May 26th, 2010

The President’s Interview: Two college presidents speak out about sustainability from the perspective of their unique institutions.

By Larry Frolich

Jim Horton, Presidente de Yavapai College y Dan Garvey, Presidente de Prescott College, comparte el escenario en este foro enfocado en como ellos y sus instituciones responden a las demandas de sustentabilidad dentro del actual contexto social, económico y ecológico. ¿Que retos únicos enfrenten una universidad comunitaria y una universidad privada de las artes liberales? ¿Cuales visiones compartidas sobresalen? ¿Que papel único juega cada una de estas instituciones en promover sustentabilidad para ellos mismos y para las comunidades que sirven?

FORUM MODERATORS: Jordana deZeeuw, Prescott College, RDP Faculty; Ph.D. student in Sustainability Education and Pramod Parajuli, Ph.D., Prescott College, Graduate Faculty, Doctoral Program in Sustainability Education; Director of New Graduate Program, Development for Sustainability; Chair, Sustainability Education, MAP

Date and place of Forum: Thursday February 4th, 2010, 7:00 pm, Prescott College CrossRoads Center

VIDEO OF FORUM–EDITED VERSION

(Full video with audience questions can be seen here)

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EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW

Topic One—what is sustainability, anyways?

Jim Horton:

The whole issue of sustainability is so interesting. It’s probably the oldest topic discussed by mankind. You can imagine the australopithecines or Neanderthals sitting around the fire figuring out how they’re going to sustain their family, their lives. It has been with us throughout human history so it’s always been an issue. What I’m looking at from a sustainability stand-point is the complexity of this world right now and how do you deal with that because there are so many potential interactions…the interaction of several things, the economy, the environment, the social environment, all of which have to be maintained as sustainable. You can’t have one without the other. And I’m going to throw in another circle because it’s what I’m really interested in which is sustainability of technological innovation. Because I think that our only hope, really, is through technological innovation.

Remember E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small Is Beautiful…I liked it. My problem is scalability. How do you take ideas that work in a small environment and how do you scale them up to work in mega-environments? I think there is some way we can fit those ideas together…the Small is Beautiful idea but with technological innovation.

For me sustainability is at that intersection of these elements. How do we balance those things out and one of the circles I’m adding is technological innovation and it can work in small environments and be scalable.

Dan Garvey:

Sustainability for me is more closely connected to right thinking. So, what is the appropriate thinking that is necessary? I suspect that earlier in the progression of contemplating sustainability, I focused, as most of us do, on environmental sustainability, or the sustainability of different institutions, be that family, or religion or whatever. Now I find that I’m more interested in looking at the thinking that exists in an accumulation of people, let’s say society. So, as I look at it, I would put different markers at different points in the history of our species—times when we were thinking very well and times when we were not thinking very well.

And I would say those times when we were not thinking very well were times when we were not sustainable. And that our job as a species is to move towards positive so that we’ve got our heads around the things that need to be done. I know that I’m taking a sort of esoteric or lofty swing at this question, but it really is how I come down on it. So, for me, the question of sustainability is how is a society constructing the thought processes to handle what is going on. I believe that at every point in history, the people that are thinking in that period believe in their hearts that they are thinking in the most advanced way that they can. I mean, no one could think deeper than we’re thinking right now. And we’re in that place at this moment. We believe that we can capture the essence of what’s going on.

My hope is that we’re in a transitional period and on the threshold of a renaissance, and that the signal for that is that we will gravitate towards more reliance on truth as opposed to opinion. How do you make right thinking in this institution when it’s so easy to make decisions based on personal belief systems including our own? So when I think of sustainability, I think of the big issue of how do we create an environment where people can think.

Topic Two—The Economics of Sustainability

Dan Garvey:

I would say that financial viability is necessary. Rather than being a challenge, it’s an opportunity for an institution to have right thinking, as it is for an individual. I’m not so sure that having no financial regard is good for an individual—in fact I would say just the opposite. I would say that without any tether to the reality of finances, it would be very easy to have a life that is absolutely meaningless. And the same is true for institutions. [Jim and I] know lots of institutions that are very flush and their contribution has been minimized because there is no connection to the bottom line in any way…Every decision that is made in our institution, and I’m sure it’s true for Jim’s, is as an institution that recognizes that there are multiple needs arriving at an intersection at exactly the same time and it is always a question of sorting and it’s always a question of trying to put the priorities of the institution. My hope is that we have enough of a plurality of voices so that we understand how people place these priorities.

Let me give you one perfect example. This is a real ethical question. This is a question of two rights—what’s the best of two rights? Is it right that people make a decent wage—absolutely? Is it right that we do all we can to be sustainable—absolutely. Is it right that we do everything we can to be handicap accessible—yes? O.k., pick one of those and the other two will be diminished as a result. If we want this place to be completely handicap accessible, then I can guarantee it will have something to do with our salaries and the money available for sustainability projects. It’s always a question of sorting and the reality is that sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t. But he best you can hope for is that you try to stay true to your mission and accommodate as much as you possibly can.

Jim Horton:

One of the things I like about Eastern philosophy is that they can deal with the simultaneous existence of opposites which we don’t deal with very well in Western society. And I absolutely agree with Dan that these are not mutually exclusive kinds of issues. And I’m often frustrated by is that I’m not able to do what I know needs to be done because it does ultimately detract from our core mission. And there’s no place where that is clearer than in our use of energy and water. We’re lucky to be in Prescott where one of the simple things I can do is bring in outside air, but I need at least a 12 million dollar investment in my physical plant to get us more energy efficient and not wasting the tremendous amount of water we’re wasting right now in our cooling towers. So I’m often frustrated because I know what needs to be done but they require huge capital investments and I find that very frustrating. We’re paying an architect right now to redesign our whole heating and cooling system using the latest technologies. I’m going to get through the design phase and that’s all I’ve got money for. But it really is frustrating since we often know what we need to be doing, but you can’t do it because it will affect other pieces of your core mission.

Topic Three—social justice and sustainability

Jim Horton:

We have people with many many needs in this community and I’m an old community college guy—I’m in my 28th year of being a president of a community college somewhere—and I’m almost a missionary and have that kind of zeal because I believe community colleges really have been part of the realization of our nation’s democratic ideals in opening up college education to everybody. So I always try to keep my costs to students as low as possible.

I was listening to an interview on NPR with a very successful entrepreneur who didn’t go to college and said, “You really don’t need to.” Of course MIT has all their classes online for free. You can’t get a degree, but you can audit them. And increasingly that’s becoming the case. The developing countries have skipped the industrial age. They’ve jumped directly to the latest wireless technologies which are becoming increasingly affordable. And there’s lots of open source stuff out there that you can get fairly inexpensively. I can’t economically survive if I make everything free. But students can access that information because it’s there. So, I think there is some real hope for a lot of the world’s population because, from a technical standpoint, it is available. And they’ve just leapfrogged into the wireless age.

Dan Garvey:

Sometimes I worry, on a personal level, that we will never get it, that we will never succeed. And I just don’t want people to be discouraged in their attempt at greatness. We will never be socially just. How could we? I mean, what would that look like? We live in a world where we all went, “oh…I guess all these issues are done. Anyone interested in bowling?” I mean, what are we going to do? And since we care so much about it in this community, I wonder whether we pay enough attention to the discouragement who feel it’s not worth it anyways.

Topic Four—Implementing Institutional Operations that Work Towards a Sustainability Goal and Dream for Your Institution?

Jim Horton:

We talk a lot about the new students we’re getting. You look at younger students and how they communicate…the social networks, electronic social networks. You look at how that’s going to impact higher education in the future…and it’s definitely going to impact higher education…and I think our physical plants will become smaller. We’re trying to combine the best of face-to-face with digital support. We even have classes…chemistry and biology with a hybrid [digital/classroom] system. So students, with the vast distances we have to travel, students can do the didactic stuff online and come into the lab on the weekends. So, it is going to be different. And my dream would be that we would somehow find out how to combine the best of this incredible technological revolution that is coming about. I would have to sum my dream up that we somehow we find the balance with all the incredible technology that is coming and the face-to-face.

Dan Garvey:

My dream for the college is still connected to the mission. Quite frankly, I care a little bit that people get good jobs when they graduate from Prescott College—a little bit. But I really care that they use the information that they’ve been able get here…and the privilege really… to make a change in the world around them. So my dream is that Prescott College students and this community will continue to have an impact on pivotal questions that face all of us, vexing problems that are very complex.

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