Greta is Coming.

Sterling College President Stands with Students Across the World

I’m a college president, and I’m looking at a wave of Greta Thunbergs. They are building a student rebellion both inside and outside our institutions. And they are right to do so.

Extractive economic growth is accelerating the collapse of the life support systems of the planet, and our students know it. The fossil fuel divestment activism of the last decade is only the barest preview of what is coming.

Extinction Rebellion, Youth Strike 4 Climate, and the powerful voices of European student leaders like Greta Thunberg are telling us something. And we better listen and be prepared to act as this movement takes hold in the United States. Students no longer believe that educational business-as-usual is viable. They are disconnected from the institutions and the norms that our generation built, and are experiencing the anxiety of an uncertain future. Will we join their rebellion and find pertinence in the process? Failure to do so will be a failure of moral courage, and condemn our institutions to irrelevance.

An extractive economy cannot continue to extract indefinitely. In The Guardian, George Monbiot observed what students on our campuses also understand: continued economic growth is “intrinsically linked to the increasing use of material resources, [and] means seizing natural wealth from both living systems and future generations” (emphasis added).

Asking a generation to go into debt for an education that prepares them for the “careers of tomorrow,” without ensuring a livable tomorrow, is a betrayal that undermines the entire higher education enterprise.

Students increasingly view higher education as broken, unjust, and even corrupt. Their confidence in us as “not for profit” institutions and stewards of their futures is in serious jeopardy. As ecological and social collapse accelerates, our institutions will be seen as the problem, not the solution. College campuses are training grounds for the technological means and economic justification for growth. Our contribution to the cataclysmic effects of climate change are manifestly obvious and their objections will not be placated by the green-washing of our campuses and tepid promises about sustainability.

Like young people of all generations, they will respond negatively to our hypocrisy and see us as out of touch. Extinction Rebellion participants are demanding the “replacement of the discipline of economics and its exhortations toward endless growth with a new science based on principles that rise to the challenges of a changing climate,” wrote David Graeber in the New York Times. In the face of incontrovertible evidence of rapid climate change and massive extinction, our students — as both activists and citizens — will rightly hold us accountable, just as they do leaders of corporations.

Harvard student Ilana Cohen is calling on her university to divest from the carbon sector. In a commentary on WBUR’s Cognoscenti, Cohen points to the focus of leaders on campus efficiency efforts and the suggestion that students focus on topics like the elimination of trays from the dining halls as “embarrassing.” Cohen and her fellow student activists believe “it is morally unjustifiable for Harvard’s endowment to fund companies whose very business models pose a threat to life on Earth.” These students are asking the right questions. Will our answers begin to change as the heat — literally and figuratively — increases?

We must reconstruct the role higher education plays at this critical juncture in human history and confront this existential threat. It is time to take extraordinary measures to address the climate emergency through education and stand on behalf of the generation of students we serve and hope to serve in the decades to come. At Sterling College, where I serve as president, we have a newly adopted vision for an affordable education focused on the human relationship with the natural world, an education designed to advance ecological thinking and action by using learning as a force to address problems brought about by growth and consumption.

Sterling is proud of our half century of pursuing learning about and engaging with the natural world. We are now among the first colleges to make this commitment: to focus all of our programs on the crisis at hand and overcome academic inertia by joining the movement taking shape around us.

As the Harvard students recognize, “every day that [the] university dismisses the urgency of climate action is another day that it degrades its own potential to live up to [Harvard’s] Veritas motto, and tarnishes the future of its own students.” It must not be only small colleges like Sterling that make this commitment.

Students will not wait for us to wake up and to join the cause. The times require collective effort from all of us to meet our moral obligation. Our students, to say nothing of our alumni and the philanthropic community, expect us to take clear positions and bold actions on their behalf. Let this season of commencements remind us that the future has never been less certain for any generation, and let us commit ourselves to action. If we do not, our institutions, this and the next generation of students, and the planet as we know it may be doomed.

Matthew Derr

President of Sterling College

Matthew Derr is an educational leader and community organizer. He has been recognized for his role advancing academic communities to develop a strategic vision to address critical issues and align their aspirations with philanthropic support. A son of autoworkers, born in Flint, Michigan, he is a graduate of the University of Michigan, and one of only a handful of out LGBTQ presidents of colleges in the United States. He lives in Craftsbury Common, Vermont where he serves as president of Sterling College.