In 1957, the dawn of the Soviet-American Space Race, no one knew whether our nation would succeed in its quest to be the first to send a man to the moon. What was certain, however, was that inaction would mean a demise of life as we knew it.
The nation turned to its scientists, engineers, and mathematicians for the technical solutions. At its very foundation, our educational system shifted to meet the call to action.
A half century later, the challenge is not in the domination of space but in the unsustainable trajectory of our planet’s health and the demise of its natural resources. If you spend time with university researchers who study such issues, there is a genuine sense that we’ve come to Sputnik-era crossroads once again.
The opportunity to create sustainable practices, technologies, and systems to correct the course of mankind is upon us, but this window is closing faster than we would like to admit. We are fortunate to live in an era during which the doomsday scenarios of the 1950s and ’60s are not so palatable. Although fear is a great motivator, it too is unsustainable to spur long-term and well-measured action. Yet, it is impossible to consider the body of evidence of climate change, diminishing resources, and the domino effects on human security and not say the cause of sustainability is worthy of a moon-shot goal.
Sustainability is our generation’s space race, and the University of South Florida (USF) is answering the call.
Perhaps the need to act is so clear for me because I live in Florida, a state where the lack of sustainable economic, environmental, and social systems is at the heart of many of our problems.
Our growth-fueled economy was susceptible to the fickle whims of the credit market, hurricanes, and international capital flows. Our fast-forward trajectory took its toll on our beautiful environment and created social fissures that strained health, education, justice, and human services systems. Although there are many wonderful things about life in Florida, it remains a state beset by its inability to produce the healthy, stable, and prosperous communities we desire. No amount of tax money will solve the underlying issue of sustainability.
As a state, Florida has been smacked by the reality that it must change course, but there are tensions between the old economic model and the reality of building an innovative economy, which requires a substantial investment of time, money, and human capital.
But Florida is also the home of Cape Canaveral, and anyone who has toured the Kennedy Space Center cannot help but be moved by what has been (and continues to be) achieved there. Every time the space shuttle lifts off, I can only hope there is another child in Florida inspired to think bigger, reach higher, and want more for his or her future.
That is why this spring USF is taking a bold step in launching the School of Global Sustainability. The first of its kind in the nation, USF’s School of Global Sustainability upends the traditional structure of academia and creates a true interdisciplinary environment in which researchers can join together with a common goal. Its focus is global—not only because we like to think big but also because it sends an important message that solutions must transcend borders.
We define sustainability as creating systems—energy, health, manufacturing, food, transportation, or social—that allow the planet and all those who inhabit it to be healthy and prosperous. We are focused on the protection and careful administration of all resources: natural, human, and financial. This theme applies whether you are talking about alternative energy sources, food and water systems for developing nations, manufacturing systems, or even health programs for our own country.
Many colleges and universities around the nation have launched programs, institutes, and schools focused on sustainability. It is heartening to see higher education respond to students who are demanding this programming and urging a focus on the challenges to our collective future.
I also have heard from researchers and my colleagues at other institutions that there remains a vast chasm between our efforts and a true understanding of why this work is necessary. It was interesting to see our efforts to look inward at campus sustainability dismissed by some naysayers—on our own campus, no less—as a trendy waste of money. Clearly, it isn’t easy being “green.”
USF’s School of Global Sustainability is not a bricks-and-mortar school, either figuratively or literally because there are no walls. There will be no dean, and no professor will earn tenure in the school. Most of its courses will be delivered online. In the current era, we recognize that we needed to rethink some of our own learning traditions, given our declining public financial support and tuition burdens on our students.
The school marshals our pool of talented researchers from our various colleges and draws together existing resources to create a focus on sustainability that crosses borders and cultures. We realize that no one discipline, no one university, and no one nation will have all the answers, but given USF’s tradition of interdisciplinary work, this is a natural extension of our campus culture.
The first class of graduate students will begin this fall in a program that will focus on sustainable water systems. In our opinion, one of the essential building blocks of life is a good place to start.
Bringing the Big Picture into Focus
Last fall, I was the single American university president invited to present at Seoul National University’s Global University President’s Summit. The theme of this auspicious event was “The Role of Universities in a Sustainable World.”
As I sat in that hall, roughly 40 years and three months after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, I couldn’t help but marvel at how the world has changed when it comes to meeting our common challenges. Here I was with university leaders from Japan and Germany, in addition to France, Great Britain, Singapore, and South Korea. Although the call in Washington for an investment in alternative energy has been framed as vital to American competitiveness in a global economy—not an unfounded or unimportant concern—it is events such as these that emphasize the need for global cooperation on the larger issue of sustainability.
Not surprisingly, the panel of university leaders came to similar conclusions, calling on the world’s institutions of higher learning to assume leadership positions in the cause for sustainability. But the question lingers: Are we, as higher education leaders, doing enough?
It is true that academic scientists have made great strides in understanding the changes our planet is undergoing. We are beginning to adjust our culture to understand that our natural resources are finite. We have proven without a doubt that future economic prosperity depends upon investing in early childhood education, disease prevention, and social supports to build strong, healthy families, in both the developed and developing world. Last fall, USF had the honor of hosting a riveting discussion among a panel of national security experts who explained how destructive weather patterns brought on by climate change will lead to droughts and famines, conflict over scarce land and food, and ethnic tensions and terrorism. For many of us, the proverbial light bulb (if only it were a solar-powered, recyclable one!) went off.
Yet there has been a nagging sense that something is lacking in this discussion. The disparate efforts to understand what is happening on our planet and in our communities have lacked connectivity and we continue to miss the big picture. What we need is a focus, on a university, local, national, and global scale, that will spur a sense of urgency.
My esteemed colleague, Yoichiro Matsumoto, vice president of the University of Tokyo, summed it up best when he said: “Universities’ traditional contribution to society used to be in a passive manner—providing knowledge. While still necessary, it is not enough for universities in the 21st century. We need to be more proactive by initiating actions.”
In other words, my fellow presidents, what are we waiting for?
Time for Action
I certainly am not the only person to draw parallels between the challenges of the space race and sustainability. Last April, President Obama’s address before the National Academy of Sciences called for a reinvigoration of American science to meet the goals of global competitiveness and improve our energy and health outlook. It was a much welcomed message at research universities when the president challenged the United States to surpass its record investment in research and development set in 1964, the height of the space race.
Unfortunately, President Obama’s call to action withered in the hands of congressional budget writers and the national conversation ended before it really began. The reality is that universities will have to confront these problems with existing resources. If you are waiting for a windfall, the window of opportunity to effect change will close. Ultimately, that’s the challenge for our universities: deciding what we can change with the talent we have now. I maintain you can do a lot more than you might think.
The challenge for USF as we launch the new School of Global Sustainability is a substantial one. Breaking down the silos, creating an interdisciplinary environment, and getting the right students in the door are only the first steps. We pride ourselves on being a university engaged with its community, so it is essential that we spur the public conversation about sustainability, particularly in Tampa, a coastal city in a state where the vulnerabilities of unsustainable systems could not be more clear.
We need to keep in mind those boys and girls in Florida’s classrooms watching the shuttle launch and ask: “What will we say to them 10 years from now when they arrive at USF worried about the future?” I look out my window and see the students on my campus now, so eager and inspired to change the world, as many of us were at that age, and I know there is no reasonable excuse not to marshal their creative energy. Challenge yourself: How can this generation of university leaders—many of us the children of the space race—not use our power and influence to support sustainable solutions when there is still time to make a difference?
Perhaps the quiet drip, drip, drip of a melting glacier is not as alarming as Sputnik’s shrill, quick beeps, but it is ominous nonetheless.
Judy Genshaft is president of the University of South Florida, and immediate past chair of the ACE Board of Directors.
This feature appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of The Presidency, the American Council on Education's flagship magazine. Written for and by college and university presidents and chancellors, The Presidency spotlights the most dynamic personalities in higher education, offering them a forum to present their views on the critical issues affecting campus leaders.