The Role of the University in Environmental Sustainability

by |October 14, 2019

I am fortunate to work at a university that is deeply committed to the mission of mobilizing its resources and brainpower to address the most pressing problems facing humanity. Recently, Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, announced the creation of two task forces, one that will focus on the climate crisis and the other “to think through the role of the University… in meeting the needs of humanity.” Columbia President Lee Bollinger has charged this task force with addressing the key question of:

“What might be done to magnify our opportunities—and, indeed, our responsibilities, especially at this moment in history—to help bring deep knowledge to the world we serve, and, in so doing, enhance the vectors of university research, teaching, service, and impact?

This group will examine some of the fundamental elements of the university’s structure and approach to research, education and public service. University structures have evolved over time, from an exclusive focus on arts and sciences housed in academic departments such as philosophy and biology, to the creation of professional schools such as business, law, public policy, engineering, social work, journalism, education, medicine and public health. In the past two decades at Columbia, we have also seen the development of university-wide institutes such as the sustainability-focused Earth Institute, an Institute on Mind, Brain and Behavior, and a relatively new Data Sciences Institute. These university-wide enterprises are designed to draw on academic departments and professional schools throughout the university to fulfill their missions. A new effort to apply university learning to addressing global problems began here several years ago with the initiation of Columbia World Projects, which according to Bollinger is: “a University-wide effort to experiment with how to institutionalize this ambition of uniting academic capacities with agents of change, all in service to the public good.”

The complexity and interconnectedness of global life have made it necessary to accelerate the rate of research, education, and knowledge-informed action required to address the world’s problems. In my own area of focus, the sustainability of our natural environment, we see an intense need for greater understanding and rapid translation of proposed solutions into policies and business models that can protect the planet while permitting economic development. The Earth Institute has been working at this task since its creation in 1996 but has frequently faced barriers due to the system of funding research, the expense of educating students, and the research constraints established by the federal government’s funding sources.

Universities and the world of research funding reflect internal and external power relationships that can create impediments to creative, cross-disciplinary thinking. The drive for academic tenure can push research into narrow disciplinary lanes and to a focus on small scale, low-risk work that has a higher probability of success but may be less important if our goal is to address the world’s most pressing problems. Research funding is merit-based and peer-reviewed but is defined and constrained by research programs that are able to achieve both scientific and political legitimacy. Creative and novel work is undertaken but is far from the norm.

Throughout my career, I’ve focused on bringing social and natural science research to bear on environmental problem-solving. My first major experience in applying academic knowledge to public problem-solving was the work I did to promote effective public participation in toxic waste response and clean up. In 1980 and 1981, I was responsible for developing a proposal for guiding what came to be called community relations in the toxic waste U.S. Superfund clean-up program. As a graduate student at SUNY Buffalo, I had observed terrible communications between the public living around the environmental disaster at Love Canal and state officials responsible for analyzing and proposing measures to remediate that toxic waste disaster. Public officials with technical knowledge spoke a bureaucratic and scientific language that local residents found frustrating and indecipherable. When I went to work at EPA and was given the assignment of proposing a Superfund community relations program, I remembered those awful meetings and wanted to see how typical they were. I commissioned about a dozen social scientists around the country to conduct case studies of citizen-government interaction at toxic waste clean-up actions, and those comparative case studies formed the basis for the Superfund Community Relations guidance document we developed and utilized.

We found communications processes were typically problematic, even if they weren’t as bad as what we saw at Love Canal. Our major conclusion was that a new type of professional would be needed as part of the government’s clean-up team, a position we termed the “Community Relations Coordinator (CRC)”. The central job of the “CRC” was to be a translator, or what might be thought of as an environmental social worker. The Community Relations Coordinators explained public concerns to the environmental scientists, health officials and engineers developing clean-up options, and in turn explained the science and bureaucratic process jargon to the public in plain English. These new professionals needed to learn science, communications, a little social work and a great deal of patience to be effective in their work.

I learned a great deal about action-oriented research through that experience. First, we social scientists had to cut the problem we were studying “down to size” and prioritize our research to the issues of greatest concern to government decision-makers. EPA was worried that an angry and noisy public could disrupt the process of cleaning up toxic waste sites. They had not yet learned to hear public voices as a valuable input into decision making. I also learned that our analysis and proposals had to be simple enough to be absorbed by and added to an already complex EPA decision-making process. We had to propose something that EPA had the capacity to undertake.

Important social science breakthroughs can take many years to be absorbed by government and business. Consider the example of congestion pricing: The late Columbia professor Bill Vickery proposed it for the New York City subway system in 1952. The idea was to charge more for use of the subway when it was crowded and charge less when it was not crowded. Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing for New York City streets as part of his PlaNYC 2030 sustainability plan. It went down to political defeat until it was revived by Governor Andrew Cuomo in April 2019 as a way to deal with New York City’s mass transit funding crisis. While airlines have long used these concepts to price airplane seats, it will have taken New York’s government almost 70 years to absorb and apply this concept.

The key issue for universities like the one I work at in “speaking truth to power” is to engage in the process of public agenda setting and in selling new knowledge to decision-makers. Universities have unique resources for engaging in this activity. One resource is our mission to develop new knowledge through research. Another is our goal of imparting this knowledge through education. In our professional schools, a growing part of our educational process is through experiential learning. Students work as interns, faculty consult for public and private organizations, and students under faculty guidance engage in problem-solving projects for external clients. The process of developing these projects involves interaction between universities and clients, and the goal is both to train students and provide a useful piece of research for clients. At the School of International and Public Affairs, I have been teaching client-based workshop classes since 1982. In the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program that I direct we have undertaken client research projects since 2003. If you look at the link, our spring semester client-based workshop archive dates back to 2005 and you can see the rich diversity of topics we’ve researched and clients we have served. In the MS in Sustainability Management program that I also direct, we’ve been engaged with similar client projects since 2011. In both cases, our students learn and provide an important pro bono public service.

This model of engagement could be extended to include full-time university faculty and researchers. Just as teaching and publication is part of the work expected of our faculty, the university could also engage in workshop-like short term engagements in client-defined projects that would be undertaken by teams of faculty, researchers and students. The reports and memoranda produced could be part of the record by which faculty and scholars are judged. We have seen the start of some of these project engagements with the Columbia World Projects and, at Columbia we’ve also seen the start of research and faculty positions modified by the term “practice”.

I believe this model of engagement and connecting research and education to problem-solving is particularly important in the field of environmental sustainability as we face crises such as global warming, biodiversity loss, and toxic pollution of ecological systems. We have begun the process of institutionalizing this work in many universities, but we have a great deal to learn about how to be more effective and to ensure impact. Like Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger, I see this applied work as part of the natural evolution of America’s great research universities.

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