Rethinking Universities

Izabella Łaba is a mathematician at the University of British Columbia. She works on harmonic analysis, geometric measure theory and additive combinatorics. But this talk is on a different topic:

• Izabella Łaba, Rethinking universities in an era of climate change.

You should read her slides, but she’s given me permission to quote them extensively here. She starts by saying:

This talk came from my frustration with how universities are
responding to climate emergency.

• Corporate-style “sustainability”: VPs, associate deans, senior
administrative positions, fancy webpages, sustainability

• Money (millions of $): raising money, spending money,
massive construction projects.

• Feel-good (cheap) projects: plastic straws, bike to work
competitions, etc.

• Climate strike, Sept. 20 and 27. UBC did not cancel classes.
Nor does it plan (as of now) to divest from fossil fuels.

Here is what she wants to argue:

• We need to rethink sustainability, especially at universities.
Maybe we need less activity, not more. Less construction
noise, less fundraising, more room for quiet study and

• Stop measuring sustainability by the amount of money being
spent on it. That makes no sense.

• It’s not enough for us, individually, to try to reduce our own
activities that damage the environment. We have to stop requiring others to engage in such activities. That includes indirect pressure through professional and institutional norms.

• Change will be forced on us. We will have to adapt, one way
or another. It’s up to us whether we make the transition humane and how much of human knowledge we manage to preserve.

• The more humane and (relatively) more optimistic scenarios require social justice. We need to listen to local activists. We need to listen to those who have experience living with scarcity and uncertainty. We need redistribution, badly. We need more equality, less competition, more cooperation.

I will focus on one part of her argument, one that resonates with me very strongly. Administrators tend to think quite narrowly about the future of academia. They usually want their universities to do more of what they’re already doing—and to accomplish this, they try to get ahold of more money, hire more people, and get everyone to work harder.

Łaba’s talk is much bolder, but also more realistic: she points out the need for universities to do some things differently, and also do some things less.

She critiques the administrators’ approach, which she aptly calls the “corporate” approach:

• Decisions are often made by people who don’t actually teach or do research. Private consultations with donors, no transparency, faculty and students informed after the fact.

• No regard for actual academic activity. I’ve often felt like construction, landscaping, etc. were treated as top priorities, and my teaching/research were just getting in the way of that.

• Do we still want to have a university? So many sustainability projects involve reducing space and resources available to us on campus. Should we just close campus altogether, except to developers, and have students watch some YouTube videos instead? Would that be “sustainable”?

She points out how the corporate approach puts faculty on a forever speeding treadmill:

Our workloads keep increasing. Faculty often report 50-60 hour work weeks:

• Course loads and/or class sizes.

• Additional administrative duties. (Digitization was supposed
to reduce the bureaucracy. Instead, it has increased it.) Not
only imposed by senior admins. We do it to each other.

• New: long lists of things we are expected to do to support student well-being. It’s additional work, but surely we care about our students, don’t we?

• Oh, and also, could we please ride our bikes to work? Because environment.

It does not work that way.

Tired and overworked people do not have the capacity to accept additional challenges. They will drive to work, order takeout food for lunch/dinner even if it comes in Styrofoam containers, forget their reusable bags, throw garbage in compost bins by mistake, generally waste resources that otherwise could be saved.

Employers/cities can’t just tell us to get on our bikes. They need to understand the reasons why we need cars, and then address that.

She calls us to the scary but also inspiring task of radically rethinking universities:

We will have to slow down and think hard about what is important to us. What do we want to create? What do we want to save and preserve for future generations?

We will probably continue to teach and do math research. Both education and creativity are basic human needs. Look to WW2 in Poland: underground classes were held even when penalties included death and concentration camps. Mathematicians did math in horrifying conditions, if only to distract themselves. We won’t give up on it easily.

But we do need to think about which parts of our jobs are less
important and could be discarded.

• We spend so much time on gatekeeping. Refereeing, proposal evaluations, ranking decisions, writing and reading recommendation letters, deciding whether this paper is just good enough for Journal X but not for Y. What if we didn’t have to do that? We only have limited time available; how much of that time do we want to spend on refereeing?

• Gatekeeping would be less intense if the stakes were not as high. We can’t continue with the Hunger Games model where only a handful of decent jobs are available and everyone else is an adjunct with no job security.

• Hi NSF! Smaller grants distributed to more researchers would
be a great model to adopt.

• A Green New Deal in math would have to mean redistribution of work. Lower the workloads by splitting them up between more people. Creates new jobs, not in construction but in education. I’d accept that, even if it meant lower pay for me.

• Allow for specialization and division of work. Tenured faculty
already do their research, supervise grad students, teach large classes, teach small classes, write grant proposals, hustle for funding. Also asked to learn innovative teaching methods, serve as health counsellors/therapists when needed, engage in public outreach, etc. These are all good things to do, but can one person really do it all? In the limited time we have? And still ride a bike to work?

• But make that division equitable.

And, she points out the importance of dissemination and preservation of knowledge, not mere “production” of knowledge—especially in a time of crisis:

• Do we still have time to read other people’s papers? 30-40 years ago, people would rediscover previously known results because research dissemination was less effective. (No internet, limited access to professional journals, publishing delays.) Now, this happens because young mathematicians are under so much pressure to produce new results that they have no time left for reading. Also because some papers are very
diffcult to decipher, even for experts.

• Knowledge can and does get lost, especially during major upheavals. We need to spend less time “producing” new papers making incremental progress, and pay more attention to consolidation, exposition and preservation of the knowledge we already have.

I’ve quoted so much you may think you’ve read her whole talk here, but you haven’t. Read her slides (she also plans to write a longer version). And if you work at a university, or know people who do, please spread the word.

Some last words:

Universities, as non-profit organizations dedicated to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, should be leading the way. We should experiment and model the change for others.

We need more quiet study, reflection and contemplation. We need to learn to make do with less.

6 Responses to Rethinking Universities

  1. Ebrahim Patel says:

    This is very pertinent. Universities should absolutely be at the forefront of positive change, yet we are making it harder on ourselves. Thank you for this!

  2. Bob says:

    In accordance with the Red Queen Hypothesis: “You have to keep running just to stay in the same place.”.
    The resulting collateral damage to the food chain is a contagious form of stress.

    More time, can slow down a nuclear explosion and turn it into a useful nuclear power plant- but how do you take control of a global melt-down? Global Warming (climate change is just the symptom), is a much larger runaway heat generator than Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
    You have to think very elliptically before you start to see the shifts in the jet stream by bomb cyclones and arctic blasts looking more like the hugeKelvin-Helmholtz Instabilities on Jupiter.

    Accountability is hard to find these days.

    Fukushima disaster: Nuclear executives found not guilty (Sept 19, 2019)

    Someone should be wrangled into the cat-seat; with consequences. Perhaps ideally they should not believe in the Moon-Landing Conspiracy, the Flat-Earth Theory, or candle-light vigils. It’s a dignified janitorial position consisting of mopping up after adult children. Conscripted applicants will be given complete authority over a mop and a bucket with opportunities for advancement.

  3. The trouble you’re describing is pretty common, it’s also seen in public school systems and anything else dependent on tax money. For a start, tax money is relatively without limits, you have a captive set of taxpayers, and they either pay, or the state takes what they have, and despoils them. So they end up paying whatever gets required of them. Another thing is that people who are the beneficiaries of this largesse form an ever larger percentage of the population, so that there are some countries like Greece, for example, where the tax-dependent population is larger than that part which pays the taxes – and they can and do vote to take more from the taxpayers. And the taxpayers pay up, and it doesn’t matter who they elect, because the game is rigged – or the money from corruption and graft is just too much to pass up.

    So what tax-supported universities have become are vehicles for making money for those in power – education and research are the facade, but it’s just about money. And places like that – this includes K-12 public schools, too – feature bureaucracy, corruption, and graft. So the interminable construction projects go to a favored few companies which buy the politicians or administrators, and they exist to keep up the cash flow. Remember, taxpayers are pretty much captives, so they have to pay; the university will have a steady stream of these construction projects, one after the other, in what might seem to be a mindless flow – tearing down buildings for bog bucks, to build new buildings for big bucks – and the cash flows to the companies, their suppliers, and the other players. The benefit to the university, its faculty and students – that’s of minor importance. Same case for bureaucracy – bureaucrats make work for themselves, and they avoid work as much as possible, while constantly increasing their share of the cash. If they can con people to do their work for them, they will, and if that doesn’t work, they’ll use fear and force – the adjunct is the ultimate precarious worker. And bureaucracies expand in order to get more power and money which they can skim off for themselves.

    It will take a Mario Savio to fix things, someone willing to throw a monkeywrench into the gears of the machine, and it won’t be pleasant. But the alternative isn’t pleasant, either, where the university is an institution taken over by finance capitalism, where exponential growth is a necessity. And that’s not sustainable –

  4. Blake Stacey says:

    That’s a compelling read, even in slide-deck form.

    Conferencing without air travel has to be a solvable problem. Gosh dang it, we’re scientists — we’re supposed to be smart. We can, individually, try to do online meetings, but if the institutions still give us reputational credit for burning a metric ton of carbon in order to give a 12-minute APS talk (and to sit in the audience for many of the same, learning roughly nothing), well, let’s just say that the incentives are pointing in the wrong direction.

  5. Jeff Tansley says:

    Izabella Łaba, Vaclav Smil and even Jonathan Watts, tosser that he is, are articulating the same problem.
    We have known about exponential growth in a finite world as a technical problem for the human condition at least since 1798 when Robert Malthus wrote about this. It has been reinvented/rediscovered at various times since. After King Hubbert with peak oil in 1956 perhaps one of the most prominent was by Forrester, Meadows et al with ‘Limits to Growth’ in 1972 about the same time as Al Bartlett started his famous lecture tour. In more recent times similar concerns have been by expressed by Gail Tverberg, Kate Raiworth, Tim Jackson and Richard Heinberg. Never heard of them? I’m sure you have, look them up anyway. Of course they are not alone, there are tens of other but unfortunately only tens, not even hundreds. There are two reasons for this. The first is that even now none of these people saying the end of the world is nigh but some years hence things are gooing to be very difficult. Moreover human interaction with complex exponentials is a near impossible thing to predict in detail. Who really wants to know the Lemming will rush off a cliff in ten years time? It may never happen and it hasn’t happened yet. This comes to the second reason which is particularly important as scientists and it is theirs and similar work is virulently and systematically rubbished by prominent, dissonant psychotics. Naming names, try Marx versus Malthus or Nordhaus versus Meadows. Their rubbishing is not pursued as rational debate to attain understanding but crafted misrepresentation little short of agnotologism. Do it well and you get a Nobel Prize in economics. Why is this? Simply because growth is a precursor for human gain that manifests in a dominant few as greed, narcissism and other psychotic anti social personality and dissonant traits. In no way do such people with such extreme characteristics want their actions to be constrained in any kind of way with binding limits. So guess what, they work hard bullshitting everyone into believing they don’t need to. Some sort of progress since they used to kill people. And Izabella, to a significant extent similar behaviour can be found in our local leaders and managers operating apparent benign systems such as universities and hospitals. They get away with this perversity to the delight of about 50% of the population because, they too, have similar behavioural traits but to a milder degree. This is the crux of the problem – innate human psychology. This what we need to work on. Look at the slagging Vaclav Smil got from IEEE Spectrum readers for two recent articles on energy management to see how difficult this going to be and Jonathan Watts is clearly no help.

  6. ishicrew says:

    A few months ago I went to a lecture/seminar/discussion at a fairly well known university with 3 well known academics who study public opinion about climate change. One worked at the university , another flew 1500 miles to be there, and the 3rd drove 30 miles to get there (his university is well known for having a center partly devoted to ‘debunking the myth of AGW’–it has a couple of ‘economics Nobel prize winners’ associated with it . )

    (That center also recently rejected my grant proposal for a ‘startup’ (a low cost or ‘free university’ , think tank, and permaculture project–not everyone can do advanced math research for a living, so you may have to do some small scale agriculture and maintenance as well , while at the same time learning about a scientific world view.
    I knew i would be rejected but thought there was a 1% chance).

    (That public university also has faculty who argue that universities and university education should mostly be abolished (apart from their own tenured positions) —they don’t see a need for more grad students–they have enough–they need carpenters, plumbers, electricians, home health care workers for their aging relatives So they advocate for trade schools. )

    There were maybe 6 people on the panel , and maybe 10-15 people in the audience. (Most of the students were outside studying for exams or hanging out).

    I actually went there to see if there were any opportunities for grad study, but the panel basically did not take any questions at the end—they had to go to a restaurant. In the past (and likely even now) I could live for a year on the amount of money the 3 academics spent on plane fare, gasoline, and restaurant bills for that 2 hour discussion (which basically said nothing new–its all been published many times before, and some of that research has been criticized for a bit of ‘sloppiness’ (they had to retract some papers).

    I am sympathetic to the idea that there should be free education, and eliminate student debt–but if this just means paying for restuarants, plane travel, sloppy research (some conducted by internet polls–is an internet poll a ‘randomly controlled sample’?), and gas money then maybe I don’t. Also the University library where the ‘conference’ was at and where I used to be until 2am many nights–when they closed— was paid for by one of the Oil emirate countries in mideast. (I had a 3 mile walk home but i enjoyed the walk.)

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