Time for universities to be ‘heroic’ on sustainability, says Crow
Academy ‘at the heart’ of humanity’s failures to get to grips with scale of the issue, warns president of Arizona State University
Universities must take “heroic action” to address the sustainability crisis after helping to lay its foundations by failing to take action sooner, Arizona State University president Michael Crow has claimed.
Speaking at Times Higher Education’s Global Sustainable Development Congress (GSDC), Professor Crow said universities had moved too slowly to address the problem.
He said the sustainability emergency – which the GSDC is meeting to discuss urgent solutions for – was caused by the relationship between the built environment and the natural systems on which we are dependent.
Professor Crow told delegates at the event in Saudi Arabia that sustainability was “critical to our success as a species”.
“We in academia have contributed mightily to the designed environment, and hold much of the responsibility for the lack of sustainability of that built environment and its increasing disruption of the natural environment,” he said.
Professor Crow warned that the world was entering an “unbelievably challenging moment where everything is accelerating”, and that there were many things higher education could have done already but had not.
The sector’s inability to be “more conscious of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it” helped lay the foundations for the sustainability crisis today, he said.
“A lot of groups have been responsible for our lack of sustainability, but at the heart of all of them has been the academy, [and] the universities,” he added.
“It’s time for universities to really step up for heroic action in the way that universities did around some other issues in the past.
“It’s time for new types of knowledge to be produced, new ways of thinking.”
Addressing the congress at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) via video link, Professor Crow said trying to build alliances between universities was “nearly impossible”.
He called for universities to broaden the way they organised themselves because working in isolation would “not get us there quickly enough”.
The summit, held in the Middle East for the first time, is aiming to challenge the usual thinking on what higher education, with the support of governments, businesses and society, must do to help society meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“It’s time for us to mount up, to begin working together, to begin aligning together, to begin working across institutions and across the world to take on this notion of global sustainable development,” added Professor Crow.
Also speaking at the summit, Tony Chan, president of KAUST, said the world was in a state of crisis that imperiled all of humanity, and universities across the globe should act with resolve.
“Our required response to the present crisis must be of a scale and sense of urgency akin to how we must respond to major world wars,” he said.
“Our universities must cease to be exemplars of unsustainable practices and we must become the transformative enablers of sustainability for others.”
Those outside higher education took their cue not just from what universities preached, but from what they practised, said Dr Chan.
“If academics are serious about tackling sustainability challenges, we can’t wait for the cavalry to show up,” he said. “We are the cavalry.”
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