Friday, October 28, 2011

Climate Change Statement of Action

In March 2008, the presidents of all British Columbia's universities and colleges signed a letter of intention grandly entitled the "BC University and College Presidents' Climate Change Statement of Action for Canada" (link here). Among other things, the statement of action committed the University of Victoria to "set targets and develop an institutional climate action plan that engages each institution's research, education and operations into a comprehensive strategy that catalyzes solutions for climate change." UVic committed to doing this within two years of President Turpin's signing this document, which means it should have been completed by March 2010: this still has not yet been done, as of October 2011.

Predictably enough given this inaction in the areas of teaching and research, the draft Strategic Plan's discussion of sustainability (beginning at Objective 35) is entirely restricted to operations. The campus Sustainability Action Plan, too, is limited to operations, in spite of the long hours spent by the advisory committee in rethinking and consulting about the university's possible commitment to sustainability. As long as the university has no sustainability action plan for its other three pillars - teaching/learning, research, and community - its operations work has limited credibility.

The Strategic Plan should pledge that the university will live up to its obligations under the Statement of Action, particularly in relation to what the Statement refers to as "research [and] education." In addition, the Strategic Plan should explicitly address toward the university's obligations under this Statement in numerous objectives, such as in the sections for academic programs; experiential learning; and research. There need to be new objectives (and strategies) for each of these points. Unfortunately, unless the university commits to the strategic plan for research and education that Pres. Turpin agreed to undertake when he signed the Statement of Action, any comments that the Plan might make on these areas can be little more than guesswork.

This note, then, represents a call for the university to do far more than revise its draft Strategic Plan.

Context Section (2011 draft): failing the future

The University of Victoria has for many years had a green public reputation, and it has worked hard to exploit this reputation, especially in the area of student recruitment. The 2011 draft Strategic Plan offers nothing new for the students recruited on this basis, nothing to suggest the university will do anything to recover its declining position relative to other Canadian universities, and nothing about how the university has any role in the larger response to ecological issues, such as (but not restricted to) anthropogenic climate change.

Its Environmental Law Centre and its Faculty of Environmental Studies are international leaders in their respective fields, and the campus looks natural enough that students continue to praise it (as in the Globe and Mail's summary of the UVic student experience, for example, which featured multiple comments from students on just this point). Its role in the multi-institutional Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions is an important one, and UVic professor Andrew Weaver continues to cultivate the role of public intellectual for climate issues. UVic looks fairly green, in other words.

Mind you, the Globe and Mail rankings for environmental commitment do suggest that people are starting to notice that UVic is coasting: it's now fourth among medium-sized schools in this area. Further, in their 2006 book Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University, Michael M'Gonigle and Justine Stark used UVic as both hopeful and sobering, particularly in their meticulous discussion of how the university sold out a particular on-campus protest movement, so it's not news that UVic isn't as green as its reputation suggests.

And the 2011 draft Strategic Plan is very bad news indeed for the university's reputation as a green school. Specifically: there is not a single mention of ecological matters in the entire Context section of the plan. Apparently ecology has no relevance in the section describing UVic in its 50th year (except that Victoria is "one of the most beautiful cities in the world"). Ecology makes no appearance in the section "The Changing Environment for Post-Secondary Education," and the irony of the section title's use of the word "environment" is too obvious to bear. It fails to appear either in the unnecessarily self-congratulatory description of the Strategic Plan process, or - most concerningly to me - in the "Into the Future" section.

The near-total absence of ecology in the section outlining the university's growth plans over the next five years tells me that the university will not support work toward resolving the enormously pressing ecological challenges facing human society: species extinctions, peak oil, anthropogenic climate change (and climate change more generally), and so on. This is deeply disappointing to me, both personally and as a researcher/teacher in these areas. Furthermore, it does not reflect my perception of the university's teaching and research community, or the interests of its students.

Technically there is a hint of a gesture toward environmental matters in the middle of page 4, in the pledge that "We will respond to the rapid pace of cultural, social, economic, political, technological and environmental change occurring in our society." By placing it last in a six-term catalogue, the Plan implies that it is the least important of these six adjectives. By using the overall modifier "in our society," the Plan is saying that environmental change outside "our society" (a troublingly indefinite term) has no importance to this university. (Indeed, it implies that any of these changes globally matter only in their effect on "our society.")

The drafting committee needs to amend this grievous oversight. Ecological matters need to be interwoven throughout these sections, in fact governing and controlling the rest of the plan's context. Otherwise, it's blind to the fact that environmental sustainability underpins the institution's - and society's - basic survival. If we fail to live up to this obligation, then it's hard to see that the university deserves to survive in its present form, and certainly not in the form imagined for it in this section.

On Language: the draft plan's word cloud

Here's what generated for me when I asked it to review the full text of the University of Victoria's 2011 draft Strategic Plan. As you likely know already, the larger the word, the more often it appears in the text, so it offers an approximate computational analysis of its vocabulary choices and hence its thematic focus:

Now, that word "environment" at the bottom of the image does appear 37 times in the text, but remember that 11 of those appearances are in the phrase "learning environment," and that only 4 of those appearances have anything to do with what's generally referred to as the natural environment.

I don't have a problem with the preponderance of words like "research," or "university," or "engagement." Indeed, much of the university's rhetoric is about more or less laudable aims. The problem is that the draft Plan is silent on any and all questions of ecology. This is a human-only word cloud, just like the plan is a human-only plan.

First Principles: About this project

This blog represents a response to, and an alternative to, the University of Victoria's strategic plan, from the perspective of a single member of UVic's community. It does not represent a statement of any kind on behalf of the University of Victoria, does not pretend to speak on behalf of the University of Victoria (except occasionally for the purposes of satire), and represents my views alone.

It speaks from two longstanding frustrations, which are shared by an unknown additional number of UVic community members: it is at heart a project of protest - by which I mean challenge and renewal, rather than resistance and reformation - rather than a project of explication or accommodation.

First, there has always been some form of disconnect between the assertions in any strategic plan, and the subsequent actions taken by the institution with said plan: the University of Victoria has had these kinds of disconnects in assorted areas over the years, and I've been frustrated by that.

Second, the University of Victoria has for a long time leveraged its green reputation without doing nearly enough to deserve either the reputation itself, or its success in leveraging it. Its green reputation is due primarily to the actions of university-connected individuals, many of them employees, who do much of their work outside the university's stated priorities, and sometimes against them. That's increasingly going to be the case, if the 2011 draft Strategic Plan (PDF) is to be believed.

After years of wondering whether to do something like this, I was moved to start this blog by the 2011 draft Strategic Plan. It's open for comments until November 14, 2011, and I encourage you to check it out. I've already submitted to the drafting committee a written comment articulating my deep disappointment with its complete avoidance of matters ecological, but a recent lecture by Michael M'Gonigle left me radicalized. My tweaking and deckchair-shuffling response was inadequate to the scope of the problem presented by this draft Plan. The only fit response is to develop a new plan, and over time, that's what this blog will gradually do.

Posts will largely fall into three categories:
  1. assertions: statements that by rights ought to appear in the university's Strategic Plan, complete with rationales and (where possible) objectives and strategies
  2. translations: rephrased explanations of individual statements in the university's approved Strategic Plan (or its draft plan, before the approved version appears), some of which will be satiric, though it'll be largely up to you to figure out which ones
  3. commentaries: remarks on campus events, administration decisions, and PR statements, which will at times be positive and complimentary, sometimes critical and/or satirical
This could be a bumpy ride, and it remains to be seen whether I'll be able to sustain the effort necessary for the task I'm setting myself here. In any case, thanks for reading this far, and thanks for your company! Enjoy your time on the blog, and please do share your thoughts in the posts' comments areas.

Environmental Language: 2011 draft plan

UVic's 2011 draft Strategic Plan uses language unacceptably.

Words have power. The words we use are signals to our readers or listeners, not simply a transmission vehicle for meaning. Through the vocabulary alone of its strategic plan, UVic will inevitably portray itself as a particular kind of institution - or alternatively, UVic will be interpreted as a particular kind of institution based on the vocabulary that dominates its strategic plan.

It seems from the 2011 draft Strategic Plan that UVic has little official interest in a leadership role in matters ecological or environmental, such as climate change, environmental justice, conservation of natural areas or wilderness, or the study of these issues. More than that, if the plan's language is to be believed, the university seems not to want even to be seen to have such an interest.

Some statistics:
  • the Plan does not once use the words "ecology," "ecological" or "ecologically";
  • of the Plan's 17 uses of words like "sustainable" (-y, -ity, -bly), only 3 could be considered related to ecological sustainability; and
  • while the Plan does use the terms "environment" and "environmental," only 4 of the 37 uses are related to the non-human environment. By far the majority are like those on p.2: "learning and research environment" and "environments for work and study." The utterly non-ecological phrase "learning environment" is used fully 11 times in this document, for example, nearly three times as often as references to the ecological environment.
In sum: Only seven of the Plan's fifty-four occurrences of words normally associated with ecological issues (less than 13%) are used in their traditional sense; the other forty-seven occurrences (more than 87%) belong to the category of human social engineering.

This vocabulary represents, at best, a thorough co-optation of environmental language for non-environmental purposes.

In my initial submission to the committee, I asked for either of two remedies: that alternative phrasing be found so that this co-optation can be avoided, OR that additional material be included to redress this imbalance. I no longer find this to be adequate, because both remedies are essential. The approved plan needs to use the language of environment and sustainability with an awareness of ecology, AND the university needs to include objectives and strategies that would bring it up to at least a minimally respectable level.

At this point, the university's draft plan suggests that it's happy not doing ecological work. This is demonstrably not the experience or desire of many of its community members - and it's certainly not mine. To precisely that extent, this draft Strategic Plan is not representative of the University of Victoria's community.

Additional posts in this blog will analyze particular items in the draft plan, and propose alternative objectives and strategies that would in fact reflect the ecological commitment shared by at least some members of the university community. For now, I assert only that the vocabulary of the 2011 draft Strategic Plan comprises a significant misrepresentation of the university community's intentions and actions related to questions of ecology, environment, and sustainability thereof.
NB: This post is based on my initial written submission to the drafting committee, but goes further in the implication it draws from the discourse analysis.