Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Compass for the Future

Michigan State University (MSU) is making national and international news. And it's not for its prowess on athletic fields or courts. In fact, as I'm sure everyone reading this is aware, it is for the tragedy of sexual abuse that went on for years without being stopped. The president is gone, the gymnastics coach is gone, the athletic director just quit and the abuser will remain in prison until he dies. Yet to go, but likely so, are the board of trustees.

There is plenty of anguish in these parts for the victims and for the stain on the university that will outlive many of its supporters. I wrote a couple of days ago about this horrible set of events being an opportunity. In the house cleaning that has started there is an opportunity to pause as an institution and decide in what direction to steer. Many of us believe the current board of trustees is not capable of the clear thinking and leadership necessary to make the transition. Those who visit this blog will recognize that I do read a bit. Most of what I read I bump into. Sometimes as a footnote to a work in hand, sometimes on a new book shelf in a library or a used book in a bookstore. Rarely do I decide to buy a copy of a book after I have just read a library or used copy. One of the books in my hands the past few mornings is this exception to the rule, even though I'm past the halfway point. It is a book that anyone looking to find a direction for MSU and higher education to head would be wise to read!!

I read, as the occasional readers of my blog would know, many works I do recommend. Few do I find so special that I can't wait to let the world know. Such is the case with David Orr's Dangerous Years: Climate Change, The Long Emergency and The Way Forward. It is not that it covers territory that no one else has explored. David refers to many of the works I have read and mentioned in this blog over the years. His 50 pages of notes are themselves worth a read. But there is simply something striking about the 'wholeness' quality of his thought combined with the clarity of thought and language, and a palpable infusion of deep caring. While I can't quite find adequate words to describe this book, let me just say that one could open up randomly to any page and find paragraphs that are profound and lyrical. I will post below a small handful of examples from my reading thus far.

Image result for david orr

David recently retired from Oberlin College where he was the Paul Sears Distinguished Faculty for Environmental Studies and Politics. He has been a leader in awakening higher education to the responsibility to help us recognize our interdependence with nature and to the coming challenges of climate change and other forces.

Dangerous Years came out at the end of 2016. Something I overlooked until a week ago when I pulled it from the library shelf. I met David 20 years ago at a meeting in Atlanta of some emerging leaders of sustainability in higher education. I had read and been inspired by his 1992 book, Ecological Literacy. I have bumped into David a number of times over the years at conferences, and organized a panel program with him . Since Oberlin is only a four hour drive from East Lansing I invited him speak a number of times over the years at our campus, from which he received his M.A. before going off to the University of Pennsylvania to complete his PhD. I also have visited David in Oberlin for the dedication of the remarkable Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin in 1999. This was then and remains one of the most environmentally conscious designed buildings on any campus. It's worth a blog in its own right.

Image result for adam joseph lewis center

More recently I visited David with a colleague in 2015 to interview him about the Oberlin Project -  a city/campus partnership that was re-conceptualizing community development. The last chapter of this book goes into some detail on that effort. Throughout the years I have followed David's writings and talks as one follows any mentor you might admire. For years he wrote profoundly thoughtful essays for the scholarly journal Conservation Biology. Many of these made their way into some of his later books. Those essays challenged us to re-think what we knew about the world and our role in it. Dangerous Years seems to pull it altogether. While I like to think that I read broadly, David's breadth of reading is light years beyond me. A short visit to his lengthy and informative notes will prove that.

But unlike most scholars who manage to get lost in the cloistered vernacular of their discipline, David is able to condense and provide access to the thoughts of others turgid prose leaping intellectual boundaries. Perhaps a couple of the accolades say it better.

"No one has thought more deeply about the great challenges of our time than David Orr. Dangerous Years is an erudite, impassioned, and deeply wise book."—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

"No one knows more about the hole we're in, and no one has worked any harder to get us out of it—David Orr is a necessary guide to the great climate crisis we find ourselves in, and this is a vital book."—Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"David Orr has written a perfectly marvelous book, a deep and wide-ranging reflection on the human condition. It's a winner, and a rare one at that."—James Gustave Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning, The Bridge at the End of the World, and America the Possible

 Some examples from Dangerous Years follow:

     "The deeper challenge, however, is to transform the substance and process of education, beginning with the urgent need to prepare the rising generation -- as best as we are able -- for a rapidly destabilizing ecosphere for which we  have no precedent. We cannot know what they will need to know or how they should be taught, but we do know that they will need the kind of education that enables them t see across old boundaries of disciplines, geography, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and time. They will have to be intellectually agile without losing their sense of place and rootedness. They will need to rise above fundamentalism of all kinds, including those rooted in the faith that more and better gadgets or an ever-growing economy can save us. They will need an ethical foundation oriented to the protection of life and the rights of generations to come. They will have to rediscover old truths and what biochemist Erwin Chargaff called "forgotten knowledge." They will need to know how to connect disparate fields of knowledge, how to "solve for pattern," how to design systems of solutions that multiply by positive feedback and synergy. (pp.105-06)

     "Other questions will arise. What kind of knowledge will be necessary for the journey into the "Anthropocene"? What is the proper balance among intellect, heart, and hands? How do we join smartness with compassion? How should we improve the curriculum or reform the pedagogy to better prepare our students for the novel challenges they will surely face? How do we engage the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in way commensurate with climate destabilization? How do we sustain our morale or that of students in difficult times and keep authentic hope alive? How do we calibrate our concerns for justice and fairness with a remorseless and unrelenting biophysical reality. ((p.109)

     "The reason that climate destabilization does not attract foundation attention is that the great majority of trustees, foundation administrators, and program officers -- even at this late date -- know relatively little about climate science and how the earth works as a physical system and why such things matter for what they and their grantees do. They are selected and hired because they have been successful in their endeavors, notably finance, business, law, media, academics and public affairs, fields that offer little incentive or occasion for serious reflection on such things as the fate of the earth. Not having thought much about it, and consorting with others similarly disinclined, they have not thus far been moved to do much about it. With some exceptions, they are, by and large, not people easily alarmed even by alarming things and so are inclined to overlook rapid climate change as only another item on a long list of problems. In philanthropic circles, then, climate destabilization lacks priority among the myriad of other concerns. (p.124)

     "We instinctively affiliate with "life and life-like processes," or what biologist E.O. Wilson calls "biophilia." Very young children have a rudimentary, prearticulate sense of fairness. I am inclined to think that compassion, kindness to strangers, mercy, and forgiveness are in some patchy way woven into our behavior. Deep in our bones, some things just feel, right and others abhorrent. This, I think, is the substratum of our still-evolving moral consciousness and may explain why it seems very odd whether -- by any stretch of logic or sophistry -- a few generations have the right to hog more than their fair share of Earth's resources, including climate resilience. We are perhaps the first and perhaps the last generation likely to have the moral elasticity and inclination to debate such questions. (p.133)

     "For serious philanthropists of all kinds, the first challenge of truly loving humankind requires that we understand, protect, and, when possible, enhance the natural systems that nourish our bodies and souls. Restoring health to the systems we have damaged and on which we depend, however, is more than tidying up a bit after a binge. It is rather an act of atonement for the original sin of being so casually, carelessly, and sometimes wantonly destructive of things, about which we know so little and on which we depend so much. But it requires no more than an enlightened, ecologically informed self-interest. The second challenge is harder and goes further. It is to make certain that the good Earth is passed on in full to those who will (or would have) come after us. Call it a gift if you so choose, or trusteeship or stewardship, but by any name the safe passage of Earth to coming generations would be the first deliberate act of  true philanthropy from one generation to another. (p.136)

“We live in a tightly interconnected but also highly fractured nuclear-armed world in which our very survival depends on our learning to overcome our various parochialisms and divisions. We may never learn to see each other as brothers and sisters, but we have to learn to get along. That is not so much a  breakthrough as a long process by which we learn empathy and acquire the art and science of systems thinking—by which I mean the quality of mind that discerns the “patterns that connect,” in Gregory Bateson’s words. The ability to see our connectedness in larger systems is inherent in all religions, the root word for which means bound together. Like it or not, the fact is that we are kin to all that ever lived and all that will ever live—one link in the great chain of being. We may not appreciate all of our kinfolk, but their pictures are in the family scrapbook alongside our own. We are a small thread in the fabric of evolving life on Earth. In the presence of such vastness and mystery the only appropriate attitudes are those of wonder, gratitude, and lots of humility. But this is not what modern education aims to cause or cultivate. (p.158)

…The purpose of education presently is not to foster wonder or gratitude or ecological competence but rather to equip young people for jobs and careers in an economy designed to expand without limits. As Thomas Berry puts it:
            The university prepares students for their role in extending the human dominion over the natural world, not for intimate presence to the natural world. Use of this power has devastated the planet…so awesome is the devastation we are bringing about that we can only conclude that we are caught in a severe cultural disorientation, a disorientation that is sustained intellectually by the university, economically by the corporations, and legally by the Constitution, spiritually by religious institutions. (p. 158-9)

…The modern university has come to resemble a Maginot Line with separate fortresses surrounded by moats and minefields. Against nearly impregnable fortifications, direct assaults are almost always futile, especially when organized and led by the non-tenured. When it advances, knowledge does so indirectly by flanking maneuvers and what Thomas Kuhn describes as paradigm changes by gerrymandering the boundaries and patrolling the borders to prevent either defections or intrusions. In fact, all disciplines in higher education endeavor to maintain a monopoly of terms, theories, and agendas, and befuddlements for the un-credentialed. It is called rigor, but is often hard to distinguish from rigor mortis. For all its needless complexity, Rube Goldberg might have been thought the architect of the byzantine machinery of knowledge “production” and transfer, but alas it was done as absent-mindedly as the British once acquired an empire. Nearly everywhere the results are the same. Our academic efforts are generally centripetal, focused (even in this day of “interdisciplinarity”) on the problems narrowly defined by discipline and subdiscipline. And the discussions among the professoriate, with some notable exceptions, leave aside the messy, big questions about the fate of civilization and human survival that are beyond this year’s departmental budget and the pressing problem of parking permits.

            It is not surprising then, that higher education has lost its way and the reasons are many. It is too expensive and too oriented to careers. The system is often demoralizing to students and faculty alike, populated by a growing number of underpaid and exploited adjunct faculty and administered in its upper reaches by educational barons paid princely salaries with lavish perks. In the larger and more successful universities, the ancient purposes of learning and so forth have become adornments to the sports programs that rake in millions of dollars while budgets for the philosophy department are slashed. Those who believe that markets are the answer, whatever the question, might propose that philosophers field their own teams that would play in stadiums suitably named for Immanuel Kant, Rene Descarte, Socrates, or maybe even Milton Friedman, paid for by the sales of books on the meaning of life and other deeper subjects. (p. 159-60)

As MSU attempts to move forward, they could learn much from the analysis and prescriptions their noted alum offers in these pages. It's not too late, but time is running out.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Transformative Moment

While I have been retired from Michigan State University for three years, I spent 30 years of my life walking the campus, teaching classes, helping students and faculty uncover information they sought, active in faculty governance and founding and directing sustainability operations. It is no small part of my life. So it is not without significant disappointment that recent, and more unfortunately not so recent events have the whole world looking at the institution as seriously flawed.

President Simon in happier days, no doubt pleased I was retiring from MSU

It was not uncommon just a few years back when Penn State suffered similar  review, that some smug Spartans would ridicule the Nittany Lions for their failings. Many of those same people have not wanted to admit MSU was guilty for the Larry Nassar sexual abuse epidemic. Good and generally honorable people turned away from this possibility when those brave enough reported it. Some of those have gone off to hide. Last night the president resigned under increasing pressure.

Today I was interviewed by a reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education. She's interviewing many people so I doubt anything I said was unique or articulate enough to make it into whatever article she publishes in the days ahead.  But the conversation with the reporter did propel me to reflect more on what direction MSU might take from here. Of crucial importance is the selection of an interim president and then, of course, the search for the next president. 

As I told the reporter when prompted, I thought bringing in a former governor or corporate CEO was a horrible idea. What is needed is an experienced academic, who has operated at some administrative level and who has the human skills needed to guide others through a "truth and reconciliation" type process. Given the MSU Board of Trustees, I am doubtful any such person will be sought or hired. I have not been impressed by the board for the most part over my 30+ years at MSU. Trustees are largely selected by the two major parties, based upon a combination of name recognition, what they have done for the party, and really nothing regarding their experience with higher education other than being a student at one. The state's citizens then select from these choices, based almost entirely on party affiliation. In my opinion, we lost sight of that at MSU, and most of higher education long ago.

But this disruption of the status quo built under the reign of  President Simon for almost 25 years (if you combine her provost and presidential positions) provides a major opportunity for the land grant university to reconsider its future direction. Do we really believe that the direction Simon was pushing MSU towards was the one we should be on? President Simon and I shared some strong areas of disagreement over the years. Even so, I would never doubt her commitment and her work ethic for the university. But on the direction she dragged us - yes one legitimate critique of her reign, was that she was a top down manager, I had strong disagreements. Those are besides the point at the moment. This moment is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the true mission of MSU in the second decade of the 21st Century. What does the world need from Michigan State University now? We have entered the Anthropocene since President Simon and I were born. That reality alone mandates we shift how we think about the human role on a finite planet.

Over the years of this blog I have written about higher education's role, its possibilities, and its shortcomings. In looking over a few of those I believe a couple of them at least are quite pertinent to the moment as we seek to move forward and to seize this opportunity. One of those blogs goes back to an earlier MSU President whose name has come up recently in comparison to the tenure of President Simon. President John Hannah whose statue sits prominently in front the of the Administration Building that bears his name. On that statue are carved these words of Hannah:

"If educators are agreed on anything, it is that the fundamental purpose of education is to prepare young people to be good citizens."

That blog goes on to explore the context of those remarks of Hannah's I found after going through the archives to locate the source of that quote. The excerpts I share from Hannah in that blog are most pertinent to the decision place we are in now. In a later blog that year I was reviewing a new book from Satish Kumar, the long time leader of Schumacher College in Great Britain. Again several excerpts help point us towards a needed vision of the kind of education we need in these times.

"One of the primary tests of an organization is whether it turns people into instruments to perpetuate the system and sees people as a means to an end, or whether the organization exists as a means and people are the end."

An even earlier blog entry  was largely based on a new book from British educator Ronald Barnett that challenged the higher education sector or "re-imagine" itself.

"Ideas of the university in the public domain are hopelessly impoverished. 'Impoverished' because they are unduly confined to a small range of possible conceptions of the university; and 'hopelessly' because they are too often without hope, taking the form of either hand-wringing over the current state of the university or merely offering a defence of the emerging nature of 'the entrepreneurial university'.

      Why does this matter, and why does it matter at this particular time? At the very moment when the idea of the university should be opening out, it seems to be closing in, at least in the public imagination. The idea of the university has, of course, undergone many shifts and been subject to varying conceptions over time. For some hundreds of years, the idea of the university was - as it might be said - that of the metaphysical university, reflective of inquiry that enhanced humanity's connections with God, or the Universe, or Truth, or Spirit, or even the State. That conception gave way to the research university, which is now giving way to that of the entrepreneurial university, which in turn is closely allied to the emergence of a tacit idea of the corporate university.

    What is striking about this conceptual journey that the idea of the university has undergone - over nearly one thousand years - is that it has gradually shrunk. Whereas the metaphysical university was associated with the largest themes of humanity's self-understanding and relationships with the world, the idea of the university has increasingly - and now especially in its entrepreneurial and corporate incarnations - closed in. The entrepreneurial university is expected to fend for itself, and attend to its potential impact on particular segments of the economy, and become distinctive. This university has abandoned any pretence to be associated with universal themes.

     The idea of the university has closed in ideologically, spatially and ethically. ideologically, the contemporary envelope of ideas encourages the university to pursue quite narrow interests, particularly those of money (in the service of a national - or even a global - knowledge economy); spatially, the university is enjoined to engage its region, especially with industrial or business organizations in its environs (increasingly its students are also 'local'); and ethically, the university has become focused on its own interests. It will, as a result, close departments of chemistry or physics or modern languages or philosophy because it sees such closures as serving its own (usually financial) interests rather than their being laced in a set of public interests. 

There is much more that could be said as we take this moment to reconsider what Michigan State University and higher education overall should be doing to help us cope with accelerating complex and wicked problems that are interdependent and yet crucially need to be addressed with gusto and humility. While my faith in the university leadership is lacking, that's no reason why the voices of faculty, students and staff might call for the kind of deep and reflective conversations that might help us redirect the institution towards the needs of our present and future generations.

If the reader feels pessimistic and despondent over the prospects, perhaps the insights of Rebecca Solnit, one of our best living writers can propel you forward.

Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army.         It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away a stone, an                 earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a                 movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people             change the world; sometimes they start a movement and millions do; sometimes         those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change                 comes upon us like a change of weather. All of these transformations have in               common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s         to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and               uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is             the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.
I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. At the beginning of his massive 1930s treatise on hope, the German philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote, “The work of this emotion requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong.” To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable. 
             –Rebecca SolnitHope in the Dark,