Universities in the time of climate change

Vancouver, Summer 2017 (The Fifth Season)

This is the HTML version of my submission to the Proceedings of the JHU Workshop on Professional Norms in Mathematics, organized by Emily Riehl in September 2019. I gave a (virtual) presentation there, circulated a set of slides, and was in the process of writing a longer piece based on that when life started to get in the way. Here it is now, with updates to account for recent events. I owe much gratitude to Emily for her encouragement and patience.

1. My first attempt at this essay grew out of my frustration with common institutional responses to the climate emergency. “Sustainability” has become yet another bonanza for developers and manufacturers. New energy-efficient buildings are joyfully constructed, appliances are replaced as soon as a newer and slightly more efficient model becomes available. A typical sustainability webpage boasts of new construction, fundraising, and multimillion “green” developments, with a sprinkling of low impact feel-good projects on the side: bikes, straws, reusable coffee mugs. Institutions act as if “shop more, save more” were deep words of wisdom that applied to the environment, as if we could address a crisis of uncontrolled expansion by doing more of the same. As for the employees and customers, or faculty and students, we are expected
to allow ourselves extra time for construction-related detours on our way to work, yield the right of way to heavy machinery, take a yoga class if we discover that we have anger management issues, and otherwise continue as usual.

I spoke about this, remotely, at the JHU Workshop on Professional Norms in Mathematics in September 2019. I wrote in my set of slides for the talk:

Climate change will be hard on us, both physically and mentally.
Heat waves, wildfires, air quality, disaster preparedness and responses, power outages,
boiled water advisories, etc.: we will not be able to rely consistently
on modern age conveniences.

When the slides were circulated on the internet and blogged at the Azimuth, reactions were divided. One tech person on Twitter said that this was nonsense: we would be able to shield and air-condition a university in the middle of the Death Valley if needed, this would be an obvious priority given that the future of humanity depends on the continued ability of the smartest people to work in comfort. A few weeks later, under the threat of wildfires, the California utility PG\&E cut off electricity to various locations including the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

I also wrote this:

We will not be able to demand that everyone must operate at 100% capacity, 100% of the time. Employers will have to acknowledge that people are human, and plan accordingly. If lack of resources does not stop us, public health issues will do it.

I did not know that a global pandemic was just around the corner.

Universities have not acquitted themselves well in the Covid-19 crisis. In the most benign cases, faculty scrambled to set up instant online courses using whatever resources they happened to have at home, while administrators wrote fanfics about their endless emails, memos and directives providing support and leadership during that difficult time. Furloughs, layoffs and restructuring have already started at many institutions. Students are often left in a limbo, the future of their education uncertain, their housing and immigration situations hanging by a thread. The worst is likely yet to come, as too many universities still plan to reopen in a manner that will put the health and lives of their students, faculty, staff, and surrounding community in grave danger.

Yet, this is only a small preview of what climate change will bring. Other pandemics may follow, as we continue to encroach on parts of the biosphere that would be best left to themselves. As wildfires ravaged Australia a few months ago, we watched helplessly the cell phone videos from residents who, having been told that it was too late to leave, sought shelter by wading into the ocean instead. Extreme conditions will become commonplace. There will be no help coming and no one available to bail us out when everyone’s resources are strained to the limit.

We should not want to return to the “normal” from February 2020. That was not sustainable even before the crisis hit. The campus I work on was too large and too crowded, its layout in open conflict with class schedules and student timetables. We were rushing people from place to place with not enough time to get there, packing them into classrooms that were too small, figuring out whether to close the windows so that we could be heard against the noise of the leaf blowers or keep them open so that students do not suffocate. The sheer logistics of all that took so much exertion that little was left for the actual education part.

Expansion comes at the cost of resilience. Campuses were already coming apart at the seams. They had trouble accommodating lesser crises, from snowstorms and transit strikes to the H1N1 threat a few years back. Their only safety valve has been to ask students and faculty to go above and beyond, sacrificing their personal time and resources to maintain the illusion of the institution working as usual. Of course this had to crumble in a global crisis, and will continue to crumble as challenges keep coming.

We could continue in this manner, asking people to perform heroic feats so that institutions could pretend that everything is fine. Or we could acknowledge the reality. We could slow down, scale back, allow room for buffer in case of emergencies or unexpected circumstances.

I do not have confidence that universities will make the right choice.

View from Rebecca Spit, Quadra Island, BC

2. This is a personal reflection. I am neither a climate scientist nor a fortune teller. I did, however, grow up in a country where scarcity was the norm and adaptation to difficult conditions was a daily fact of life. Poland, devastated by World War II just a few decades earlier, then oppressed and exploited by the Soviet Union as it tried to rebuild, had low living standards across the board. Sustainability was not a buzzword and we did not have corporate offices dedicated to it. What we had was very limited resources.

The centrally planned state economy was wasteful, inefficient, and inflexible, doomed by its disregard for expertise and inattention to local specifics. On the level of individual households, we lived frugally, trying to do the best we could with what we had. Reuse, repurposing, and repair were not a boutique option, but an economic necessity when new consumer goods were scarce or unavailable altogether. Contingency planning was essential. Power and water outages were common and could happen anytime, and the supply of basic food and hygiene products was never guaranteed. We could neither outsource our problems nor buy our way out of them.

Here and now, the issue is not just that we should learn to reuse and repair, although we should indeed do that. We also have to recognize that sustainability is labour-intensive, requires constant human attention, and might not drive economic growth as measured by capitalism’s preferred indicators. As our circumstances become more difficult, we must anticipate the human impact of widespread and prolonged hardship. Many in the West are getting their first taste of it as they find themselves less productive during Covid lockdowns. This is old news to those of us coming from countries that have seen harder times.

I also come from a society that could not afford to take its science, culture, or intellectual life for granted. Throughout the 19th century, Poland, partitioned between Russiał Prussia, and Austria, did not exist as an independent country. Teaching Polish history and literature was not permitted under Russian rule, so Poles organized their own illegal schools. Marie Curie, born Maria Skłodowska, attended the secret “Floating University” in Warsaw which changed locations frequently to avoid being detected by the Russians.

The house where Marie Skłodowska-Curie was born, Warsaw
The house where Marie Skłodowska-Curie was born, Warsaw.

Underground classes returned during the German occupation of Poland in World War II. The Nazi plan for Jews is known well enough; Slavic Poles, just one step up in the racial hierarchy, were to become slaves working for the German empire. Hitler understood, as many dictators do, that nations are easier to subjugate when their intellectual elites are eliminated. About 20% of Poland’s population were killed in the war; among those with higher education, the fatality rate is estimated at 30-40%. The Jagiellonian University professors were deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp as part of the Intelligenzaktion in 1939-40. By the time the Germans took the territories initially occupied by the Soviets, they did not bother with the preliminaries. A mass execution of Lwów professors, Jewish and gentile alike, took place on the morning of July 4, 1941. Others were killed in the days and months that followed.

Stefan Banach, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, survived as a lice feeder. Rudolf Weigl, an Austrian-Polish doctor researching typhoid vaccines, saved a number of scientists by enrolling them as experimental subjects in his institute. The mathematicians would sit at one table in the lab and debate theorems and proofs to distract themselves from the pain and indignity as the lab lice fed on them.

This is not an inspirational story of overcoming adversity. Banach died of lung cancer in August 1945. The Polish mathematical school did not return to its pre-war greatness. As Urbański writes in The Brilliant Ones:

In his journal, [Hugo] Steinhaus made a list of the mathematicians lost to Poland during the war. Fifty names, including Lvivians: Bartel, {\L}omnicki, Sto\.zek, Ruziewicz, Auerbach, Chwistek, Saks, Schauder, Hetper, Kaczmarz, Herzberg. He also counted those who left Poland in time, such as Ulam and Kac. “Almost 70 percent of research mathematicians
who were Polish or originally from Poland,” he wrote.

This is all very hard to write, but I want to share it because of the utter lack of imagination displayed today by too many administrators, college presidents, and other presumptive leaders. Do they really think that moving all classes online for a year or two is the worst that can happen? What will they do when climate change kicks out their door? It is not surprising that the clearest vision and leadership has often come from HBCUs and community colleges, where hardship is the daily reality and not just a paragraph in an admissions essay.

University faculty come from many countries and backgrounds. I have only read about wars and heard about them from my elders; there are faculty who lived through them. We have witnessed, and worked through, mass upheavals and natural disasters. Do not keep your consultations limited to mysterious “stakeholders,” especially not to those who have never experienced a greater calamity than their stock options taking a sharp turn downward. Talk to people who have lived through a crisis or several. How important was education to them? How far would they go for its sake? Where would they stop? What would they prioritize? We are already finding out which jobs are really essential and how many of them require a college degree. We may be about to learn more about the difference between education and credentialism. The reckoning will not stop there. Universities, by and large, are not prepared to face it.

3. Many university campuses, including the one where I work, are near-permanent construction sites. The construction is often tied to sponsors, donations, fundraising opportunities with strings attached that pull us in non-academic directions. Stadiums, alumni centers, administrative offices, and other similar objects are prioritized over classrooms and research space. Large retrofit projects mandate the same improvements everywhere across campus, needed or not. With the choice and scheduling of projects contingent on the vagaries of external funding, there is little local input as to emphasizing academically needed upgrades or coordinating different projects at the same location. Faculty and students feel like intruders in spaces where academic activities are clearly not prioritized.

Much of this is advertised as environmentally friendly. The new buildings will have solar panels, certified energy-efficient fixtures, grey water recycling. The distinction between reducing environmental impact and merely shifting it elsewhere is conveniently ignored. Infrastructure retrofits can reduce emissions on campus, but the new energy-efficient appliances have to be manufactured somewhere, often in countries we criticize for their high carbon footprint even as we continue placing orders with them.

One might also ask when a university really needs to have another stadium and how many alumni centers are actually necessary. Over the decades, universities have tried to become company towns, sports and entertainment centers, and real estate operations. Far from the minimalist model of dorms, food halls and a bookstore, they have branched out into everything from luxury condos to health services to sports and recreational objects, not to mention the ubiquitous branded apparel and giftware.

The stadiums and the alumni centers are empty now. The branded sports apparel sold at the bookstore is collecting dust. The company town is all but boarded up. Aside from the university hospitals, the only part of the university that continued to function without interruption is the one that received little or no investment and that did not require the company town or the luxury infrastructure at all: the actual education, the faculty teaching from their kitchens or living rooms, the students learning in whatever spaces they have available.

In a crisis, one must choose one’s priorities. Education, scholarship, and research are the reasons universities exist in the first place. There will always be a demand for that, even in a crisis, for as long as human civilization exists. Can we focus on how to meet that demand reliably and consistently in changing circumstances? Or must we continue to invest in administration and infrastructure that will likely become dead weight in the near future?

I would very much like to have a sustainability office that would subject all construction on campus to careful scrutiny, approve only those projects that are critical to the university’s research and educational mission, and disallow all those whose main rationale is that the money happens to be available. I would love to have a sustainability initiative that would replace the ubiquitous American-style lawns on campus with local low-maintenance vegetation that does not require sprinklers, toxic pesticides, leaf blowers or lawnmowers. Ideally, this would be done in a gradual, user-friendly manner, without the massive roadblocks that keep us from getting to classes on time. I would love to see sustainability projects that reduce noise and disruption, making room for the sustainable, environmentally friendly academic activities of quiet study, reflection, and conversation.

4. We are inundated with calls to change our personal habits. We are told to ditch our cars, bike to work, avoid plastic bags and disposable food containers, sort our recyclables, turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater. The encouragement takes the form of posters, placards, broadcast emails, bike to work competitions, and expensive parking permits that nonetheless do not guarantee a parking space. It is assumed that faculty and students live close enough to campus and have a safe cycling route to it, that they have a bike, storage space for that bike (nonexistent in many city apartments), waterproof clothing and carrying bags in case of inclement weather. It also helps if someone else (usually, a wife) is available to pick up the kids from school, buy the groceries, and run any other errands that require a car. The participant is assumed to be in good enough health and have enough time and energy left at the end of the workday. All of these factors tend to be correlated with race, class, gender, ethnicity, and income.

Universities might do well to listen to Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, under whose stewardship British Columbia suffered minimal Covid casualties so far with relatively low levels of social and economic restrictions. Her office has always emphasized that government-level public health measures, and the resources to support them, must come before policing individual behaviour. The New York Times reports on her approach as follows (emphasis mine):

It was while working for the World Health Organization tracing Ebola outbreaks in Uganda that Dr. Henry developed her ideas about how best to respond to public health emergencies. The keys to an effective quarantine, she came to understand, were communication and support, like food and medical follow-up, not punitive measures.

“If you tell people what they need to do and why, and give them the means to do it, most people will do what you need,” she said.

[Update, January 2023: I rarely make this type of edits, but in this case, I consider it necessary. I still think highly of Dr. Henry’s public health stewardship in the early days of the pandemic. While business closures and limits on gatherings were in place here like everywhere else, we were never subjected to extreme and counterproductive measures such as closing outdoor spaces and confining people to their homes. Since then, however, Dr. Henry’s advice on what people need to do and why has become rather questionable. For instance, Dr. Henry not only refuses to implement indoor mask mandates when infections rise, but also issues strongly worded letters to institutions such as schools and universities advising them against having their own mandates. This has been a major disappointment. Sorry, but this needed to be said.]

Faculty often report 50-60 hour work weeks with little or no vacations. Class sizes are increasing. Digitization, instead of reducing our administrative workload, has increased it by redirecting much of the work from staff to faculty as “self-service”. Tenured faculty already do research, supervise graduate students, write grant proposals, serve as journal editors and referees. We are also asked to learn innovative teaching methods, monitor and support student wellbeing, engage in public outreach, and participate in initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion. These are good things to do, but can one person really do it all? In the limited time we have? The percentage of contingent faculty is also increasing. Many of them have extremely high teaching loads and must commute between two or more campuses in order to make a living. They cannot do that on their bikes, especially if they have no safety net to provide health care or replacement income if they get clipped by a car.

Tired and overworked people do not have the time or capacity to accept additional challenges. They will drive to work, order takeout food for lunch or dinner even if it comes in Styrofoam containers, forget their reusable bags, throw garbage in the compost bin by mistake, generally waste resources that could otherwise be saved. Simply telling us to stop doing that will never be effective. There are reasons why we need cars and convenience food. Those reasons must be understood and addressed, and I do not see how this can be done without putting workload reductions and improved working conditions on the table.

Vancouver, Summer 2017 (The Fifth Season)
Vancouver, Summer 2017 (The Fifth Season)

This will only get worse as climate change continues to affect our physical and mental health. Here in Vancouver, smoke and air pollution from wildfires has become a regular occurrence in the summer. Heat waves, floods, hurricanes become more frequent. New diseases emerge, old ones threaten to return. We will be exposed to extreme conditions more and more often, and will have fewer ways to mitigate them.

It is not enough for us, individually, to try to reduce our own personal activities that carry high environmental cost. We have to stop requiring others to engage in such activities, both through legislation and through professional and institutional norms. This is not just faculty versus administration, either. We have to stop making impossible demands from our trainees and colleagues. Then perhaps they will remember to bring their reusable mug and ride their bike from time to time.

There are other lessons from Covid that we should learn. For example, it is more important for public health measures to be implemented widely and easily than to work perfectly in every single instance:

Public health experts focus more on huge groups, not individuals. They don’t need masks to work perfectly for everyone. They’re thrilled to see a smaller benefit in a larger population. And there are models showing that if masks are about 60 percent efficient, fewer than three-quarters of people would need to wear them to keep a disease like Covid-19 in check.

Today we’re in danger of making the same mistake with tests… We have to start accepting less accurate, widespread testing for groups. We have to stop muddling the messaging by focusing only on the most effective tests. With testing, just as with masks, more is sometimes better than perfect.

The same will apply to climate change. We will not be saved by experimental hyperefficient cars or residences for the wealthy few. We will need cheap solutions that will be available to most people, products that can be made easily and inexpensively, procedures and regulations that scale well throughout a society.

Universities will have a part to play. To be sure, climate scientists are already doing their best. Technologies required for adaptation and mitigation will likely rely on knowledge created at universities and research institutes. We are counting months to the Covid vaccines currently being developed and tested by scientists, and since we have no way of knowing what will hit us next, our best bet is to continue to invest in a broad, flexible research base that can be deployed in multiple directions.

And yet, that by itself will not be enough. It will also be necessary to understand people and societies, and to design our climate adaptation measures accordingly. We should part, once and for all, with any notion of defunding humanities. History, sociology and anthropology must guide us in using the tools we develop. And, if universities wish to be credible leaders in this, they should start by applying such lessons to their own institutional structures.

We will have to learn humility. High-tech molecular tests are important tools for managing Covid, but so are lowly cloth masks. We will likely need similar combinations of high tech, low tech, and common sense in mitigating the effects of climate change. Universities can help by examining, without prejudice or condescension, solutions already used in other countries and cultures. They can offer frameworks for recognizing, studying and teaching traditional and Indigenous knowledge. We will need all the knowledge and wisdom we can muster.

5. What would a better, more flexible, more resilient university look like? We certainly would have to cut the administrative bloat. Community governance would have to take place of the career administrators and corporate consultants. But we also need to consider what we would do with that governance. How would we imagine better ways to do our jobs? What will matter to us when times get hard? What do we want to save and preserve for future generations?

We will likely continue to teach and do mathematical research, in some form, for the foreseeable future. Both education and creativity are basic human needs. We will not give up on them easily.We do, however, need to think about which parts of our jobs are less important and could be discarded.

A Green New Deal for universities? Faculty numbers, especially the numbers of tenured and tenure track faculty, have no
relation to how much work actually needs to be done at universities. Our workloads have long been ballooning out of control. New responsibilities are added almost every day. At the same time, faculty positions continue to be eliminated or converted to temporary ones, so that the increasing total workload is shared between fewer faculty. Technology does not solve the problem: as the failed MOOC experiments have shown, small groups and personal contact are as important in online teaching as they are in face to face classes.

What if we reversed that? We could hire more people and redistribute the workloads. It would create new jobs, we would all have more time and capacity to have a life outside of work, and the quality of the work we do would likely improve if we did not have to rush it. It would also mean a redistribution of salaries, but I would gladly accept lower pay as a fair price for the rest of the bargain.

Less gatekeeping, more redistribution. We spend an astounding amount of time and energy on gatekeeping: refereeing, proposal evaluations, ranking decisions, writing and reading recommendation letters, editorial work. What if we did not have to do that? Or, at least, if we could reduce it by half or more?

Obviously, gatekeeping would be less intense if the stakes were not as high. If we discontinued the current Hunger Games model where only a handful of decent jobs is available and everyone else is an adjunct with no job security, then perhaps thousands of person-hours would not have to go into the countless meetings, letters and evaluations that are currently mandated every time someone moves one step up the ladder. Some funding applications come with so much administrative work, in both preparation and adjudication, that any funding awarded in the end would not even come close to balancing the cost of that at a fair hourly rate.

Less output, but make it count. We need to stop measuring the quality of the researcher by the quantity of their output and level of their activity. “Productivity measures” such as citation index or counting the number of published papers are deeply flawed. We like to say that these are imposed on us by administrators. But what would we do if no administrators were there to constrain us? How much of this is actually peer pressure? We should in particular be more realistic about what can legitimately be expected from junior job candidates.

How many conferences and institute programs do we really need? How do we best use them? Even if air travel becomes easier again in the future, it will still have high carbon footprint and will not be great for our health. Online conferences are more environment-friendly, but even so, what if we treated them as actual communication channels instead of markers of prestige and importance? There are other modes of communication and dissemination, such as blogs and social media; what if we put more effort into diversifying and refining those instead of just counting the number of conference appearances, online or otherwise?

“Online” is not the answer to everything. Covid has forced our professional seminars and conferences to go online. This is being presented to us as the environmentally-friendly alternative, since no air travel is required. Similarly, we once thought that email and electronic record-keeping would reduce the amount of paperwork, and time spent on it, through the elimination of paper. We had also overestimated the anticipated energy savings from replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LED lights, not taking into account that when lights are cheaper to use, people install more of them and leave them on longer. The same could happen with online conferences. Easy availability breeds proliferation. The energy footprint of the internet is not small: Bitcoin mining has been estimated to consume about the same amount of electricity as small countries, and similar estimates for videoconferencing under the Covid regime are likely forthcoming. Online or not, we will have to choose our activities carefully and know where to stop.

Preservation of knowledge. 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. (There was no internet, access to professional journals was more limited, preprint servers did not exist.) Now, this happens because young mathematicians are under so much pressure to produce new results, write them up and move on, that they have no time left for reading. It can also happen because papers written hastily are very difficult to decipher even for experts, or because the sheer volume of incoming preprints and publications is too overwhelming.

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.

Equity, social justice, and collective action. Less stratified fields, with less gatekeeping, are usually good for diversity and equity. What is less appreciated is that this works in both directions. Feminist, anti-racist, and social justice groups have developed professional norms and codes of conduct that reduce gatekeeping, improve the working climate, and promote cooperation. We can learn from them. I have been drawing on that experience in my own mathematical practice, with good effects.

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. When it comes to sustainability in particular, we need to listen to Indigenous activists. We have been underestimating their traditional knowledge for too long. They are already on the front lines of defending the environment, doing the hard work for us. We have to learn to work, not just with them, but under their direction.

To make any of this happen, we will need collective action on a scale previously not seen at universities. We will need not only unions, but also coordinated action between them. This, too, is in a feedback loop with equity and redistribution. If we, the tenured faculty, treat our staff, adjuncts and graduate students less than fairly, we might have little luck telling them that “we are all in this together” next time
we need their help.

Quadra Island, B.C.
Quadra Island, B.C.

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. We cannot buy our way out of the climate emergency. Capitalism will not save us. Universities, as non-profit organizations dedicated to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, should be leading the way. We should experiment and then model the change for others.

We will need to learn to make do with less. We like to say that mathematics only requires a pen and pencil. We may be tested on that.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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