Friday, March 13, 2015

Can or should UNL reduce carbon emissions in Nebraska

It's a simple idea. We should set a goal to reduce carbon emissions in the state of Nebraska. Shouldn't we?
I'm leading the development of the Academic Program Review report for the School of Natural Resources, the academic unit where I work at the University of Nebraska. As part of that I've been facilitating a number of discussions with faculty, staff, and students to figure out what our objectives should be. By objective, I mean something measurable that we value, and that we can use to determine if we made good choices over the next few years. One of the suggestions today was "Reduce Carbon emissions from Nebraska". Is this a good objective for an academic unit?

It's not a trivial question. The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, of which SNR is a part, has set a large number of goals* to be reached in 2025. These include:
  • Increase production efficiency of Nebraska agriculture by 25%;
  • Increase efficiency of water utilization for agriculture by 15%;
  • Decrease the median age of rural Nebraska by 2.5%;
From a normative standpoint, that is, what things do I value, these are all reasonable goals. Produce more food with less inputs, good. In particular, do it with less water, great! An objective (sorry, goal) to reduce carbon emissions fits right in with those statements. The problem is, I'm not the one making the decisions that will lead to those outcomes. The university isn't either. Individual farmers out on the landscape make the choices that will achieve those goals.

If we really want our organization to contribute to reducing carbon emissions in Nebraska, there are lots of objectives that are reasonable for us to articulate. For example, we could strive to minimize the carbon footprint of SNR operations in teaching, research and extension. Or we could set an objective to maximize the number of Nebraskans who correctly answer basic science questions about climate change**.  Even that's a bit risky; if we chose to do that without some sort of external funding we might find ourselves struggling to do the outreach while still doing all the other things we need to do (teach, write papers & proposals).

For better or worse, what the university values boils down to 2 things: bums on seats and external research dollars. Actually, those boil down to one thing: maximizing revenue. Oh, yes, there's a nod to the quality of education: we want to maximize the 6 year graduation rate for undergraduate students. Ignore the bit about increasing the faculty to 1300; that is a means to achieving the increase in revenue. Maximize revenue. That's it. If it sounds like a business, that's because it is.

*Goals. Objectives. Metrics. Criteria. Bah. Terminology. Mathematically they're all objectives, whatever the jargon is in the original document.
** Of course, that won't necessarily convince them to behave differently

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