An Open Letter to Higher Educational Institutions

We are two students physically exhausted and emotionally spent from our university’s lack of understanding and responsibility for adapting to our changing world. This has affected our educational experience, extracurricular involvement, and mental health. This letter is intended to highlight the hypocrisy of what is scientifically and socially evident in contrast to what universities are communicating to students, their agendas, and infrastructure. We hope with guidance and motivation from this letter, students can hold their institutions accountable. Furthermore, we want administration, faculty, and staff to understand the impact of their current practices and find guidance in realistic and easily obtainable solutions that will improve societies’ social well being, environment, and economy. An educational institution should be at the forefront of innovative solutions that provide a healthy, safe, and productive lifestyle for our present and future generations. Instead, our institutions have defaulted to economic growth and convenience while turning a blind eye to real issues that require intelligent and thought-provoking discussions. We caution the distinction between climate change and sustainability. Undebatably, the climate is changing. This is scientific fact, but this letter is intended to highlight the moral responsibility intellectuals hold to create an environment and culture that can continue to flourish over time.

“Education”:

It’s clear higher education is failing modern society when we consider how the most “educated” people in our country have become the most disruptive (the oil industry, closed door politics, etc). This stems from higher education fashioning minds to be result oriented, not impact oriented. This distinction is everything. While results are important, conclusions are obtained without considering how they impact local and global communities. Our problems shouldn’t be presented to us with pre-established variables, all of which get used and plugged into an equation given in the example problem. This isn’t learning, this is mimicking. Our scientific experiments and analyses stop at why a reaction occurs, but fail to address how the results can be implemented to improve our society, or long term negative impacts that may occur. Literature discussions address the analogies already given and their modern relevance, but not how what was learned can be used to make a difference. If education can bridge the gap between results and impact, students can leave higher education with the tools needed to improve the world we live in. Another problem is that majority of our educators have no formal training on sustainability. It should be a social norm for these issues to be talked about, not an extra slide on a PowerPoint to consider. Each and every graduate, regardless of their major will confront the intersection of their professional life with the people and the planet. No exceptions. Our teachers and professors must have a comprehensive idea of these intersections and how they relate to their field of study. This will facilitate conversations that expose the complexity of real world solutions. Providing the tools to understand impact and collaboration will allow students to graduate with a moral compass that steers our society in a direction of better intentions.

Infrastructure and Operations:

Holding an event promoting reusable bags, public transportation, and second hand clothing doesn’t make a university sustainable. A university is more than the sum of its students’ daily habits. While personal habits are important, without proper infrastructure and operations, behavioral change cannot take place. It is outrageous that our campus tricks students into thinking they are sustainable when our foundations are out of date and creating the illusion that we live in a linear world with no consequences for increasing our consumption and affluence. It’s not okay for our campus to normalize disconnect that shouldn’t exist to begin with. In addition, The Sustainable Tracking and Rating System (STARS) that many universities and colleges have adopted to measure and compare sustainable progress, is flawed and misleading. Institutions are allowed to define their own boundaries and cherry pick data to pat themselves on the back and look good for press. This allows our universities to set targets that aren’t scientifically or quantitatively based. (Ex: Goals such as “carbon neutrality by 2050”). This technique stalls progress and gives us a false sense of security. It’s as if we are driving towards a cliff going 60 mph and we are reducing our speed to 40 mph, instead of hitting the brake to stop ourselves from driving off. Improving efficiencies with energy infrastructure, building materials, and recycling are important steps to reduce our speed, but aren’t enough to stop us from going off the cliff. It’s time to mitigate. Our campus buildings should consciously be selecting sustainable materials, producing energy, and acting as living labs that are role models to set the standards for present design. Buildings cannot be a stamp for the time they are built. They should be dynamic and able to adapt to future energy solutions and lifestyle habits that come with new technologies.

Campus Finances:

While we recognize money plays a vital role in creating opportunities, catalyzing innovation, and running daily operations, we fear that the current trends aren’t contributing to productivity. Our “business as usual” practices are compromising the mission of the university to advance a false sense of success. Collectively, in the US colleges and universities have over $420,000,000,000 (yes, that’s 420 billion) in their endowments. These endowments come primarily from major donors and are the source of universities’ investments. Not only do policy makers pursue financial security by prioritizing stakeholders and donors’ agendas, but often major donors can control where the money is invested. This confines avenues the university can implement, silencing ideas that promote the freedom of research, teaching, learning, and diversity. It begins with reshaping how we think of investments. Where we put our money as an institution should directly mirror the institutions’ principles. If the missions of a university are to provide tools for future leaders and contributors in a changing world, why are we investing in companies whose consequences are stalling the advancement of our society. We must divest from fossil fuels. We must invest in sustainable energy solutions and practices promoting public health. There should be complete transparency to minimize the disconnect between our policy makers and those affected by the decisions, including but not limited to faculty, staff, students, and community members. These people need spots on decision making boards to influence the allocation of funds. Moreover, these funds shouldn’t be static, but continue to adapt to match the pace of our changing society. An example of this that is already in place are green revolving funds, which are initial investments in sustainability projects that receive a quick payback funding future projects. Practices like these that promote innovation and cost savings should not be an exception, they should be expanded and used frequently. Considerations like these will promote a budget that supports funding for student and faculty creativity. Additionally, our market purchases should be critical of each company’s impact both environmentally and socially while remembering that the most sustainable purchases are the ones that don’t happen. We must be conscious that each purchase has an intended purpose. Once the purpose is established, institutions should be held accountable to understand the consequences associated with the origins of the materials, production and manufacturing, use, and disposal. Universities must be ethical consumers. We vote with every dollar we spend, so we should be supporting products and services that have a net positive impact.

Conclusion:

As two out of many students who have been a victim of higher education’s bullshit, it is excruciatingly painful to have to write an open letter to frame issues that should have already been addressed. We have put our money, time, and full trust into institutions where leaders have betrayed us by choosing financial security over caring for the planet or even it’s students concerns. We no longer have time for this to be a debate. While we recognize sustainability is complex, solutions are already available to implement, which can no longer be ignored. Our buildings should be a living lab producing energy, our landscapes should be promoting biodiversity, and have no harm to the wellbeing of our society in the present or future. Our budgets need to be revisited to incorporate the money needed to explore student and faculty creativity that leads to new sustainable alternatives. Economics can no longer be the primary limitation of our institutions’ consumptive practices. Morality should be. Educators must be held accountable to have sustainable curriculums and foster the collaboration between disciplines. Administration and staff members should be the role models for change rather than ignoring the responsibility higher education has in our society. We have the means and capability to create a higher education system that enables productive community members to make the world a better place, so let’s stop making excuses and start making improvements.

Brendan Hellebusch and Clare Bassi