The silos of our institutions have walls that are thick and high.

I offer the mirror test as a thought experiment for any administrator or faculty member who reads these words:

In ten years will you be able to look in the mirror and say with integrity and conviction that you did the best you could to bring about positive change and needed reform?

I am sure that some of you will think me preachy and overly righteous. Perhaps so. But, I believe that the purpose of our fine careers is not to be comfortable. We are afforded the highest privilege of civilized society. We are paid to be intellectuals, and we are asked to give back in the form of scholarship, research, teaching and outreach.

I am merely suggesting that we direct our efforts to addressing the greatest challenge in the history of our species.

This seems like a reasonable and timely proposition.

Twelve lessons I wish I had learned in college

Commencement address December 2015

“We only want you to be happy……”
– Your parents

Rarely have I accurately predicted what would make me happy. Ironically, happiness often seems to be an unintended consequence of my inability to get what I want.

“The purpose of life is not happiness but worthiness.”
– Felix Adler

But, worthy for what? Who determines what is worthy? Continue reading “Twelve lessons I wish I had learned in college”