Climate change and the mission of higher education

2 October 2019, 2235 EDT

On October 2, I sat in the audience of the first of six public events in what appears to be MIT’s semester of climate change. Introducing the great and good of climate science, MIT president Rafael Reif made a comment that struck me. To paraphrase, he argued (or at least I think he did, I was grading at the same time) that in an era of diminished federal and state funding for research, it is incumbent on universities to seek out funds to support climate research from private actors. Hard to argue with this statement, and yet…it seems to narrow the agency of universities to figuring out the best places to get money. In the aftermath of the Epstein mess, the perils of such a course are obvious.

But I also think it sells universities (dangerously) short when it comes to climate change. In short, universities have to rediscover their agency if we are to overcome climate change. To understand why, consider the nature of the problem. The scope of the political, social, and technological challenge is well known. What I think is under-realized is that confronting climate change is probably the single largest effort at purposeful social engineering humans have ever undertaken. We know from work like Scott’s Seeing Like A State that large scale social engineering is at best a fraught exercise and a worst one doomed to fail. And yet, with climate change we cannot afford to fail. What to do? Here is where a better conception of university agency should provide part of the answer.

Rather than conceiving of universities as primarily money seekers, reconceptualize them as problem solvers that convert/harmonize global efforts at social engineering into/with local practices. If universities like MIT really care about climate change, they should develop interdisciplinary climate initiatives that bring together the humanities, social sciences, engineering, and the natural sciences to study the ways in which local communities are adapting (or not) to climate change and using those insights develop and deploy adaptation and mitigation technologies and policies. The proximity to universities to diverse communities offers rich opportunities to experiment with adaptation and mitigation. Where experiments are successful, they provide templates and toolkits for syncretic incorporation in other communities. Where experiments fail, they provide constructive lessons. Instead of waiting for a unique global solution negotiated at a Conference of Parties, universities as unique sites of learning and knowledge creation should be charting the paths ahead.

Which brings me back to Reif’s comment. Of course universities need to find external resources to do their work. But somewhere along the way, many American universities became reactionary, pursuing agendas set by donors. If humanity is going to come to survive climate change, universities and colleges must rediscover their mission. And who knows, if they build climate change programs maybe the money will come…