Imagining the university in times of ecological emergency

19 September 2022
What is the future of the university in the climate crisis? Should we tear it all down, or rebuild and re-engage? Researchers Ingrid Helene Brandt Jensen and Mads Ejsing from the University of Copenhagen consider how we negotiate the present from the future.

By Ingrid Helene Brandt Jensen and Mads Ejsing, University of Copenhagen

The best thing we can do to create a sustainable university is to tear it down. The buildings are the biggest polluters, anyway. Then we can re-wild the land that once belonged to the university.” Our colleague said the words calmly, almost as a realisation. It was not meant as a provocation, more as the beginning of a conversation. A conversation about a future that might seem unimaginable now, but could be appropriate in the perspective of the unfolding climate and ecological emergency. What would it mean to tear down the university? Where would that leave academia? Where would the students go? Can we justify maintaining these buildings? Can we justify the pollution of academic practices more generally? What makes the university important in the present and future of ecological emergency?

These are questions we, the authors, continuously ask each other. We have also asked them to our colleagues at the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, and we continue to meet more and more with researchers across different universities, who are beginning to ask these questions to their research groups, their departments and their management. In the spring of 2022, we organised a workshop on the future of the University in Times of Ecological Emergency that sought to address these questions head on. We invited researchers and administrative colleagues working with sustainability from across all the universities in Denmark. We asked participants to take part in a convention in 2041 for ‘Danish Universities in times of Ecological Emergency’. We also asked participants to help us imagine what such a convention might look like.1

Through the use of immersive writing and imagination exercises, we asked each participant to take up the perspective of either a new PhD student, a mid-career associate professor or a professor soon to be retired. Subsequently, each participant was asked to write down how they envisioned they themselves would arrive at the convention in 2041, what the atmosphere in the room felt like, who was giving the opening speech, and what their hopes are for the next days of the convention. Subsequently, we asked them to write a field report about the convention to colleagues at their home university. Finally, they were asked to imagine themselves going for a nightcap at the bar after a long day of workshops, where they would meet a colleague for a drink, and the two of them start writing out pieces of advice for a better university on the table napkins. This was the starting point for a group discussion around which parts of academia need to change and are worth defending in creating a more sustainable university.

In other words, we decided to negotiate the present from the future. Overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and administrative restraint of the present, we needed to look to the future in order to negotiate how we can act in the present. Inspired by Donna J Haraway’s words, “The story must change, we must change the story,”2 we told stories and imagined different futures in an attempt to hold their power and envision new realities for universities and academia.

We needed to look to the future in order to negotiate how we can act in the present. Inspired by Donna J Haraway’s words, 'The story must change, we must change the story,' we told stories and imagined different futures in an attempt to hold their power and envision new realities for universities and academia.

The written stories from the convention are too long and diverse to do them real justice here. In different ways, the stories illustrated the precarious time academia finds itself in. While some imagined that the current ecological crisis had spiraled out of control, others imagined societies thriving after responding to the crisis. Some formulated programs of Marxist and collectivist futures where universities had detached from neoliberal and capitalist systems; while others struggled to navigate within the current institutions and systems. Surely, a lot can change in just 19 years. However, in all the stories the university was still standing. No one suggested, as our colleague had, that we tear it down.

Guided and inspired by the stories and discussions at the workshop, and relying on the pieces of ‘napkin advice’ produced by the participants during the third writing session, here we summarise seven pieces of advice for the future of universities in a time of ecological emergency:

#1. The future university is not a specific institution.

It is a commitment, perhaps even a duty, to nurture and care for others in their ongoing attempts to understand and make sense of the world they live in. Thinking is not the prerogative of a few people in university positions.

#2. The future university must slow down and redefine its values.

If pressures to ‘produce’ make us too anxious and unhappy to be kind and patient with those around us, we are not resolving the problem but contributing to it. What matters is that the ideas arising between us inspire change, not what we put on our CVs.

#3. The future university must be reconstructed.

Organise with colleagues, take up positions of power, and work towards changing standards of performance and redefining who is creating knowledge. Students and research participants are co-creators, not passive learners.

#4. The future university is engaged.

Community is as important as the production of ‘new knowledge’. When thinking about our research, ask first: What and who does this research care for? To whom does it matter?

#5. The future university is active.

Thinking is a kind of doing and must be tied to enacting other worlds. Do at least as much as you think. Engaging in transformative work outside the university is as important as the contemplations we do in the office.

#6. The future university is listening.

Listen and learn more than you talk and teach. We are all on a never-ending path of learning, and that is important.

#7. The future university is relational.

All research is always-already a thinking-with-others and thinking-from-somewhere. Stop looking for truths from outside, or from the top: start working relationally within a ruined, impure reality – that means, in solidarity with others through the dust, the mud, and the fire.

Maybe these seven pieces of advice could work as speculative landmarks for a future university that would be worth the pollution of its buildings, or at least a university where academic practices would be less polluting – in all senses of the word.

This article is part of the SEI Student Series on Climate Futures.

1. With help from the Copenhagen-based art collective ‘Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology’ and postdoc and science fiction writer Paul Raven from Lund University.

2. Donna J Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Experimental Futures Technological Lives, Scientific Arts, Anthropological Voices (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2016).

Ingrid Helene Brandt Jensen is a PhD fellow in Political Theory at the Department of Political Science at University of Copenhagen working on democratic theory, new materialism and affect theory within the research initiative Democratic Innovations in a Green Transition led by Professor Lars Tønder. The PhD project explores the impact of the Danish Climate Citizens’ Assembly on the green transition, and how the encounter with the climate citizens’ assemblies in a European context encourages us to rethink the idea of democracy. The Danish Climate Citizens Assembly consist of 99 randomly elected citizens. The assembly was organised in two phases. Each phase lasted approximately six months, consisting of both evening and weekend meetings. The citizens had large autonomy in choosing which climate policies they wanted to create recommendations on, and the organisers made sure that citizens were presented with relevant experts and stakeholders on the different subjects.

Mads Ejsing is a Postdoc at the Department of Political Science at University of Copenhagen working on topics within democratic theory, environmental politics, and theories of new materialism. His recent dissertation, which can be found here, combines political theory with immersive ethnography and tries to develop a new and more ecological way of thinking about democracy in a time of environmental emergency. His current work centres around the democratic aspirations of various civil society engagements around climate politics.

Header image: University of Copenhagen via Shutterstock, ID: 1732780400.

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