Tuesday , July 14 2020
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School of sustainability

Summary:
In a few recent posts, I was critical of university endowment practices. Why build up a stock of investment, rather than invest in faculty, research, or other core activities? Why wall that pile of assets from being spent, especially when budgets are cratering in a pandemic? When we see businesses with piles of cash, we ...

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In a few recent posts, I was critical of university endowment practices. Why build up a stock of investment, rather than invest in faculty, research, or other core activities? Why wall that pile of assets from being spent, especially when budgets are cratering in a pandemic? When we see businesses with piles of cash, we infer they don't have any good investment projects, and the piles are ripe for diversion to bad ideas.

But universities are non-profits, and one major piece of being a non-profit is that the business is protected from the market for corporate control. If you see a business wasting money on bad investments, buy up the stock, fire management, and run it right. Repurchases were part of an earlier reform effort, to stop management from wasting money on aggrandizing projects.

Perhaps restrictions on endowment spending serve a somewhat parallel function for universities. Perhaps I was wrong to criticize so harshly.

These thoughts are brought to mind by Stanford's announcement of a new school "focused on climate and sustainability." A "school" is bigger than a center, an institute, a department, a division. Stanford has seven "schools," Business, Education, Engineering, Humanities & Sciences, Law, Medicine, and, yes, Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

Why a new school? It will
"amplify our contributions in education, research and impact further by aligning people and resources more effectively.
Says university President Tessier-Lavigne. Vice Provost Kathryn Moller will
"lead an inclusive process designing the school’s structure....consult with key internal and external stakeholders to develop a school organization that amplifies faculty and student contributions to address the most urgent climate and sustainability challenges." 
creating an
"impact-focused community, with new opportunities to enhance the impact of their work on the issues they deeply care about,” 
"Impact" and "amplify" repeat quite a few times.


Importantly for a university, it will
 run degree-granting programs for undergraduate and graduate students.
It will
include a sustainability neighborhood that would provide place-based education and infuse sustainability in the education of all students across campus...
"Infuse" is a lovely word. Inculcate might be better. Indoctrinate might not be far off.

In a revealing quote,
“Living sustainably on our planet requires more than advocacy, we need deep scholarship,” said Sally Benson, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy. “The paradigm that’s led us to the world we have today is based on growth that’s not sustainable. ... We need to transition to an economy where more value is created by restoring and preserving Earth’s resources than by activities that degrade and deplete them. This school will provide a home to support the scholarship needed to realize this vision.”
"Advocacy" comes first. Scholarship is an addendum to advocacy. The question whether our current paradigm  produces "growth" that is "sustainable" is apparently settled before the institute even gets going on that scholarship.

(Never mind our "paradigm," regulated capitalism, is the only one that produced the environmental movement, and is rapidly transforming all on its own. And just what does "sustainable" mean? Of course nobody wrestles with the definition in any of these documents.  I somehow suspect it is not the dictionary definition of "can growth go on," Jones/Gordon debate over the end of ideas, and and will not include the effect of regulation or other disincentives on idea-driven growth. This is not the sustainable you're looking for.)

If you get the faint impression that this is an advocacy-based initiative, I would not blame you. I will be curious to see how many climate skeptics, geoengineers, nuclear power plant designers,  GMO foods experts, they hire. Heck, it will be interesting to see if they hire any registered Republicans.

Where did this idea come from? A
...committee, ... carried out a campus survey, held five open forums, met with faculty, staff, students and other stakeholders from across the university, and interviewed past and current campus leaders.
A consistent message from those conversations was an enthusiasm for the idea that Stanford’s ambition and commitment to climate and sustainability must be as large as the challenge, according to Diffenbaugh. “We heard that sustainability should be a top priority in research, education and impact,” he said. “We also heard that the structure should be inclusive and that sustainability needs to be infused in all aspects of the university.” 
My emphasis. They surveyed the inmates to find out how to run the asylum. Thank goodness however, that by walling it off in a separate school, "sustainability" will not be "infused" in all aspects of the university, Hoover for example. And be thankful for small things. It's not officially a school for climate, sustainability, social justice, diversity, equity, and so forth.

Well, maybe  you are of a different frame of mind, and climate and "sustainability" still rings as your top worries, over war, civil or nuclear, pandemic, crop failure, bio terrorism, or any of the other civilization-ending possibilities out there. (We shall see just how sustainable the school of sustainability will turn out to be.) Perhaps you too think the time for inquiry is over and the time for "advocacy" is now, and we'll all go right back to business as usual post Covid.

Still, perhaps you too will think it wise that university presidents can't spend the whole endowment in a year on the Next Big Idea. After all, the next president might survey Hoover, and decide we need a school devoted to "advocating" and achieving "impact" in a School of Freedom, devoted to personal, economic, political and social freedom; constitutional rule of law, relieving global poverty and improving the environment through the only known method, widespread idea-based economic growth. The President might name Dierdre McCloskey to run it. Well, it's not likely, but you get the point.

Of course, I should acknowledge the other reality of campus life. When you hear such gobbledygook, search for something deeper. A "school for sustainability and climate," so clearly structured to advocate and inculcate rather than research and debate, is a superb fund-raising tool to attract wealthy tech titans and other non-profit organizations. There are big economies of scale in fundraising, "big" projects raise more money than yet another center, project, initiative, program. That view explains a new "school" very well.  My School of Freedom might raise $12.

Viewed this way, our leaders are doing a great job.


John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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