Thursday, September 26, 2019

Universities, Growth, and Social Responsibility

[UPDATED: Nov. 26, 2022]. This commentary was written at a particular moment, in the context of a university leadership more interested in property development, than the academic mission. It was also written in the context of deepening awareness that our climate is heading toward a point of no return. Since then we have also passed through a pandemic. During the pandemic we have had to change our approach to many things. One of them has been shifting to virtual meetings, even hiring online. Using these technologies we can reduce our ecological footprint and reduce our need for physical plant by using online technologies. It's not a replacement of face to face, we need that, be we now know we can get by with less.
Over the course of my term as a governor on UBC's board I have heard a lot of presentations about growth: academic growth, endowment growth, student enrolment growth, reputational growth, and on it goes.  I can't say I am surprised, but what was once opinion is now an observed fact: growth in various 'metrics' is a core feature of governance discourse and the operation of UBC.  I think, though, that the ideology (or, put another way, cultural frame) of our day pervades discussions in such a fine grained way that it may well be difficult for governors and administrators to escape the discourse of perpetual growth. Or, even if they can consider the idea of zero growth, governors and administrators can not imagine the pragmatic possibility of zero growth.

Just this week during the formal meeting of UBC's Board of Governors we heard three public presentations about growth highlighting UBC's Kelowna campus.  We learned about the campus' "robust growth in students, faculty, staff, and research funding, within the context of surrounding communities also undergoing a period of significant development and change."  We further learned about the "significant potential for innovation. ... [and]  thoughtful way[s] that advance implementation of the strategic plan."  This is simply one case among many and is highlighted here for no other reason than it was the primary work of the formal meeting.  One could review the meeting documents of the past two years and, without much effort, find similar discourse.

The reports and formal discussions are filled with terms, phrases, concepts, ideas that resonate with the grand modernist project of late capitalism. Here is a sample (there are more, but we will start with these):
  • Growth: a natural, inevitable process of expansion that indicates success.
  • Innovation: to turn 'knowledge' into 'value' (usually dollar value). 
  • Advance: to add (often through innovation) to a body of practice or reputation that indicates success.
  • Development: that idea of improvement and expansion typically linked to physical plant, but may also include knowledge and innovation.
  • Change: this rendering implies both development and advancement moving in a forward direction; change is positively valued and tied to notions of inevitable growth.

One may well argue with these definitions - I certainly do. My point here is that after careful observation, detailed reading of the board meeting packages, and close listening to what is said during meetings these are in fact the operational definitions used in our university's governance.  This posses a problem if one wishes to effect a 'change in direction.'  Why? Becuase this discourse naturalizes growth via a capitalist lens that renders any solutions not premised on growth impossible to execute, unreasonable, impractical, or even against the university's own best interest  (consider the recent board committee discussion on divestment from fossil fuels). 

There are alternative capitalist approaches to slow or zero growth.  The most famous is E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful (see also) approach.  Schumacher argues for a "people centered economics" that would yield a more sustainable world.  Canadian economics professor Peter Victor offers another within the capitalist paradigm view. He calls it "managing without growth." Both of these approaches locate themselves within an ideal of managed, moderate scale, sustainable market economies. 

It would seem reasonable that even an institution that benefits from capitalism might at least consider managing its growth more expeditiously in order to reduce its negative impact on our shared ecological future. But even here it seems hard for the governance structure to pay any serious attention to the idea of managing without growth.  I can personally attest to the bemused responses from developers, planners, administrators, and other governors to the very idea it might be reasonable to throttle down on UBC's unrelenting growth.  When ideas run against naturalized perceptions and beliefs it is rather difficult for adherents to take such ideas seriously (even harder if their jobs depend upon advancing the ideology of growth).

The hard fact of the matter is that with each project, each modest moment of growth, each tiny expansion we are pushing ourselves that much closer to the ecological brink.  With each capital approval we pass at the board, with each new project or program we agree to, with each new digital infrastructure we support, with each small incremental increase in enrolment, we are adding to the ecological harm inflicted on our world and locking in a future none of us on the board or senior management would ever wish to live in personally. Yet we continue with impunity.

We continue to say UBC is a sustainability leader and build more buildings. We say we are intersted in responsible ecologically sound investments, but we tread carefully becuase of a fiduciary duty to the past, to people who will be dead by the time the climate collapse hits. We continue pretty much as we have been doing while assuring ourselves and those around us that we are leading and doing more than others. Yet it is not enough. 

Oceans are warming. Weather patterns are changing. Sea levels are rising. The time to act slowly has passed. It is time for real action; an end to the status quo.  We need to make amends for the way we have ransomed the future of our children and our children's children for our own immediate gratification.  

Part of doing things differently requires rethinking growth. As we do that we can make some intermediate changes:
  • Divestment from plastic production, tarsands, petroleum transportation of any kind.
  • Place a moratorium on physical expansion on the UBC-V campus immediately until the negative cumulative impacts of new projects are fully costed in terms of their real environmental impact and there are plans to mitigate these impacts.
  • Cap UBC-V student enrolments at current levels and place a moratorium on all new programs and enrolment projects until the negative environmental impacts of any enrolment growth are fully costed in terms of their real environmental impacts and there are plans to mitigate these impacts.
  • Identify and strengthen all current 'sustainability' projects/processes on campus and ensure they are focussed on social/ecological (not fiscal) criteria with clear targets that ensure climate mitigation is their focus (not greenwashing).
  • [Note: I would revise these suggestions today deleting some, adding others. as noted in the top update, this was written at a particular moment in time in response to a foot dragging administration.]

Long term changes would reorient the university away from the concept of perpetual growth toward one of equilibrium with our social-ecological world. For example, rather than using ideologies of competition to attract students we would use a model that emulates the 100 mile diet - attend school close to home. All of this needs to occur with widespread social change. UBC has a place to play, not in climbing global rankings, but in leading real change that ensures a thriving, ecologically sound future for all.

No comments:

Post a Comment