Bringing It

Bringing It #99: Higher Ed in the Climate Crisis and Symposium Invitation

February 14, 2023

Dear friends,

How might higher education engage the urgent problems of our time? This issue of Bringing It spotlights several recent examples of higher education’s engagement with environmental, civic, and social justice issues, and how this engagement might lead to new educational practices.

Paul interviews BT2P’s Paradigm Working Group member Bryan Alexander about his forthcoming book, Universities on Fire: Higher Education in Climate Crisis. Alexander paints a vivid picture of how the climate emergency could transform campus infrastructure, curriculum, pedagogy, research, and campus-community relationships.

Big change is ahead, Alexander reminds us, but we have a role in determining the future. He points to emerging innovative practices that are already responding to the climate crisis: transdisciplinary programs, participatory climate research projects, and holistic support for students affected by climate change.

We also see many creative responses to the climate crisis. The proposal for an Environment and Sustainability curriculum at Georgetown, featured in a previous issue of Bringing It, is one example. Our friends at Civic Green provide more inspiration for models of multi-sector collaboration in their new report on civic innovation and climate change. Additional information and a link to the report can be found below.

Continuing the theme of higher education’s engagement with current issues, we also amplify the powerful op-ed by AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella and BT2P’s Paradigm Working Group member Mary Dana Hinton in response to Florida’s stance on the A.P. African American Studies curriculum. It is a compelling example of higher ed leaders articulating the values and commitments of higher education in the face of threats to democracy, collective inquiry, and racial justice.

Finally, we expect that many readers will be interested in joining the Symposium on Anti-Racist Community Engagement hosted by our friends at UMass Dartmouth on March 31 either in-person or virtually. You can find more details and a registration link below.

Transforming Higher Ed in the Climate Crisis

Bryan Alexander is a Senior Scholar and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and a member of BT2P’s Paradigm Working Group. He hosts the weekly online conversation Future Trends Forum and is the author of Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education and the forthcoming book, Universities on Fire: Higher Education in Climate Crisis.

Paul: Why don’t we start with an overview of your forthcoming book and why you believe it is urgent for higher education to engage the climate crisis.

Bryan: The main point of Universities on Fire is that the climate crisis may be the largest challenge facing higher education worldwide for the next 75 years, and it’s one that we have to start thinking about, planning for, and acting on right now. The book is structured to address the question in different domains, because the climate crisis is so large and complex that we can’t reduce it to a single action and response.

The first domain is the physical campus, including protecting a campus against potential danger from storms to desertification to sea level rise.

The second is the teaching and learning mission of a college and university. How do we create a climate curriculum? That is, do we have general education classes on the climate crisis? Do individual departments start offering more classes on this? Do we see more programs start to appear: minors, majors, certificate programs, or colleges within a larger university?

And then how do we support interdisciplinary study? Because this is a field which is incredibly transdisciplinary. Perhaps this is a way that the liberal arts really come in. We also have to support our students, some of whom may be climate refugees, or who have suffered climate trauma.

The third domain is research, because we know now that every discipline potentially researches the climate crisis. Do we see that happening within the domains of departments and disciplines? Or do we try to support new structures like transdisciplinary centers?

A fourth domain is focused on higher education’s place in local, national, and global communities. What partnership opportunities are available for working together on the climate crisis? For students, are there opportunities for service-learning, internships, and community-based research, and do we have faculty, staff, and students acting as public intellectuals?

Paul: Does higher education’s response to the COVID pandemic point to ways that it might respond to the climate crisis?

Bryan: We learned that we have tremendous capacity for innovation and change. In Spring 2020, we flipped all of higher education online in a matter of weeks, if not days. So that shows that we have a proven capacity for innovation and institutional experiments, everything from changing our calendars to altering who is physically on campus.

Too many campuses, I think, took too many risks in the pandemic strictly in order to resume face to face instruction and residential learning. So, we should anticipate that in the face of climate risks some campuses will also be bold in their decision to maintain their current status.

Paul: What has surprised you as you wrote the book?

Bryan: One surprise for me was just how extensively all academic disciplines have engaged with the climate crisis. Another surprise for me is what looks like a huge generational gap. I think that that generational divide may drive some tough choices about the resources and allocations and also student choices when they decide where to go for college, what to study, and what activism to pursue.

Paul: The Paradigm Project seeks to advance engaged, equitable, and integrative practices in undergraduate higher education. What is the significance of your inquiry for these purposes?

Bryan: I think higher education has an enormous amount to contribute. We provide the intellectual horsepower for so much of the world. We train, teach, and support the next generation of students who will become citizens and leaders, residents, and activists, and I think in the moment, we have a leadership role to play. We can contribute to the world as we go through this enormous challenge, and I think it will be a mistake not to do that.

The Paradigm Project is trying to rethink the paradigm of undergraduate education and catalyze serious structural change. I think the climate crisis presents us with that kind of challenge to which we should respond with serious structural change. So it may be that the Paradigm Project is coming at a perfect moment, and that these two movements–the Paradigm Project and the climate movement– have a lot to say to each other.

Climate Change and Civic Engagement

We want to draw your attention to a recent report, Civic Engagement in American Climate Policy: Collaborative Models, from our friends at Civic Green in the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. This report is part of a larger project to document and advance models of civic innovation and participatory policy work on climate change. The report’s author, Carmen Sirianni, invites your ideas at [email protected]

Op-Ed on Florida and the A.P. African-American Studies Curriculum

Lynn Pasquerella (President of the American Association of Colleges and Universities) and Paradigm Working Group member Mary Dana Hinton (President of Hollins University and past board chair of AAC&U) have written an important op-ed, “On Being Erased,” in response to the Florida state government’s removal of AP African-American Studies from the state curriculum. It eloquently describes the threat to democracy and equity that Florida’s stance poses and articulates the values of critical inquiry and truth-seeking at the heart of liberal education. We are grateful to Pasquerella and Hinton for providing such a powerful example of engagement by higher education leaders on urgent public issues.

Anti-Racist Symposium

Please consider joining our friends at UMass Dartmouth either virtually or in-person for the Symposium on Anti-Racist Community Engagement. There will be a panel focused on an upcoming book on anti-racist community engagement and a workshop centered around civic learning outcomes rooted in racial equity. You can register to attend the event here. The symposium will take place on March 31, 2023, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

Thanks for staying in touch, contributing to our work, and for all that you do,
David, Grace, Paul, and Todd