Dear Commons Community,
Katherine Fleming, the provost at New York University had an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Daily News, entitled, How to Build a Post-COVID U(niveristy). She raises a number of important considerations including environmental concerns for the academy to take a look at what the post-pandemic normal will be. She states: “For those of us in higher education, the pandemic has forced us to reexamine what constitutes an effective research and learning environment. It should also force us to consider how, like Switzerland, higher education can lead in making a commitment to a dramatically reduced carbon footprint and in rethinking workplace norms for the long haul.”
Her entire op-ed is below and contains important commentary on what our colleges and universities can do in the coming months and years.
The New York Daily News
How to build a Post-COVID U?
May 24, 2021
Two years ago, I attended a conference that seemed pretty aggressive at the time in its commitment to sustainable practices. It was in Switzerland, a country that has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, and the commitment was visible everywhere. I remember many fellow American attendees commenting on the all-vegetarian menu, the reasonable portions, and the complete absence of anything disposable. Of course, most of us had flown — some great distances — to attend this conference, burning much fossil fuel in our wake.
But the event itself was striking in its adherence to environmental practices, visible in its every feature. Conference IDs were crafted of recycled cardboard and doubled as a weekend pass for all local public transportation. No one was handing out brochures. The lights in meeting rooms were dimmed when they weren’t in use. We ate off of non-disposable plates and drank water served from refillable glass pitchers. The thought of instituting practices like these at my own university seemed implausible and daunting. Back home it had taken me a full year and a virtual civil war in the office to banish disposable coffee pods.
Now, as we embark on 2021, the world is a very different place. The COVID-19 pandemic has brutally demonstrated that mass, rapid behavior change is possible. It has shown us that individuals and teams can often be as productive working and communicating digitally from remote locations as they can be gathered in the same physical office. That we can easily survive meetings without an endless supply of bad bagels, cookies and sandwich wraps to tide us over. That we don’t need to rely on disposable swag to get our “brand” across — in fact, we’d probably prefer that our brand not be associated with disposable swag at all.
For those of us in higher education, the pandemic has forced us to reexamine what constitutes an effective research and learning environment. It should also force us to consider how, like Switzerland, higher education can lead in making a commitment to a dramatically reduced carbon footprint and in rethinking workplace norms for the long haul.
Does every university employee require their own dedicated office space in a building located (in my institution’s case) in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world? Do we all automatically require land-line phones at our desks, or would some of us be quite content to use our cell phones alone? And while I know researchers can benefit greatly from meeting up in person to present and discuss their findings, might there be other ways effectively to communicate knowledge as well?
In terms of teaching, it’s been made clear to me that both educators and students yearn to resume in-person classes, at least most of the time, but that the extent to which they need to be welded into seats or at lecterns differs depending on the course and the educator. Perhaps it’s time to look beyond the dichotomous “in-person” and “online” course categorizations and give students and educators the freedom to learn and teach more effectively and with greater accessibility.
These questions aren’t new, and my institution is far from alone in reconsidering them in the wake of pandemic. COVID-19 has been a nightmare for higher education, as it has for so many sectors. But it has forced radical change and proven that change doesn’t always take time. And when it comes to preserving the environment and reversing damage, we don’t have the luxury of time. If we can change our practices to evade a pandemic, surely we can change them to evade environmental ruination.
During COVID, NYU’s building operations have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 6,400 metric tons. Air travel restrictions we put in place have saved 20,000 metric tons. Everyone is clamoring to “get back to normal.” But “normal” as it was may ultimately be no less deadly than is COVID-19.
The changes we made came about because we had no choice. But in reality, even absent COVID-19, we have no choice. We need to deliberately strategize about what we want our institutional lives to look like once we “get back to normal.” Higher education, one of the sectors most dramatically upended by the pandemic, must now take a lead in redefining what normal is, and capitalize on the disruption of the past year to drive change long-term. We need to provide our employees with greater flexibility in composing their work schedules, and to radically rethink our use of space and other resources.
COVID-19 has taken a lot away from our lives, but it has also forced us to make some changes that were long overdue. Those of us who seize this momentum can be part of a great realignment of the entire higher education sector. Those who ignore it will only be deferring an inevitable reckoning.