CRAFTSBURY COMMON, Vt. ––The president of Sterling College today said higher education is contributing to the catastrophic loss of the planet’s biodiversity and is worsening the effects of climate change by leaving a generation unprepared for the ecological and social crises ahead.
“Colleges and universities, like strip mines that cleave off the tops of mountains and factories that produce herbicides, have been co-conspirators in the emergency now unfolding,” said Sterling President Matthew Derr. “It is critical, and overdue, that the academy, and its leaders, take action to avert imminent calamity.”
Higher education is addicted to and promotes extractive economic growth and consumption, Derr said. The seizure of the planet’s natural wealth for financial gain is a moral issue. If we continue to be the training ground for extractive economies––capitalist or socialist––that rob graduates of the livelihoods they promise, we will betray this and future generations. Instead, we must offer the education they need to contend with the ecological crises ahead.
For more than fifty years Sterling has focused on learning about and engaging with the natural world. Under a bold, 10-year initiative released this week, Sterling College––among the first in the country to divest from fossil fuels––will focus its programs on advancing ecological thinking and action. Sterling believes that neither the narrow technician nor the uninformed idealist alone will be ready to address the critical issues facing humanity; but now the stakes for humanity and the natural world are at a crisis point.
The college’s new strategic initiative––unanimously endorsed by trustees and faculty––names the forces leading to climate apocalypse: fossil fuel dependence; destruction of biodiversity; promotion of harmful agricultural practices; persistence of structural oppression that impacts human and natural communities; and the deterioration of civil society through estrangement from community, nature and place.
“Students know that they will face the consequences of inaction on climate change, and they are losing patience,” Derr said. “The Extinction Rebellion, Youth Strike 4 Climate, and the powerful voices of student leaders like Greta Thunberg should inspire higher education leadership to join their efforts to halt the reckless and destructive expending of the planet’s resources. Failure to do so will relegate colleges and universities around the world to irrelevance.”
Among the critical issues Sterling is now addressing is the promotion of harmful agricultural practices that threaten human and natural communities. With support from a $3.5 million challenge grant from the NoVo Foundation, Sterling and its partner, The Berry Center, have launched the Wendell Berry Farming Program in Henry County, Kentucky to prepare a generation of farmers who understand how to build soil and build community––to re-make agriculture from one of the most destructive of human activities to one that is regenerative.
Sterling’s vision includes serving a larger and increasingly diverse student population. The college will do so through programs on campus in Vermont, and by expanding critical place-based projects like the Wendell Berry Farming Program. Sterling will increase access to learning opportunities through online resources, through established partnerships like those with the Berry Center and Chelsea Green Publishing, and by collaborating with other not-for-profit organizations that can help to exponentially expand the reach of its critical mission.
This is a climate emergency, Derr said. “The crisis is real and urgent, and it is time for higher education to show up and join the movement taking place all around them.”
An opinion piece by President Derr reflecting these concerns has been published on Medium.com: Greta is Coming: An Open Letter to Higher Education Leaders in the United States
About Sterling College
Sterling advances ecological thinking and action through affordable experiential learning. We prepare knowledgeable, skilled, and responsible leaders to face the ecological crises caused by unlimited growth and consumption that threatens the future of the planet. Our motto is “Working Hands. Working Minds.” We are one of only nine colleges and universities recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a “Work College.”