The Campus Sustainability Movement: A Threat to the Marketplace of Ideas

Today, colleges and universities are rife with initiatives that have little to do with enhancing student learning. Extravagant recreation facilities and luxurious dormitories seem to grab headlines on a regular basis. But other campus projects, particularly those that impose political agendas of professors, administrators, or students, are perhaps more troublesome. For when ideology and personal beliefs are allowed to dominate campus culture and scholarly debate, the academy’s raison d’être is compromised.

North Carolina State University (NCSU) provides an illustration of the problem. An especially pernicious brand of environmentalism—“sustainability”—is on the verge of becoming an unstated, but very real, part of the school’s mission. University leaders are developing an aggressive public relations campaign and curriculum change that could create a system in which students are inculcated in social justice, environmental justice, and progressivism—all of which are tenets of sustainability. 

“We want sustainability to be a part of our culture in everything we do,” said Jack Colby at last week’s Sustainability Town Hall at NC State. Colby is the university’s Chief Sustainability Officer. He also heads its Sustainability Council, which provost Warwick Arden has charged with developing a new five-year “strategic plan” on sustainability and “infusing sustainability into academic curricula across the campus.”

The roughly 60 professors, administrators, and students who attended the event were asked to brainstorm ideas and provide the Council and its working groups with a starting point as drafting of the plan begins (it will be finalized in 2017). For some campus affiliates, alumni, and taxpayers, the proposals may seem alarming. More on them later.

Although “sustainability” is an innocuous-sounding term, perhaps conjuring images of community gardens or recycling, at its core is a totalitarian philosophy that seeks to curtail personal and economic freedom. That’s one of the takeaways from the National Association of Scholars’s comprehensive 2015 report Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism. Across the country, campus activists are shutting down debate on important issues such as climate change, watering down liberal arts curricula with fluffy, politicized courses, and forcing behavioral changes on the part of students.

Each year, according to the NAS report, universities spend approximately $3.4 billion on sustainability initiatives. That’s in addition to the billions in higher education grants provided in the last two decades by government agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency) and private philanthropists. Today there are more than 1,200 degree programs—and thousands of courses—related to sustainability. Support for the movement, as evidenced by funding, research, student involvement, administrative growth, and course integration, is at an all-time high.

At NC State, as with other universities, calculating sustainability expenditures is difficult. Sustainability initiatives are often spread out across campus in the form of “green,” LEED-certified building construction and other longterm projects that don’t always show up on the sustainability office’s balance sheet. Moreover, officials are not always eager to provide price tags for their initiatives. When I asked the university for its overall sustainability budget, I was told only that the sustainability office has four full-time-equivalent workers (Jack Colby earns more than $140,000 each year).

But the biggest issue with sustainability at NC State and other universities may not be excessive spending or administrative growth (though it would be nice if budgets were more transparent, allowing policymakers the opportunity to better assess the impact of sustainability). Rather, the problem seems to be the blanket acceptance of sustainability as an objectively virtuous ideology that is beyond scrutiny—and therefore one that should be foisted on the entire academic community.

Currently, incoming NC State freshmen are required to attend sustainability “orientation.” The university offers a B.S. in environmental sciences, which has a strong sustainability emphasis and teaches students to “recognize the economic and sociopolitical ramifications of the environment.” Numerous courses, as well as workshops and continuing education programs, incorporate sustainability themes. And student support appears to be strong; recently, under the aegis of the administration, student groups were able to ban the use of plastic bags at campus stores. If last week’s town hall meeting was any indication, however, there is a contingent of university leaders, professors, administrators, and students that wants to ratchet up sustainability even more.

There were calls to: create a first-year general education course based solely on sustainability; “train” faculty, staff, and students to be more aware of social and environmental justice issues; and require incoming freshmen to read sustainability books (that’s already happening; last year, incoming students read Jay Erskine Leutze’s environmental justice-themed Stand Up That Mountain). There also was a suggestion to add a sustainability statement to all course syllabi to indicate NCSU’s commitment to the cause. Other proposals were more radical: one person wants to “re-brand NC State as a less conservative and more activist-minded school” and another wants to have sustainability advocates visit local K-12 schools to “plant the seed” of sustainability.

Chief Sustainability Officer Jack Colby, in an interview with the Pope Center, insisted that, while radicalism may be prevalent at other campuses, NC State is focused on practical concerns related to efficiency and energy savings. “This is not about tree huggers and green fanatics,” he said. “We’ve almost achieved a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption per square foot on campus. Likewise on water: through a program guided by our sustainability office, we have reduced water consumption by something approaching fifty percent.” 

Anytime a public university finds ways to save funds, it should be applauded. But NC State’s case begs important questions: if increasing energy efficiency on campus, which is really an engineering and technological problem, is the main thrust of its sustainability mission, why is there a need for academic degree programs, courses, and other initiatives that “nudge” students toward sustainability? And why does the Sustainability Council have a working group tasked with “addressing the common threads of sustainability-related social movements [such as]…diversity and inclusion, social justice, environmental justice, affordability and access and living wage compensation”? 

Dr. Walter Robinson, head of NCSU’s marine, earth, and atmospheric sciences department and co-chair of the Sustainability Council’s Academic Working Group, told the Pope Center that when the university introduces sustainability into coursework, it is merely “responding to market forces.” Robinson (who, by the way, supports the proposal to have sustainability statements on course syllabi) said that employers frequently tell the university that they’re looking for graduates with sustainability savvy.

Although that may be the case in some industries, in recent years the common refrain from employers has not been that students aren’t savvy in terms of sustainability, but that they can’t think critically or write well. Besides, a recent ETS Proficiency Profile test (similar to the Collegiate Learning Assessment) administered to NC State seniors revealed that just 12 percent were “proficient” in regard to critical thinking. Roughly 60 percent were deemed “not proficient.” It’s clear that sustainability should be low on the educational priority list at NC State.

At any rate, while Colby and Robinson may indeed be of a more practical bent, others who are attracted to the sustainability movement often display a kind of radical politics that is incompatible with the the marketplace of ideas. It seems unlikely that officials will be able to separate that hard-left fringe from their sustainability mission. If anything, that fringe is being encouraged to actively participate in the policymaking process. Vigilance on the part of the public and state leaders will be necessary in the future. Left unchecked, this seemingly harmless movement (which has a strong presence at other North Carolina universities, too) could sow the seeds of social upheaval by turning hearts and minds away from the principles of a free society.