Following her presentation in the Q building last week, during a conference on Imagining the future of universities, the professor from the Northeastern University in Boston talked about the essential role of academia when dealing with the climate crisis, the necessity of disruption, and the difficulties of being ‘stuck in the system’. “In all the universities I’ve been at, they spent a lot of time communicating the small things they’re doing.”
Do you think that OccupyEUR’s approach is a good way to combat the climate crisis?
“I think one of the things that research on transformation and transitions tells us is that there’s no narrow approach. It comes from all sides, on all levels. There’s space for all kinds of actions and ways of getting attention, and the scale and level of change that are necessary require disruptions of different kinds. If you don’t disrupt things then changes are unlikely to happen. We all get to decide how we want to be disruptive ourselves.”
“The End Fossil movement resulted in Barcelona with, as far as I know, the first university to declare that everybody will be required to take a course on climate change that isn’t just about the physical, but also the social and ecological impact. Obviously, End Fossil is a growing network of students, and there are similar movements, not as influential, among faculty as well.”
In your presentation you said that ‘climate change is not the problem’, what would you say is the main problem?
“The main problem is an economic system that is distorting. We’re focused on profits and corporate interests are controlling too many things, and we’re reading how with inflation so many people are economically struggling, but companies are turning huge profits. The economic structure is the problem.”
Are there any steps that you think universities like Erasmus should take to contribute to this ‘transformative social change’ that you plead for?
There are things that are already happening at universities that can be expanded upon. But it’s not just all the responsibility of people in the university. The university itself is stuck in that economic system as well, right? That’s why university leaders are constrained by the pressure and frameworks they’re working in. It’s not about individuals, it’s the system and structure. Individuals can try to change some structures, but it’s very hard. And the reason it’s been and will remain so hard is because the people who the system is working well for don’t want it to change. This is where it gets tricky. So it’s not to say ‘if we just had an amazing leader change, then everything would be different’, no, because it’s a system. This is where I think there are opportunities for advocacy for change, internally, externally, and globally. It’s really about a whole ecosystem of change.
Do you think if there was more of a collaborative approach things would be different?
“Absolutely. I always think we learn more from each other when we’re listening, and being open to changes, even small steps. At the university of Barcelona for example, the students had two key demands during their seven day occupation. And at the end, the university agreed with one of them, which was to introduce a mandatory course that the entire university, thousands and thousands of students, have to take.
“But they didn’t agree on the other demand, which was to cut ties with fossil fuel companies for research. The students had a really good point there, I think. The university may not be able cut all ties immediately, but maybe change something. It’s part of the learning process, if universities put up defensiveness and antagonistic approach, it reinforces them being stuck where they are, rather than acknowledging the reason the students are protesting. The students have a very good reason to be expecting and asking more of the university.”
“But the students also need to acknowledge the university leaders are stuck as well. There’s only so much they can do. But it would be in everybody’s best interest to talk and negotiate more, to figure out what steps could be taken here. That won’t be sufficient, but none of this work will be. A big transformation is needed. Nothing will be perfect and nothing will be sufficient for a full radical change, but at the same time, we do have to take some steps. That’s why I think rather than quantifying whether we are doing more of this or that, you want to start turning to a different value system. It’s a paradigm shift and you can’t do it overnight.”
When you compare the higher education systems in the US to Europe or the Netherlands, what are the main differences you see?
“It’s hard to compare, I think there are pockets of very exciting things happening in a lot of different places. The DRIFT (Dutch Research Institute for Transitions at Erasmus University) has been really inspirational to me. I learned about it a few years ago, and that’s the reason I’m here. There are very innovative things happening here.”
“At the same time, I know that this university, like so many other universities, is mostly focused on business, mainstream economics and technical innovation. In all the universities I’ve been at, they spent a lot of time communicating the small things they’re doing. I don’t mean those things aren’t valuable, but they’re also not transformative. The financial realities are what’s forcing that. That’s why I think there’s value in following the money and understanding why universities are doing small things instead of transformative action.”
“I do think the US has more inequities, and I think the higher education system is more financialised, the debt students go into is higher. The costs is higher, people who can’t afford it are more often excluded. Everything in the United States is a bit more exaggerated, is my sense. Focus on tech is higher in the US, even when it comes to climate justice issues. So everybody is designing an app for everything, but an app isn’t going to change the world.”