The ‘Sustainability’ Political Agenda in Higher Education

May 7, 2008

The University of Delaware faculty member who ought to know the most about the new Residence Life proposal was fundamentally mistaken (if not outright prevaricating) in having said, as the Delaware News Journal reports, that the plan is simply a contribution to UD’s environmental sustainability agenda. The truth, which Student Life Committee chairman Matt Robinson surely knows by now, is that the proposal goes far beyond environmental sustainability in order to push a highly developed social and political agenda.

As John Leo and Peter Wood have pointed out, this agenda is not unique to the University of Delaware but is central to a large "sustainability education" movement. In this movement, the three "circles" of sustainability include not just environmentalism but also education toward specific social, political, and economic goals. These goals include worldwide redistribution of wealth and a variety of deeply politicized agenda items such as those listed here.

Such social and political goals are central, literally, to the ResLife proposal. Only in the center of the three overlapping circles, in this diagram, can one find the proper set of thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs, actions, and policies. UD faculty with a bit of extra time should read how ResLife defined sustainability in one of its rejected proposals, using the language of producing "ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable" institutions. ResLife already knows what counts as "socially just" and "economically viable," despite the protestations in the ResLife proposal that these topics are up for debate.

ResLife’s goal is to change the thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs, and actions of University of Delaware students to fit its ideological agenda. For the evidence, faculty with a lot of extra time can read last year’s highly articulated indoctrination plan. A lot of it is pretty scary. As one ResLife administrator put it,

The environment is rich with opportunities to let students know what we consider important and leave a mental footprint on their consciousness. [emphasis added]

Whether or not one agrees with elements of this agenda, I again submit that it is inappropriate for any university worth its salt as a liberal arts institution to accept a very politicized agenda as institutional policy and then to press it upon students. Do the citizens of Delaware really believe that their state’s flagship university should try to teach the future leading citizens of the state that only one set of thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs, actions, and policies is the best? I can understand a religious school promoting a singular ideology, but not a public institution.

ResLife has not changed its ideology, its mission, or its promotion of its ideology in its latest proposal. Instead, ResLife has hidden all of this under the guise of "citizenship" values.

Today, I received a fundraising letter from the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development. The organization is a large consortium that works to create "a healthier environment with social equality and economic well being" and is "the lead organization for U.S. participation in the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development."

The organization explicitly asserts that it is trying to establish new norms in the United States through education:

The vision of sustainable human society resides in the common ground of economic growth and equity, conservation of natural resources and the natural environment, and worldwide social development. We are dedicated to creating a new norm within the United States. This new norm is that the public will be "literate" about the sustainability challenges, and have both the skills and the attitudes to participate in solutions. This new norm is a necessity to produce a sustainable future. [emphasis added]

ResLife is a part of this movement to change attitudes and norms. It works closely, it seems, with the Sustainability Taskforce of the American College Personnel Association. ACPA’s big upcoming event is an Institute on Sustainability at Harvard University. The institute "will seek to create education and awareness for sustainability’s triple bottom line: healthy social systems, healthy environment and healthy economy."

In some contexts, all of this activism would be perfectly fine from the point of view of the marketplace of ideas. Private organizations can advocate for whatever they want. It is totally unacceptable, however, for this activism to be pressed as a re-education program for University of Delaware students or students at any school that values diverse views on controversial issues.

If these points are not yet clear to the University of Delaware faculty, I again urge them to investigate the matter and form their own conclusions.