Friday, October 28, 2011

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.

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