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
• 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.