Scaling Up the Environmental Commitment and Contribution of Universities

Prepared by President Amy Gutmann

For the 2007 United Nations Secretary-General’s Global Colloquium of University Presidents

(November 28-29)

What role should universities play in addressing and redressing climate change? The first UN Global Colloquium of University Presidents issued a now widely-signed collective statement on academic freedom, which contained this very relevant understanding of the role of universities today:

Modern societies now entrust universities with greater responsibilities than ever before. Universities are charged with preserving the knowledge of the past and transmitting it to the next generation; educating tomorrow’s citizens, professionals, and leaders; and fostering the discovery of new knowledge that may either strengthen or challenge established ideas and norms -- all with the aim of deepening human understanding and bettering the human condition. They also function as engines of economic development, foster technological and scientific innovation, stimulate creativity in the arts and literature, and address urgent global problems such as poverty, disease, ethno-political conflict, and environmental degradation.

The scientific evidence of global warming is compelling; the risks to future generations are profound; and the urgency of amelioration is great. Many universities are therefore already making environmental sustainability an increasingly important part of our research and teaching, public engagements, operations of our physical plants and infrastructure, and—to a lesser extent—overall institutional mission statement.

But not only are the data so compelling, the risks so profound, and the urgency so great. The challenge of redressing the problem is also so clearly a collective one—where externalities abound and the most basic common good (that of long-term survival) will be irreversibly undermined by the “business as usual” individual and institutional pursuit of short-term, unenlightened self-interest.

This context, in which all universities are acting today, suggests that—rather than spend our time together recounting and justifying what we are already doing to improve the odds of global sustainability—we would do well (and also better determine how to do far more good as institutions) to focus on how much more universities can do in collaborative activities and alliances, not only on our own campuses, but with other universities, and also with other important societal institutions and individuals; all the while in keeping with our widely-shared collective understanding of the overall mission of universities in society today.

The greatest challenge posed by the problem of global warming (and related environmental problems) is that of scaling up. How can universities scale up different modes of appropriate activities—many of which we are already undertaking—by better collaborating and creating alliances? (An example of scaling up that is already underway is the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, but as its very name suggests, this collective commitment is limited to U.S. colleges and universities. There are many other examples of cross-national collaborations underway as well. But together these fall far short of where we can and should be in addressing such a profound global problem.)

What more can and should universities do to scale up? At least three dimensions of how universities can scale up—intellectually, physically, and internationally—are simultaneously moral and practical: the collective actions we can take in each of these dimensions are consonant with our core missions and will constitute important contributions to the dire needs of sustainability on our planet.

The first and foremost dimension for universities is intellectual—the dimension that subsumes our core missions of research and teaching. For universities to scale up intellectually, we must actually integrate—that is, bring together in research projects, courses, and curricula—all the relevant disciplinary knowledge and understanding needed to address the concrete issues of how our world realistically can achieve carbon neutrality and climate sustainability. Pieces of relevant knowledge and understanding are typically segregated in separate disciplines, rather than integrated. Yet if we are to stand a chance of truly understanding how best to move forward in addressing and redressing global warming, we really cannot afford to choose among understanding the scientific and engineering inventions, the economic incentives, and the political institutions, not to mention the linguistic, cultural, and class divides that create barriers to cooperation within and among nations. Essential parts of the large-scale environmental problems that need to be addressed reside in separate university departments and schools. The intellectual challenge, therefore, is for universities to be more integrated, rather than segregated, in the way we do our academic work, both our research and teaching, so as to better address the real problems that need to be resolved to achieve global sustainability. Intellectual scaling up will call for greater integration and collaborations, not only within individual universities but also across universities, because few if any universities have all of the essential and relevant disciplinary expertise on site.

The second dimension that calls upon universities to determine how best we can scale up our collective efforts concerns our physical plants and operations. We each run significant physical plants and infrastructures, where our building, transportation, energy, water, landscaping, (in some cases) agricultural, and other operations and policies either contribute to, or detract from, what is needed to mount a successful global sustainability effort. While individually, even the biggest of us can make a relatively small difference, together—were we to scale up through the alliances and compacts we make with many other universities, all of our neighborhoods and cities, and possibly even our corporate and non-profit partners—our scaled-up efforts would amount to an increasingly significant contribution, and increase the incentives for others to join in our efforts. Expanding alliances increasingly demonstrate the possibility of social contracts for sustainability across institutional divides. As important, as universities demonstrate our ability to scale up across the divides of our campuses, and communities, we also demonstrate our willingness and ability to put into actual practice some of the integrated knowledge that we have dedicated ourselves to producing. As essentially educational institutions, universities have an especially important responsibility (and indeed incentive in keeping with our enlightened interest) to “walk the walk,” as well as “talk the talk,” in order to demonstrate to our societies and the world the social importance—and benefits—of integrating knowledge and putting such knowledge into use for the betterment of humankind. 

The third dimension and challenge of scaling up is international collaboration. This may be the greatest challenge to universities, given our present global political environment, which has increasingly threatened to erect additional barriers to our collaborations, and it may also be the most important for us to undertake as a group. The challenge of scaling up internationally most comprehensively captures what brings us here together as the Global Colloquium of University Presidents. We have every reason to think that an effective response to global warming and sustainability will require a sustained global commitment by developed and developing nations, by regional and international organizations of nations, by individuals (especially in their role as engaged citizens in supporting such collaboration), by corporations and NGOs, and by all major institutions of civil society, universities foremost among these.

The core commitment of universities to integrating knowledge with the aim of bettering the human condition can fuel our increasing efforts at global collaborations to meet the challenges of scaling up, intellectually, physically, and internationally. International alliances among universities—which include greater research and teaching collaborations, and shared institutional commitments to environmental sustainability via compacts that take into account the various kinds of contributions that are feasible within different societal contexts—these and other practical means of scaling up can demonstrate that institutional collaborations across national borders are possible and productive. Universities from different parts of the world, for example, could create an international environmental analogue of FactCheck.Org, which would provide scientifically reliable reviews of major environmental reports and initiatives. A highly reputable reporting mechanism would itself increase the intellectual contribution of universities, while providing another incentive for institutions to contribute to global sustainability.

Universities are among the foremost “anchor institutions” of contemporary civil society, and we are among the few sectors of society whose basic mission—the preservation, creation, and transmission of knowledge and understanding—is essentially long-term in outlook. We cannot substitute for the role that powerful political and economic institutions must play, but we can do far more than simply supplement their roles by acting as individual institutional actors. We also can join together as an increasingly important sector of the global landscape to inform and educate, to contribute our fair share in our non-academic physical and infrastructural operations, and to demonstrate the potential of international collaboration among institutions. 

Doing all of this, as comprehensively, energetically, and persistently as possible, in no way detracts from the core missions of our institutions.  Indeed, committing our institutions collectively to environmental sustainability may well turn out to be a defining example of the societal contribution that universities can make in this century.