1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 A set of values that is loosely grouped together under the rubric of “sustainability” has recently achieved a level of prominence in institutional rhetoric. I say “loosely grouped together” because sustainability is used to refer to several different ideas, all of which are grounded in the desire to create the conditions that will allow us to continue doing tomorrow the things that we’re trying to do today.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Most frequently, conversations about sustainability within higher education focus on attempts to respond to climate change, as students and faculty press our colleges and universities to make as little negative impact — and as much positive impact — on the environment as possible. This is a crucial set of concerns for all of us to attend to, especially at the institutional level, where disinvestment in fossil fuels and reinvestment in green technologies and practices could have important effects. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education has responded to the need for action in this area by creating the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System, or STARS, a framework designed to incentivize institutions to report their work to reduce their campuses’ carbon footprints.1 All reporting institutions receive the Reporter designation, and those that meet certain points levels receive a rating — from Bronze through Platinum — that can be used to promote the institution’s good work toward environmental sustainability.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 In broader nonprofit circles, however, sustainability often takes on a somewhat different primary inflection. Sustainability for these organizations frequently revolves around the financial, emphasizing the need for an organization to draw in sufficient revenue or philanthropic support in order to meet its expenses and continue operations. Many nonprofit organizations are balanced on a knife’s edge, especially in hard economic times, and are often required to spend significant time and resources on fundraising or to develop a set of income-generating activities, each of which has the potential to steal focus from the organization’s primary reason for being. Sustainability in this context is double-edged: without the ability to generate revenue, the organization cannot continue doing its work; on the other hand, focusing on revenue generation can pull the organization away from its purpose.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Both of these senses of sustainability, and the difficulties that they present, are crucial for leaders within higher education to consider. Educating our students without doing everything we can to ensure the planet we’re leaving them will be habitable is an exercise in what Lauren Berlant called “cruel optimism.”2 Focusing our efforts on revenue generation to the detriment of the public mission our institutions are meant to serve is a component of the “great mistake” Chris Newfield argues has undone higher education in the United States.3 But there are aspects of sustainability that both connect and exceed the requirements we face of attending to the environment and balancing our financial models. For instance, Sayeed Choudhury, director of the open source programs office at Carnegie Mellon University, described sustainability to me as “the transference of hope over periods of change.”4 That transference of hope can be assisted by our work toward environmental and fiscal sustainability, but it requires something more as well.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 The excess might be characterized as social sustainability. I choose the term “social” in order to point to the need for a group of people working toward a shared goal to commit themselves not just to the goal but to the group. In other words, sustainability for collective projects requires the collective to dedicate themselves not just to the thing they’re doing together but to the very idea of “together” in the first place. This social aspect is, I increasingly believe, a necessary precondition for any other kind of sustainability that we’re hoping to work toward. It’s the “community” in community-supported software, the “shared” in shared infrastructure, and the “public” in the public good.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The most significant ideas for our understanding of this relationship between sustainability and the public good derive from the work of Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom’s long-term study of common-pool resource management led her to argue that the conventional wisdom underwriting the work of many economists — most notably, for our purposes, that the “tragedy of the commons” was an inevitability — was simply not so. In fact, she argued forcefully, community-based systems and structures for ensuring the sustainability of common-pool resources were possible, provided the right modes of self-organization and self-governance were in place.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Common-pool resources are one of four types of “goods” categorized by economists based on whether they are excludable, meaning that individuals can be prevented from using them, and whether they are rivalrous, meaning that one individual’s use precludes another’s. Public goods are those resources that are both nonexcludable and nonrivalrous, meaning not only that no one can be prevented from using them but also that they do not get “used up”; they remain available even as others use them. In this category — at least theoretically — we might include clean air and water, as well as roads and other public services. Private goods, on the other hand, are both excludable and rivalrous; their use can be restricted to those who pay for them, and their consumption by one customer can reduce their availability for others. These private goods are most often market-based, often produced and sold for profit. A third category is that of club goods, which are excludable but nonrivalrous; use of these goods is restricted to paying customers but the goods themselves aren’t diminished by any one customer’s use. Here we might imagine services like internet access (which of course surfaces a question about whether internet access should be a public rather than a club good). And finally, goods that are nonexcludable but rivalrous are common-pool resources. Because no one can be prevented from using them, but their use diminshes their availability, economists have assumed these resources to be susceptible to the tragedy of the commons, or the overuse of shared natural resources.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 At the root of the tragedy of the commons lies the “free-rider problem,” which derives from the assumption that when individuals cannot be prevented from using commonly-held resources, but also cannot be compelled to contribute to their management and upkeep, some number of individuals will avail themselves of the resources without contributing to their support. As the number of free riders grows, the resources become prone to overuse and eventually become unsustainable. The only means economists have conventionally imagined to help prevent the tragedy of the commons is external regulation, whether through privatization or nationalization.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Elinor Ostrom’s work focused on undoing that assumption. In her 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, she points out that economic models such as the tragedy of the commons, the free-rider problem, and the prisoner’s dilemma, are based on a particularly pessimistic view of human possibility, one that mires analysis in its own metaphor.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 What makes these models so dangerous — when they are used metaphorically as the foundation for policy — is that the constraints that are assumed to be fixed for the purpose of analysis are taken on faith as being fixed in empirical settings, unless external authorities change them…. As long as individuals are viewed as prisoners, policy prescriptions will address this metaphor. I would rather address the question of how to enhance the capabilities of those involved to change the constraining rules of the game to lead to outcomes other than remorseless tragedies.5

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Ostrom’s work thus explored ways of organizing collective action that could “enhance the capabilities of those involved” to ensure the sustainability of the commonly-held resources that they depended on. 

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 While Ostrom focused on natural resources such as fisheries, the problems she described, and the potential solutions she explored, present some important lessons for institutions of higher education. The first is, as I argued in Generous Thinking, that we’ve allowed higher education — and increasingly primary and secondary education as well — to be transformed from a public good into a club good. What should be a nonexcludable process of making knowledge available to the world has been gradually transformed, through tuition and subscriptions and other paywalls, into an excludable privilege. As with internet access, if you can afford the price of admission, you can get access to a wealth of opportunities, and if you can’t… you can’t.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Secondly, however, the case of higher education makes clear that public goods are often renewable but not infinitely so. Clean air will not stay clean without oversight. Fresh water is sold to corporations that interrupt its access to the communities that rely on it. Roads have to be managed and re-paved. (Ask my colleagues in Michigan about this one.) Public goods require collective commitment to maintain — and that commitment, not just to the goods but to the idea of the “public” itself, is part and parcel of social sustainability.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Ostrom’s work demonstrates to us that with well-designed collective oversight we can avoid the tragedy of the commons, but that oversight requires a commitment to our togetherness. In higher education, this commitment must expand beyond the borders of the institution, to recognize not only the role of the public as institutional stakeholders but also the crucial interdependence of institutions of higher education as a collective. Our institutions are too often understood to be in competition with one another, when the real threats to their sustainability come from outside the sector, from governmental and commercial entities that see colleges and universities as a source of private wealth rather than a public good. Higher education needs leaders who are capable of building and sustaining the solidarity required for all of our institutions to succeed. Until our institutions are able to come together as a coalition and make a sufficiently compelling demand for the return to full public funding of higher education, and for the development of self-determined governance structures (rather than the externally elected or appointed boards of trustees and other bodies that control our institutions today), we will never be able to achieve real sustainability in any form, whether financial, environmental, or social.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 And it’s important to note that “sustainability” is itself insufficient. As AUTHOR TK has recently argued, “setting sustainability as the goal largely presumes we are, now, at a place of relative equilibrium and safety that only needs to be maintained.”6 We are nowhere near such a point. Far, far more work will be required to achieve a habitable, just future for higher education.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  • 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  • How might activities and groups on your campus that are focused on environmental sustainability become a field in which social sustainability might be cultivated?
  • How might the practices of self-governance of projects, labs, departments, colleges, and other units on your campus be improved in order to ensure the commitment of their members to their sustainability?
  • What avenues can you imagine for restoring an understanding of higher education as a public good rather than a club good? What would be required for us to fight for such a just future?

  1. 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
  2. Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, “STARS, Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System.”
  3. Berlant, Cruel Optimism.
  4. Newfield, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.
  5. Choudhury, Interview.
  6. Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, 6–7.
  7. TKTKTK. (Quote is from an essay I peer-reviewed; I’m awaiting author and publication information.)
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