26 Feb 2012

Notes from a Sane University

Just thought I’d drop a line about what it’s been like at my new job at UCT.

UCT is amazing. They are really taking on board sustainability seriously. Here is what is happening:

Collapse and…
Every course and module now begins with “Collapse and…” in the title. Even if that is not the focus of study, it reminds everyone to keep that narrative in mind, as a precautionary principle. For example, “Collapse and Accounting and Finance for Contemporary China”, “Collapse and Ancient History”, “Collapse and Economics with Russian”, “Collapse and French and Philosophy”, “Collapse and Mathematics and Computer Science”, “Collapse and Neuroscience”, and “Collapse and Veterinary Medicine”. How could it possibly work with some of these? Well, take Vet Med. Not only do they learn how to treat animals (the Business As Usual course), they also look at how to prepare for when people can no longer afford to get treatment for their pets, or for when livestock are abandoned. In addition, the curriculum includes information and thinking on medicine without access to oil/fuel (both in the making of the medicine and also the transport and storage of medicine). Yes, conversations can get intense, but they’re lively at UCT! Oh and lest I forget literature and culture studies, there is a Reader in Dark Mountain (that cultural project based on collapse and our responses to it). I should mention, though, that, very soon, UCT is planning to abandon discipline-specific subjects and start implementing complex problems and predicaments, and having students explore solutions and responses via multiple disciplines. (If a discipline becomes irrelevant, under this process, so be it. Staff understand that they may become redundant – it’s in the contract. But most staff are planning to skill and knowledge themselves up so that they are not pigeon-holed into one discipline, thereby increasing their resilience to the needs of the university.)

Power Down Hours (Days)

To help focus the mind of staff and students, all power (electricity) cuts out for one hour, randomly, each day. This is gradually being increased and, soon, one day per week will be “power-free”. Students and staff, at first, reacted, well, reactively. But gradually, increased amounts of time were spent preparing for the power cut, so that the cut wouldn’t be so disruptive. One of the more interesting outcomes (so far) has been that the kitchen staff are preparing a cold store on the south side of the campus to store perishables underground. (And they are pushing for less frozen food to be needed.) Some students are starting to take notes with notebooks and paper, and most staff are giving up PowerPoint. (Obviously, this is all saving them money and decreasing their carbon footprint!)

The Staff
I am sure you asking how on earth staff (particularly academic staff) went along with such sweeping changes! Well, taking their lead from some other organisations, UCT management/trustees restructured the university and everyone was required to reapply for their jobs. Only now, the job descriptions all included “staff attributes” and required the ability to use systems thinking to problem solve (amongst other things). In fact, during the interview process, applicants must demonstrate these attributes in a written and oral group exercise. As everyone was now “new staff”, it was easy to require all new staff to attend a lengthy induction (along with new students), which included presentations, discussion and debate on the different models of how to explain what is going on in the world today, and what will happen next. Staff are still made up of Business as Usual advocates, Green Economy advocates, Circular Economy proponents and Collapsonomics aficionados, but the difference is that they all are quite well-versed in the different arguments and demonstrate critical thinking and “keeping an open mindness”, as was required on hire anyway.

The Students
UCT markets itself as the Unemployability University, for the very good reason that most graduates will not become employed (at least not in the traditional sense; there are modules on the Shadow Green Economy). How students cope with this reality is important, which is why the university is taking it so seriously. In fact, students are encouraged to attend UCT with the clear understanding that they will not be able to re-pay their tuition fees, so they may as well consider it a free education. In addition to “traditional students”, unemployed/underemployed/retired people from the local community are encouraged to attend classes, free of charge, and under the radar of the government. This makes for a richer learning environment, and the (required) projects undertaken in the community are more successful. Lastly, staff are also students at UCT: non-academic staff were hired for their enquiring minds, so are often in classes; and academic staff are required to take courses outside their disciplines in order to facilitate interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration in solving/responding to our current and future problems/predicaments.

I just want to say I love working here. It’s sane. It’s fun. And if only this wasn’t just a little bit of fantastical writing about the University of Clear Thinking… Sigh.