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When it comes to interpreting baseball's place in America's history George Will has no peer. Consider Will's words as spoken in Ken Burns’ 1994 videography, “Baseball”:

George Will on Sustainability

“Baseball suits the character of this democratic nation. Democracy is government by persuasion. That means it requires patience. That means it involves a lot of compromise. Democracy is the slow politics of the half-loaf…. You know when a season starts that the best team is going to get beaten a third of the time, the worst team's gonna win a third of the time. The argument over 162 games: that middle third. So it's a game that you can't like if winning's everything. And democracy's that way too." — Baseball, 3rd Inning: 1910-1920

But Will, so elegant when writing about baseball, often strikes out in his commentary about social issues facing America. He wiffed, again, in his recent column on sustainability and higher education.

In “Sustainability Gone Mad on College Campuses” Will goes off on decisions made by college and university boards to divest endowments of fossil-fuel companies. Syracuse University’s recent decision provoked Will’s editorial rant. Will blames "fundamentalists," i.e., those who embrace sustainability with religious-style zeal. He elaborates:

“Like many religions’ premises, the sustainability movement’s premises are more assumed than demonstrated. Second, weighing the costs of obedience to sustainability’s commandments is considered unworthy. Third, the sustainability crusade supplies acolytes with a worldview that infuses their lives with purpose and meaning. Fourth, the sustainability movement uses apocalyptic rhetoric to express its eschatology. Fifth, the church of sustainability seeks converts, encourages conformity to orthodoxy and regards rival interpretations of reality as heretical impediments to salvation.”

Sustainability not only reflects dim-witted thinking, Will contends, it also threatens the social order. He writes: “The unvarying progressive agenda is for government to supplant markets in allocating wealth and opportunity. “Sustainability” swaddles this agenda in “science.”

Will concludes the essay with an “off-with-their-heads” tirade that inexplicably expands the list of prime offenders:

“Hundreds of millions could be saved, with no cost to any institution’s core educational mission, by eliminating every position whose title contains the word “sustainability” — and, while we are at it, "diversity," “multicultural” or "inclusivity.” The result would be higher education higher than the propaganda-saturated version we have, and more sustainable.”

George Will, so graceful and uplifting when writing about baseball, becomes snarky curmudgeon when writing about sustainability and higher education. (Snarky: crotchety and sarcastic. Curmudgeon: bad-tempered and cantankerous.)

What if we could "baseball-ize" the script about sustainability in higher education? Doing that would convert negative interpretation into positive commentary.

It might go something like this….

Do we want to live in a world that’s unsustainable? Of course not! What kind of world would that be? The issue is not whether, but how, we should proceed.

We already know it won’t be an easy: different people have different values, beliefs, and preferences—about what, how, and how much, if anything, should be done. That includes whether or not actions should be undertaken in sustainability’s name. But the challenge is obvious and unavoidable. It stands face-first before decision- and policy makers—everywhere—including higher education.

Colleges and universities—major social institutions and business operations as they are—face major questions. How will they heat and cool campuses? Conserve energy? Manage water use? Reduce food waste? Recycle paper and other commodities? And, on the academic side, on what topics will faculty conduct research? What will colleges and universities teach students?

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How will higher education respond?

How colleges invest their endowment resources is no small matter, either. The average college endowment is about $355 million dollars and endowments nationally total over $450 billion dollars.

How colleges invest their endowment resources is no small matter, either. The average college endowment is about $355 million dollars and endowments nationally total over $450 billion dollars. And what about the implications of how those dollars are invested? Is the goal to optimize financial returns-on-investment only—investing in any company involved in any pursuit just to gain higher yield? What about values? For what does a college stand? Shouldn’t those questions be answered, at least in part, by how a college invests its money?

I presumed that campus conversations about these questions were being advanced by chancellors and presidents, trustees, and academic administrators—people in authority positions. But the push, I found, came from faculty, college staff and—largely (much to my surprise)—from students. Yes, students. Students are the primary force for change.

Last year a student group at Stanford University (Fossil Free Stanford) led an effort that culminated in a decision by the Stanford U. board to divest coal companies from the university’s investment portfolio. Just last week, Swarthmore College students ended a 32-day sit-in with the intent of getting the school’s board to discuss divesting the college’s holdings in fossil fuel companies. Sit-ins also took place at Harvard, Yale, and Bowdoin this semester. And I learned that students across the country are networking in a common cause: The Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network is an example.

Students are also organizing across the country on other topics they care about. For example, two undergraduates at the University of North Carolina, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, initiated an effort to address sexual assaults on their Chapel Hill campus. Their work has evolved into national movement assisted by the U.S. Department of Education, which is now involved more extensively in campus oversight. And undergraduate football players at Northwestern University filed a petition last year with the National Labor Relations Board to classify major college football players as employees. The petition won an initial ruling by the NRLB regional director and is now under review at the national level.

What’s prompting student action? Some analysts believe it’s an attempt to counter a fundamental shift in higher education’s character: from social institution to corporate enterprise. Some students aren’t willing to accept the increasing corporatization of higher education. They want to democratize institutional decision making by emphasizing decisions for the public good—and they’re doing it with populist resolve.

It’s wonderful, isn’t it? Here’s why.

As we like to say in this country, the future is in the hands of the young: it’s their world to inherit. They won’t inherit a perfect world. We’ll bestow to them the good and not-so-good, the outcomes of enlightened actions and dim-witted deeds.

But what we need, generation after generation, is bold leadership. We need leaders who aren’t complacent. We need leaders with strong values. We need leaders who aren’t afraid to take risks; aren’t anxious about cutting against the grain; and aren’t fearful of confronting those in power. We need people like that to become next-generation leaders. We need their yeastiness, skills, and resolve in executive offices and boardrooms.

That kind of leadership makes a country great. It made this country great, didn’t it?

I salute Stanford University. I salute Syracuse University. I salute all college and universities where students are taking the lead, and where executive leaders are listening and taking action.

That’s leadership, the American kind of leadership. It’s the kind that “suits the character of this democratic nation.”

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Democracy, after all, "is the politics of the half-loaf.” Isn’t it?

Frank Fear