“The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be”: Collaborative Leadership, Higher Education, and Climate Destabilization

In this piece Second Nature Senior Fellow and former Provost at Ithaca College Peter Bardaglio examines new changes and opportunities in sustainability in higher education. 

From the piece:

Few institutions are better positioned to provide the leadership required to avoid the potential collapse of human civilization than higher education. Indeed, it is hard to see where else the necessary leadership will come from if universities and colleges do not step up and take on this responsibility. Not just any kind of leadership will do the trick, however. This new leadership must be collaborative; it must adopt in its interactions with the larger society the same ethos of cooperation and mutuality that we need to manifest in our interactions with the biosphere. Traditional ideas about top down, hierarchical leadership, it should be obvious, will reinforce rather than dissolve the old commitment to dominion that we need to put behind us.


Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley, in their study of citizenship in Columbus, Ohio, explore the dynamics of an innovative approach to leadership they term “leader-as-host.” Given the complex and interrelated nature of the problems facing us, we must abandon the old notion of “leader-as-hero” because, in their words, “no single individual can possibly know what to do.” Instead of issuing orders from the top, “leaders-as-host” build on a network of relationships to invite people from all parts of the system to participate and contribute to the process of developing solutions because they “know that hosting others is the only way to get large-scale, intractable problems solved.”[vi]

Universities and colleges in the United States have historically been crucibles of social change and laboratories for new ideas and creative solutions to some of society’s toughest problems. What is new is the scale of the problem and the threat it poses to human civilization. Simply providing models of sustainability on campus will not suffice. Universities and colleges can become truly sustainable only if they adopt the perspective of “ecosystem awareness” and work with the communities around them to become sustainable. They must commit not only to dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of the campus and become examples of ecological integrity, social justice, and economic health, but also to collaborating with the larger community in doing so, enabling solutions to be scaled up and replicated.

The piece also talks about the importance and possibility of colleges as anchor institutions and the value of the fossil fuel divestment campaign including the Responsible Endowments Coalition's role.

Read the whole piece on Second Nature's blog.

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