Higher education must teach to the issues of our times to remain relevant


Ladies and gentlemen of the Board of Regents,

Today I stand before you to deliver the annual update on progress made by the Office of Sustainability. However, I would be remiss if I did not deliver this update within this context of our times.

Last year national and international reports on climate change declared that we have only 12 years left to limit the worst of the climate crisis. This year more than 1.4 million high-school students in over 100 countries walked out of school and went on strike to “tell our politicians to take our futures seriously and treat climate change for what it is — a crisis.”

What kind of dissonance in the classroom causes 16-year old Greta Thunberg, founder of the School Climate Strikes, to ask world leaders at the UN Climate Change negotiations last Fall:

“…Why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future?”

So today, I will weave into this update the voices and stories of our own UH students that are also struggling with this reality. Our team works closely with students, through direct projects and focus groups — and over the past 18 months we have learned a lot from them about how they need to be supported.

I invite you to also listen deeply to the voices of our students as we think about what we are willing to do to ensure that our institution delivers an educational experience that is relevant to our students and the challenges we face together in the context of our times.

The Sustainability mandate laid out in EP 4.202 is broad, and directs our office to integrate sustainability into the Operations, Curriculum, Research, Engagement and Cultural Connections of our University.

Our office has spent the last 18 months traveling across our campuses to sit and talk with 1st and 2nd year students from different backgrounds, academic disciplines and career pathways; we asked students 4 open-ended questions to hear about what our students know, think, do and FEEL about climate change, sustainability and resilience issues…

We listened to 200 students across 7 campuses, and with their permission, transcribed these candid discussions so that we could analyze them further — and the insights these conversations reveal have some fascinating, and disturbing implications for the fundamental business case of our university.

Since our office was established in 2015, we’ve heard a mantra repeated by our leadership that “students are interested in sustainability”, so when a student reporter recently asked me “Why should students care about sustainability?”, I paused for a moment to think about his question.

Since I wasn’t quite sure where this was coming from, I asked him 
“Don’t students already care about sustainability?”

He did not even skip a beat and said, “Students already know about these issues but there isn’t really anywhere to talk about them.”

Now let us pause for one moment to let that sink in, and think about the implications of what he said — a bright and talented student at one of our campuses, who writes for the student newspaper on that campus — said that in his experience, no-one is talking about these hugely significant issues that he and other students already know about, presumably from other sources if they are not talking about these things on-campus.

What we heard in these discussions led us to ask ourselves: 
“What are the implications to the business model of a university, of the kind of dissonance experienced by our student reporter, who tells us that there is nowhere on-campus for him to go and talk about the most hugely significant issues of our times?”

What can we do to shift these DISSONANCES into RESONANCES?

In addition to the student focus group study, we worked with the Mānoa Institutional Research Office (MIRO) to administer an online survey during Earth month that invited respondents to share what they know, think, do and feel about these issues. 95% of our students indicated that they were Concerned or Very Concerned about climate change:

We received over 8,000 narrative responses from more than 1,600 students to the survey and utilized sophisticated data analysis which helped us to understand key themes, insights and emergent patterns from the sheer volume of responses.

This graphic breaks down levels of concern by college, and a clear pattern emerges — students in our Ocean and Earth Sciences programs, who are presumably studying climate change in great detail, are very concerned, while students in our Professional schools are significantly less concerned.

The full 73-page survey report + 3-page executive summary is easily accessed via MIRO’s website, including a 20-min video presentation and a web app — the survey responses reveal some fascinating insights from the minds and hearts of our students, and has already been utilized to directly inform & enhance actual projects under way in our classrooms and facilities — as I will show you in a moment.

The responses to the survey also led us to wonder, “What are the implications of these levels of concern?”

In our focus group discussions, we invited students to talk about WHERE they learned about these issues. What do you think was cited as the #1 source of information about climate change?

University courses? #6. 
Social media? #2. 
From their friends? #5.

The #1 source of information about climate change and sustainability cited by students (by a significant margin) was: THEIR LIVED EXPERIENCE.

That is to say, our twenty-something year old students are saying that in their lifetime, they have a direct experience of climate change impacting them.

We heard stories like:

“…the beach we grew up fishing at is no longer there..”
“…when I was 7 my grandmother started crying because she said that she couldn't feed me from the island in the same ways that she had fed her siblings or my parents..”

The analyses of our student focus group study have yielded even more fascinating insights — a very fragile hope exists as the latent emotional state of many students before class instruction even begins.

Students report feeling WORRY — which as you can see here breaks down as feelings of Anger, Sadness, Fear and Shame — and HOPE. Students report sometimes feeling these things AT THE SAME TIME (dissonance):

The wordcloud on the right hand side of the image are actual utterances that were recorded and coded in the transcripts — the larger the word, the more often that word or phrase was said during the focus group discussions — each of these words / phrases correspond to a core emotion, which you see distilled here.

Now I’m no behavioral psychologist, but I can tell you that Anger, Sadness, Fear and Shame are NOT emotional states that are conducive to effective learning, and they certainly are NOT emotional states that leave you feeling empowered in any kind of way.

We’ve shared the preliminary results of our focus group study with many of the students who participated in them, and received their confirmation that these results feel on-point and track well with what they shared in those discussions.

We also shared with students another worrying insight that the transcripts of these discussions reveal: that it is possible for a student at the University of Hawaiʻi to graduate from the entire UH experience, having not been formally introduced to what the science tells us about how climate change is anticipated to impact their futures, let alone be assured that they will be equipped to take empowered action in the face of these anticipated impacts.

We asked if they thought this might be true, and they were quick to confirm — “Oh yeah that is TOTALLY possible …”

What are the implications of this DISSONANCE to our business model? What are the implications to our STUDENTS’ futures?

This quote from a student actually gave us the title for our focus group study: “WORRY & HOPE — Students as stakeholders in Sustainability Education”

“Its just like, some days you see the news, where it’s mostly bad, and it makes you worse. But other days you see someone making a small little change and you think, now I feel good, I can take over the world, I can do something. I feel like just having a little bit of hope can overpower the doubts.” — First year student -

We’ve been asking ourselves: What are the implications of students’ fragile state of hope for our Teaching & Learning enterprise?

How can we shift the kinds of dissonances we see expressed here, into resonances that help to shift our students’ WORRY into HOPE?

Now bear with me, as we have led hour-long discussions unpacking all of the information that is embedded in this poster, which I am going to walk you through in the next two minutes:

The wordclouds surrounding the poster image are made up of actual topic issues that students wanted to talk about in their focus group discussions. You’ll see that Climate Change, Sea Level Rise, and Water are most often discussed, followed closely by Clean Energy, Transportation and Plastic — these issues quite literally describe the socio-cultural context of our times.

All education happens within the socio-cultural context of its times — think back to what was happening in the world around you when you were studying in college, and to how well (or not) your college experience both reflected those times and prepared you to navigate the challenges of your futures.

The courses listed inside these bubbles are ACTUAL COURSES which exist in our Gen-Ed curriculum across departments, disciplines and campuses. These existing courses have been vetted by the appropriate campus faculty decision making apparatuses to be deemed “Sustainability-focused” by a council of their faculty peers.

This schema represents the Sustainability Minor-equivalent, which is offered at three UH campuses (Kapiʻolani, Windward and HawaiʻiCC).

Kapiʻolani began offering the Sustainability Minor last Fall, and worked with their faculty and course schedulers to create a cohort-type experience of students enrolled in the minor, who are all studying core concepts of sustainability from multiple disciplinary perspectives, strengthening their social networks with peers who have similar interests, and — because the minor is achievable in a student’s first year of college — setting them up for an early success in their academic career that they can build from.

Radford and Kahuku high schools have already reached out to see how their early college programs can prepare their students to enter into the Sustainability minor, which suggests we are beginning to create pathways of resonance directly into our first year program from our high schools.

The green bubble to the right of the image above shows another intervention, designed to start to close the gap we identified earlier — that is is possible for a student to graduate from the University of Hawaiʻi having not been introduced to what the science tells us about climate change.

This is an online, non-credit asynchronous course featuring under development which features subject matter experts from across UH campuses, and is designed to introduce students to:

  1. What the science tells us about how climate change is anticipated to impact our futures.
  2. How indigenous knowledge systems hold vital keys to equip us for these futures.
  3. A baseline and basic literacy of key sustainability concepts and issues.
  4. Introducing students others taking direct action to solve these challenges, so that we can begin equipping them to become change-agents.

We’ve been listening deeply to students’ concerns around these issues for the past couple years, and these conversations have deeply influenced our thinking and our actions to begin to address the insights which have emerged.

What you are looking at here is a comprehensive first-year intervention that is already shifting some of the (disempowering) dissonance that students report feeling, into an empowering resonance that is directly relevant to their lived experience by:

1) Meeting students where they are at,

2) Teaching to the issues of our times in relevant and compelling ways; and

3) Building a basic awareness and literacy of sustainability concepts.

In its first year of being offered, Kapiʻolani’s Sustainability Minor has:

  • 259 students enrolled
  • 13 faculty teaching
  • 28 course sections
  • and 4 data assessment instruments to track our effectiveness so that we can continue to learn, grow and improve the program.

One of those data assessment instruments is the Student Assessment of Learning Gains, which are administered at the start of semester and then again at the end of semester to help understand how students perceive their own learning gains as a result of taking the courses.

Kapiʻolani has seen an 89% increase in students’ interest to pursue a Major related to sustainability — IN ONE SEMESTER.

In other words, students are saying they are almost twice as likely to pursue further studies in sustainability after being enrolled in the Sustainability Minor after just one semester.

Please allow me to introduce you to one of these students, who has prepared some brief comments to share with us this morning. Rebecca Tang is a 2nd year Liberal Arts Major at Kapiʻolani Community College enrolled in the Sustainability Minor, who intends to transfer next year to UH Mānoa to study business and marketing:


Aloha Regents, my name is Rebecca Tang and like Matt said I am about to graduate with the Academic Subject Certificate in Sustainability and I am so honored to be here, thank you for allowing me to come and share with you today.
In the first two years of college, you can feel like you are gaining a lot knowledge that you can’t really do anything with. A history class, a biology class, a speech class…….. But what if those first two years weren’t just for “general” education but instead, provided a context in which all of those classes complemented one another in a way that enriched your educational experience and prepared you to be a responsible citizen of the world?
That is exactly what I have gained through the Academic Subject certificate at Kapi’olani Community College. It all began in Dr. Lindo’s Econ 130 class when we talked about Systems Thinking and how interconnected all of our choices are. How my choice as a consumer to continually buy bottled water has led to hundreds of thousands of marine life being negatively impacted and/or killed each and every year. I was honestly so surprised that this Economics class consistently provided topics that tugged so hard on my heart. I think that I associated school and education as a way to just develop my mind, but what I discovered through all of my sustainability focused courses is that a mind without a heart is why we face the foreboding future that we do.
Receiving this certificate as part of my degree is amazing, but the true value is in the educational experience of having intertwining courses that have given me perspective that I will carry into my career…and beyond. The fact that I’m taking a 200 level Literature course, a Biology 124 course, and a PACS 108 course, that are talking about the same issues of pollution, invasive species, and rising sea level has provided a synergy that I believe education was always meant to provide. In addition to that I worked with my professors to design a capstone project that has integrated my love of design and passion for sustainability into an visual display exhibit that is now being showcased at the Lama library. The interest that was first sparked in that Econ class has now been seasoned and developed through the taking of all these other courses.
I started to ask myself why all my classes are not Sustainability-focused? This crisis that we face needs all of us. We need the engineers to help build infrastructure, we need the writers to put action into words, we need the artists to inspire change, we need the accountants to do whatever accountants do…… we need the board of regents!.. We need everybody and the unique skills that they bring to the table…. Every college wants to graduate students who change the world but let the UH system be the college that graduate students who save the world.

Mahalo Rebecca.

So what does all of this have to do with a Planning and Facilities Committee Meeting report?

At the end of the day, we — the university — will cease to exist if we do not remain relevant to our students context. Providing a pathway to degree, to get a better job is no longer enough. We must go far beyond that, and EQUIP our students to take EMPOWERED ACTION in the face of the uncertain futures that lay ahead for them.

Please allow me to take three more slides to help illustrate how we can do this in the planning, operations and management of our facilities:

Published in 2017 PROJECT DRAWDOWN was the #1 Best-Selling Environmental Book of the Year (still rated #1 bestseller on Amazon), and is the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to address climate change and global warming.

The project gathered the best researchers from around the world to identify, research, model and quantify the impact of the top 100 solutions — using existing technologies — to address climate change.

I’m going to show you how we are helping students to directly contribute to and engage with 4 out of the top 10 climate change solutions identified.

Composting and waste reduction initiatives are not just cute student projects. Reducing food waste has been identified as the #3 most impactful activity we can engage in to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

The food we waste is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global emissions. An estimated 70.53 GIGATONNES of CO2 can be drawn dawn from the Earth’s atmosphere simply by reducing our food waste.

Students know and understand this, and they are passionate, fired up and ready to do something about it — starting in their own backyards.

The data we are looking at here has been gathered by more than 800 students working over the last 12 months across 6 campuses, who we helped to mobilize to methodically comb through our campus waste streams to get us better visibility into our materials throughput.

They have found that approximately 1/3 of our waste stream is composed of food waste, and their efforts have directly informed this campus’ operations efforts in many ways big & small.

The UHGLYMUG project not only diverted plastic mugs that were headed to our already overflowing landfills, this project has been a fun & engaging student-led effort ($1 coffee in your free re-usable mug) that has so far led to an estimated 21% reduction in single-use cups entering our waste stream.

At a larger scale, an undergraduate economic study which investigated the feasibility of biodigestion to zero out the ~300T of food waste this campus generates each year helped justify funding for a full-blown technical feasibility assessment for a commercial-scale AEROBIC BIODIGESTER, potentially the first in the State — that we have recently signed the contracts with our consultants to begin this project.

When students are empowered to help us solve the real-world sustainability challenges we face in our operations every day, we not only give our operational staff additional capacity for problem solving, we are creating conditions for students to shift from disempowerment to empowerment, from DISSONANCE to RESONANCE.

An EMPOWERED student is a MOTIVATED student:

THE ALBIZIA PROJECT — which originated as a student project initially funded by President Lassner’s Green Project Implementation Awards — has not only generated a lot of positive press and enthusiastic interest across the State, is a great example of the creative genius and entrepreneurial problem-solving abilities that are latent in our students — and just need a little boost from our institution to empower then to solve these wicked and complex challenges.

However, what is often lost in all of the buzz, is that this project is actually a tropical reforestation project. Tropical Forests, #5 on the list of top 10 solutions to climate change, have the potential to draw down another 61 GIGATONNES or so of CO2 from the atmosphere.

The beautiful architectural design and the use of invasive species as a local building material are just means to an ends, and has lead to an additional $0.25M in federal funding to form the Hawaiʻi Wood Utilization Team, which is working to identify leverage points we can strengthen in our local forestry & timber sector, and grow it NOT into an extractive industry, but into a vibrant ʻāina-based economic sector is working to remove problematic species by replanting w/ native species to restore biodiversity, strengthen our watersheds and protect our economy.

This humble start-up regenerative enterprise that our office has incubated continues to attract attention & resource locally and globally, and has the potential to spark a whole new wave of innovation and entrepreneurship around local timber, forestry and reforestation efforts.

The real question this project asks is “How many native trees can we replant for every invasive species that we remove?”

I’ll ask Miles to give you a more detailed update on some of the projects we are doing that contribute to the potential 61.5 GIGATONNES of CO2 that solar farms and rooftop solar can draw down from the atmosphere, but before I do I’d like to leave you with 3 final thoughts:

  1. When we teach to the issues of our times in our classrooms, students are excited to come back and study more with us, and our recruitment, engagment and retention numbers will reflect this resonance.
  2. When we pay attention to little projects like providing enough water refill stations or food waste composting, as well as to the big projects like LEED buildings or net zero energy campuses, we begin to shift our students’ experiences from dissonant to resonant.
  3. When we equip our students not only to survive in the uncertain futures they face, but to actively thrive, flourish, and contribute to solving these challenges, not only will our business model remain solvent, our communities will be better off for it.

Leaning in and listening closely to our students, seeking to understand the complex world they have inherited and are so deftly navigating, and redesigning our university enterprise to remain fit to their rapidly evolving context is not just the smart thing to do for our own survival as an institution, it is the right and moral thing to do for the survival of our species.

Thank you.

Matthew K. Lynch,
Director of Sustainability Initiatives, University of Hawaiʻi

May 2, 2019