Saturday, May 23, 2020

School of sustainability

In a few recent posts, I was critical of university endowment practices. Why build up a stock of investment, rather than invest in faculty, research, or other core activities? Why wall that pile of assets from being spent, especially when budgets are cratering in a pandemic? When we see businesses with piles of cash, we infer they don't have any good investment projects, and the piles are ripe for diversion to bad ideas.

But universities are non-profits, and one major piece of being a non-profit is that the business is protected from the market for corporate control. If you see a business wasting money on bad investments, buy up the stock, fire management, and run it right. Repurchases were part of an earlier reform effort, to stop management from wasting money on aggrandizing projects.

Perhaps restrictions on endowment spending serve a somewhat parallel function for universities. Perhaps I was wrong to criticize so harshly.

These thoughts are brought to mind by Stanford's announcement of a new school "focused on climate and sustainability." A "school" is bigger than a center, an institute, a department, a division. Stanford has seven "schools," Business, Education, Engineering, Humanities & Sciences, Law, Medicine, and, yes, Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

Why a new school? It will
"amplify our contributions in education, research and impact further by aligning people and resources more effectively.
Says university President Tessier-Lavigne. Vice Provost Kathryn Moller will
"lead an inclusive process designing the school’s structure....consult with key internal and external stakeholders to develop a school organization that amplifies faculty and student contributions to address the most urgent climate and sustainability challenges." 
creating an
"impact-focused community, with new opportunities to enhance the impact of their work on the issues they deeply care about,” 
"Impact" and "amplify" repeat quite a few times.

Importantly for a university, it will
 run degree-granting programs for undergraduate and graduate students.
It will
include a sustainability neighborhood that would provide place-based education and infuse sustainability in the education of all students across campus...
"Infuse" is a lovely word. Inculcate might be better. Indoctrinate might not be far off.

In a revealing quote,
“Living sustainably on our planet requires more than advocacy, we need deep scholarship,” said Sally Benson, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy. “The paradigm that’s led us to the world we have today is based on growth that’s not sustainable. ... We need to transition to an economy where more value is created by restoring and preserving Earth’s resources than by activities that degrade and deplete them. This school will provide a home to support the scholarship needed to realize this vision.”
"Advocacy" comes first. Scholarship is an addendum to advocacy. The question whether our current paradigm  produces "growth" that is "sustainable" is apparently settled before the institute even gets going on that scholarship. All the other schools are organized around questions. This is is organized around an answer.

(Never mind our "paradigm," regulated capitalism, is the only one that produced the environmental movement, and is rapidly transforming all on its own. And just what does "sustainable" mean? Of course nobody wrestles with the definition in any of these documents.  I somehow suspect it is not the dictionary definition of "can growth go on," Jones/Gordon debate over the end of ideas, and and will not include the effect of regulation or other disincentives on idea-driven growth. This is not the sustainable you're looking for. Suppose a scholarly paper finds that markets, property rights, and corporate structure produce the most "sustainable" growth by any metric. Will that result be welcome?)

If you get the faint impression that this is an advocacy-based initiative, I would not blame you. I will be curious to see how many climate skeptics, geoengineers, nuclear power plant designers,  GMO foods experts, they hire. Heck, it will be interesting to see if they hire any registered Republicans.

Where did this idea come from? A
...committee, ... carried out a campus survey, held five open forums, met with faculty, staff, students and other stakeholders from across the university, and interviewed past and current campus leaders.
A consistent message from those conversations was an enthusiasm for the idea that Stanford’s ambition and commitment to climate and sustainability must be as large as the challenge, according to Diffenbaugh. “We heard that sustainability should be a top priority in research, education and impact,” he said. “We also heard that the structure should be inclusive and that sustainability needs to be infused in all aspects of the university.” 
My emphasis. They surveyed the inmates to find out how to run the asylum. Thank goodness however, that by walling it off in a separate school, "sustainability" will not be "infused" in all aspects of the university, Hoover for example. And be thankful for small things. It's not officially a school for climate, sustainability, social justice, diversity, equity, and so forth.

Well, maybe  you are of a different frame of mind, and climate and "sustainability" still rings as your top worries, over war, civil or nuclear, pandemic, crop failure, bio terrorism, or any of the other civilization-ending possibilities out there. (We shall see just how sustainable the school of sustainability will turn out to be.) Perhaps you too think the time for inquiry is over and the time for "advocacy" is now, and we'll all go right back to business as usual post Covid.

Still, perhaps you too will think it wise that university presidents can't spend the whole endowment in a year on the Next Big Idea. After all, the next president might survey Hoover, and decide we need a school devoted to "advocating" and achieving "impact" in a School of Freedom, devoted to personal, economic, political and social freedom; constitutional rule of law, relieving global poverty and improving the environment through the only known method, widespread idea-based economic growth. The President might name Dierdre McCloskey to run it. Well, it's not likely, but you get the point.

Of course, I should acknowledge the other reality of campus life. When you hear such gobbledygook, search for something deeper. A "school for sustainability and climate," so clearly structured to advocate and inculcate rather than research and debate, is a superb fund-raising tool to attract wealthy tech titans and other non-profit organizations. There are big economies of scale in fundraising, "big" projects raise more money than yet another center, project, initiative, program. That view explains a new "school" very well.  My School of Freedom might raise $12.

Viewed this way, our leaders are doing a great job.

Update: Actually there is something like a school of freedom at Stanford: Hoover. OK, we're not a "school" by a long shot, but our motto is "ideas defining a free society." And I take a little self-interested pleasure in the new school. Quite a few faithful Stanford alumni donors come our way when they decide the rest of the university has gone nuts. We're still here!


  1. I don't think restrictions on spending from endowment restrain from building and running monuments. Tuition is charged at market price. The monument is paid for from tuition revenue rather than from the part of endowment earmarked for professors' salaries.

    A law that forced spending from endowment at, say 5% per year, would help [if the 5% were not big enough to finance a monument :-)].

  2. This short essay goes a long way in explaining the use of term “sustainability”:

    “Unsustainable Platitudes”, Don Boudreaux, Pittsburgh Tribune, 08/12/2014

  3. "Give me just one generation of youth, and I will change the whole world." -- Lenin.

    "Sustainability" is a political portmanteau for a collection of political movements on the left to wrest control from the majority in order to discredit private enterprise and capital which are portrayed as "unsustainable" and a 'clear and present threat' to the environment. This effort has been a constant since the start of the industrial revolution. It picked up steam after the second world war, and entered the North American school curriculum during the 1960s. It gained more attention in the early years of the 21st century. Now, we see Stanford proposing the establishment of a school devoted to the teaching of "sustainability". If a university operates a school of business administration focused on teaching "capitalism" ('thesis'), then, in the interests of a 'balanced' curriculum, it stands to reason that a school devoted to the teaching of "sustainability" ('antithesis') is a perfectly logical and natural extension for such a university. This development is in the vein of 'thesis' plus 'antithesis' yields 'synthesis' ('capitalism' plus 'communism' leads to 'cap-com' or 'com-cap', depending on which end of the spectrum one starts from). It is also consistent with the decades earlier effort to inculcate engineering school students with an inkling of an liberal-arts education to produce a 'well-rounded' engineering school graduate rather than the 'philistine' engineering graduates of an earlier generation that lacked an exposure to a liberal-arts curriculum and the benefits that accrue therefrom. That the effort is a consummate waste of time for both the liberal-arts faculty tasked with educating the 'philistines', and the engineering school students who are innately incapable of seeing the benefits accruing from forced enrollment in 'bird' courses, is beside the point, from an educator's perspective.

    That the world's human population is expected to grow by a further three billion persons (+40%) by the end of the present century (i.e., by the end of the year 2100 CE), undermines the argument that economic growth is 'unsustainable' and, therefore, can have no role or purpose going forward. The argument is specious. Absent economic growth and development, recourse to war is inevitable as younger more vital populations strive for resources to meet their needs and aspirations for their subsequent generations. "Sustainability" advocates would deny those generations the resources necessary to life, for the sake of reining in the 'excesses' of unrestrained 'capitalism'. Such a posture is unsustainable, and morally indefensible. But political movements are rarely concerned for 'others', and Stanford will go ahead in the full belief of its correctness regardless of the folly it will promote and the foolishness it will disseminate.

    1. Well said sir!

    2. Oh my..... thank God for the tension between Libertarians and Marxists. Putting either one in charge would destroy everything. Contrasting the assertions of each of those lets all come into perspective.

  4. As for the writing from the President and the Vice Provost, it is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer. Where is the evidence that growth is not sustainable. "1980:In the year 2000 Production of oil worldwide will then drop to zero over about 20 years." Need." Is "infusion" needed to survive?

  5. How profoundly depressing.

    Will this school turn out to be 'sustainable'? Sadly, it may well be, as history suggests daft ideas can be remarkably long-lasting. After all, socialism is still very much with us despite having failed catastrophically everywhere and every time it's been tried.

  6. If you can explain why regulation is not infrastructure then we can explain sustainability.

  7. The only school of sustainability should be the school of engineering. Talking about biodegradable materials doesn't produce biodegradable materials.

    1. Yes indeed! I eagerly anticipate the time when my only rubbish bin will be the compostables. Biology is the fastest recycler, even at its snail's pace. The other bins send stuff to industrial recycling (slower, if at all) or geological recycling (unimaginably much slower). Faster the recycling the more GDP can be made from the same stock of materials.

  8. It's been said before that all this is religion. Great religions have built great monuments. I doubt this one will.

  9. Endowments create sustainability. When times are bad the endowment's annual distribution is (4-5%) helps shore up the budget. In good years it helps to grow. The problem with people and endowments is that they forget about good stewardship, transparency, and common plain sense.

  10. Good points, though I think the Dr. Cochrane buried the lede to some extent. The fundraising opportunities that come with the naming possibilities of any new schools and buildings are no doubt a big factor in *why* universities grow. *How* they grow - along with the potentially faddish zeitgeist - is related but not the same question.

    As for "sustainability", Andrew Parker - bursar of St. John's College at Oxford - offered an interesting perspective on that topic (and university endowments) a few months ago. Some students occupied the quad in a protest demanding that the St. John's endowment divest its shares of BP and Shell. Quoting from the WSJ Opinion page ( ):

    "The Times of London reports that bursar Andrew Parker made them a counteroffer. 'I am not able to arrange any divestment at short notice,' he wrote. 'But I can arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect. Please let me know if you support this proposal.'

    The idea that the students themselves make a fossil-fuel sacrifice did not go over well. One protest organizer complained that Mr. Parker was being flippant, noting that 'it’s January and it would be borderline dangerous to shut off the central heating.' Another suggested Mr. Parker was being provocative.

    Again the bursar responded with wisdom: 'You are right that I am being provocative but I am provoking some clear thinking, I hope. It is all too easy to request others to do things that carry no personal cost to yourself. The question is whether you and others are prepared to make personal sacrifices to achieve the goals of environmental improvement (which I support as a goal).' "

    It appears that, when push comes to shove, production of oil and gas is more "sustainable" than the ability of protesting students to deal with a bit of cold by wearing warmer clothes indoors and putting an extra blanket or two on their beds.


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