Creating a New Kind of University

If you know me or have been following my blog, you may have surmised that I’m interested in creating new forms of higher education that are more conducive to sustainable human futures. This is an idea I’ve been ruminating upon for quite some time, so I’d like to share a little of the history of my thinking on the topic. I was especially inspired by a recent conversation with Arshad Rab, who noted in his welcoming talk at the International Greening Education Event last October:
“The university of the future doesn’t exist yet.  We will build it in the next five years.”
Arts, Design and Media building, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.  Photo by Erik S. Peterson.
I have often wondered what it would take to create a university that could provide real education for a sustainable future. Can such a thing be built by a small group of thoughtful, committed people, in a way that promotes institutional resilience and sustainability?
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead (attiribution disputed)
In 2000-2001, I worked at New College of California, a higher educational institution that was consciously designed by a small group of scholars in the 1970s with the intention of providing holistic education for social activists.  I participated in the meetings where the motto of “Education for a Just, Sacred, and Sustainable World” was proposed and thoughtfully debated.  New College of California established one of the earliest “Green MBA” programs. Sadly, financial and organizational mismanagement hampered the institution’s viability, leading to eventual loss of accreditation and closure by 2008.  But, despite its shortcomings, I was most inspired by the stories of how it started at the beginning of the 1970s: just a couple professors and a few dozen students gathered in someone’s living room, deciding they should create a higher education institution for people who wanted to change the world.
Of course, financial crises were widespread in higher education institutions in 2008.  At about that time, I started a new blog to share my thinking about trying to form a new institution to offer Bachelor of Arts degrees, as a way to make use of the relative abundance of qualified-but-underemployed instructors in my hometown.  That never took off, but the notion of building a new institution of higher education has lingered in the back of my mind.  Last month, there was a piece in Nature on the overabundance of science PhDs relative to academic jobs.  Wouldn’t it be great to be making better use of all that potential talent, in service of building a sustainable and resilient future?
And I believe that talent is best harnessed using approaches to teaching (really, facilitating learning) that are more appropriate for today’s and tomorrow’s world. Since July, I’ve been working on a paper with Rodrigo Lozano on linking sustainability competences (skills, abilities, attitudes) to pedagogies (methods for teaching or otherwise guiding learners), to better inform higher education for sustainability (this is what I presented at the Global Cleaner Production and Sustainable Consumption conference in Barcelona last November).  The take-home message from that work is that there are many pedagogies in use in a few places that would serve the goals of helping students develop sustainability competences, and that most of the best are very different from what are still the most widespread pedagogies at our universities (didactic lectures and summative exams).
I have a suspicion that the structure of established universities may inhibit (perhaps even prohibit) the development of of better approaches to education for a sustainable future.  I believe that it is time to start talking about how to create a higher education system that can support the evolution or revolution of adult learning that can improve our prospects for sustainability.
At a workshop by Lauralee Alben in 2006, participants were tasked to articulate a guiding question.  Mine was “How can I connect with, learn from and teach people so that we can co-create a sustainable, resilient culture?”  This question is still what guides my work, and I believe it is essential that I have conversations with people around this question.
 What can and should we do?  Where do we start?  What are our visions for the university that has yet to sprout?  If you want to join this conversation, I encourage you to leave a comment below, or join the “International Andragogy for Sustainability” group I initiated on LinkedIn.

1 Comment

  1. I like your use of the term “higher education”. Because after all, shouldn’t higher university education and research be about addressing the deep-seeded challenges and conundrums facing our collective species? A “higher education” is indeed needed to bridge, jump and cross the academic disciplines and barriers. A “higher education” is certainly needed to address the cross-cutting environmental, socio-economic and technological challenges facing our institutions, communities, cities, regions and planet. And I agree that seeding or nurturing small groups, teams or clusters of committed co-learners, researchers and teachers is one important path towards a better world. In my view we also need to ensure educators build on the many existing solutions and ideas that put community ahead of consumption; and people before profits. Such approaches will be worthy of a ‘higher education.’


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