Monday, April 28, 2008

Environmental Studies for Whom?

I just returned (two weeks ago) from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) Conference for College Presidents and Board Trustees. This concludes my annual trek to three higher education conferences. The others are the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) President’s Conference and the New England Association of Colleges and Universities (NEASC) annual conference.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned from all three conferences. There is virtual unanimity around the following trends:
- A college education is becoming increasingly unaffordable.
- There is an alarming class stratification defining those who have the means to attend college (the lower and middle classes are increasingly left out).
- There is increased scrutiny of the value of higher education, what is called accountability.
- Competition to attract students will become increasingly stiff (especially in the Northeast) as the post-boomer generation declines.
- The fiscal crisis of the state (less support from the government) coupled with the unsettling economic times will dictate an era of diminishing fiscal support.

The conventional response is that all colleges have to develop strategic and innovative business models, define their marketing niches, implement lean and mean cost accounting procedures (especially as applied to academic programs), carefully tune their enrollment management strategies, reward entrepreneurial staff and faculty, search for alternative sources of revenue, and aggressively cultivate philanthropic support. In other words, implement a first-rate business plan!

All of this makes sense. I am deeply worried about the accessibility and affordability of higher education. And I’m sure that much of the advice regarding strategic leadership and innovative management is absolutely correct. Surely we are moving in this direction at Unity College. And so is every other institution that attends these meetings! At least we aspire to do so.
One of the big questions here, and perhaps the most riveting one for Unity College is: Who Gets to Go to College? Applied more directly to our mission and purpose: Environmental Studies for Whom?

One third of the students at Unity College are what are known as first-generation college students. That means they are the first people in their families to attend college. These are exactly the young people who are most underserved by higher education in America. They are the ones at highest risk for being left out of college access and affordability. Further, many of these students come from families who have historically earned their living by working the land, often in natural resource industries. In many of the states we serve, these industries are in decline, or making the transition to a tourist-based economy, or hopefully restructuring towards a sustainable approach to these industries.

Here’s our dilemma (and it’s faced by all colleges that serve first generation students). If we provide too much financial aid, we can’t generate enough revenue to operate. If we don’t provide enough, these students will be unable to afford college. Increasingly this challenge faces any middle-income student (first generation or not) who wishes to attend college.

At Unity College, we believe that it’s crucial to train a new generation of students who will be the pioneers of the new sustainability industries. We hope that hundreds of thousands of young people will go to college (at Unity and elsewhere) not only so they have the opportunity to earn a good living and lead fulfilling lives, but so we they are equipped to lead America to a sustainable future.

Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn of the Environmental Defense Fund address the urgency of the new sustainability industries in their book Earth: The Sequel:

“A revolution is on the horizon: a wholesale transformation of the world economy and the way people live. The revolution will depend on industrial technology—capital intensive, shovel-in-the-ground industries—and will almost certainly create the great fortunes of the twenty-first century. But this new industrial revolution holds a more important promise: securing the world against the dangers of global warming. It is developing amid the poltical, economic, and technological equivalence of the perfect storm: worldwide concern about the enormous threat of greenhouse gases, growing realization that we are prisoners of petroleum—hostage to the unstable, sometimes hostile, regimes that control the supplies of crude and natural gas—and, finally, huge and accelerating advances in technology that make possible unprecedented breakthroughs in how we make and use energy.”

Here are three converging trends: the growing inaccessibility of higher education, the promise of a new “sustainable” industrial revolution, and the threat of global warming. If we link the “crisis” in higher education to this bigger challenge (future ecology and economy of the planet), we can begin to craft solutions.

America’s colleges and universities should be retooled so that they can provide maximum opportunity for students of all income levels, especially if they want to be trained for the new sustainable industries. We can reconstruct our economy by seeding these industries with an entire generation of young people who are looking for a cause. And we can’t expect colleges and universities to do it on their own. They need strong support from businesses and government. They need strong support from the voting public. If we train students to earn fulfilling livings by engaging them in an innovative, sustainable economy, most colleges will address the issue of accountability—they will make their institutions relevant and vital!

When I ask Environmental Studies for Whom I mean to suggest that environmental studies should be taught to everybody. As David Orr, Gus Speth, Michael Crow, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Tony Cortese, and countless others suggest: our crisis of education is a crisis of environment and our crisis of environment is a crisis of values.

This is the mentality that should inform how our colleges do business. It will certainly be the basis for how Unity College navigates its path to the future and who it chooses to serve.


Rob C said...
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Sarah Hall said...

I guess that it will certainly be the basis for how Unity College navigates its path to the future and who it chooses to serve. Send your old document and we will find a it resume writer for you!