Tuesday, April 1, 2014

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Changing of the Guard

The definition of sustainability implies a long term view that is caring of future generations. Are the practices within academia sustainable, in this sense? As the generations change over in academic departments within universities, it is interesting to think about how they are changing. Is the next generation being mentored and prepared for their future roles and responsibilities after tenure? Tenure still exists and we often hear about the new tenure track assistant professors wrestling for power with the old tenured guard. Understandably, the new professors would like opportunities to build on their careers. Is the old guard a set of mentors or oppressors? It is easy for them to be oppressors as they cannot be fired and they can threaten, with impunity, the younger generation with their livelihoods and careers. The next generation seems often to be in a state of quiet, submissive fear. On the other hand, perhaps many of the old guard simply do not care, and would just like to continue for a little while longer so as to have a large enough pension to support a decent retirement. Mentoring is exhausting and meaningless at such a stage in life. If they developed PhDs at any point, they are already satisfied that they have their prodigies in place.

In principal, tenure exists for the purpose of supporting academic freedom which is one of the underpinnings of a free democratic society. However, I am not sure that tenure is being used to support this very important goal. I see tenured professors using their privilege without any awareness of the principle or the related responsibilities. Tenure is perceived as a well deserved reward for having achieved certain publishing, teaching and service goals as set out for them by their organizations. Maybe, it even means that they can go into a state of semi-retirement. Alternatively, they become consultants or find additional ways to make income, at the university’s expense because now, it has dead wood on the payroll. In achieving tenure, perhaps they toed the line so, what kind of people has this left us with to defend the very important principle of academic freedom? In fact, the process of tenure may have eliminated the types who would have defended it. Those who spoke out and did not toe the line were not able to achieve tenure, precisely because they were challenging the old guard. So, in theory, it could be that it has been the oppressed and/or cowardly who achieved tenure.

Now, as we see the new crop of professors attempting to slowly fill what would have been a very large void, had many institutions not eliminated forced retirement by a certain age, a battle is ensuing. The tenured professors played all of the games and toed the line to get there. Do we have principled people in place to mentor the next generation? Not likely. Instead, we have a continuance of the abuse and twistedness. It is often said that the oppressed become the oppressors. The next generation has to play all of the same games and avoid rather than enact academic freedom.

So the question is, is tenure sustainable and does it make sense? It does not support academic freedom or mentorship of an improved next generation. Instead, it breeds the next generation of entitled oppressors and dead wood.

Note:  This is written as one possible perspective. I could have easily written an argument in support of tenure and in favor of many of the great people who have achieved that status. What is presented is a discussion piece that may “stir the pot”. It is not necessarily what I actually believe. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Skeptics and Scholars

By Joseph Sarkis

This week our institution (WPI) is hosting a talk by Bjorn Lomborg.  He was the invited Provost’s University lecturer.  Yes, it is viewed by the campus as a controversial decision.  Many of us view this as old news and wondered why the decision had made to invite such a contentious speaker.  It has certainly sparked a debate around campus, and maybe that was the intention.

Lomborg is best known for his book the Skeptical Environmentalist.  The argument through most of the book is that the environment is not under the distress that all the scientists make it out to be and policy makers should make cost-benefit decisions that benefit humanity, not necessarily the environment.  If the tradeoff is investing in human problems rather than environmental problems, Lomborg believe social problems need to take precedence from the cost-benefit perspective. 

A storm of debate, mostly against the book and Lomborg’s findings emerged after the introduction of his book, over a decade ago.  The criticism was that Lomborg was fast and loose with many of the statistics. Accusations of misrepresentation and cherry-picking, at best, and outright scientific fraud were made.  Findings and appeals of fraud were made, things eventually settled down.  But, a bad taste still exists. 

Having remembered some of the issues, I still had to go back to the historical web record to review some of the concerns.  Unfortunately, I have never read the book, but my reading list is very long…and as I have glibly stated, I do not have enough time to read fiction.  Parts of the debates and issues appear here and here

Lomborg has recently come to the conclusion that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and we should do something about it.  Although he has sent mixed messages, especially if we should be investing in doing anything to mitigate it, especially with his recent book on ‘Cooling It’.

In response to our campus controversy, a group of faculty and students will be having a forum the day after his talk.  It was agreed that we will not be attacking him or his history.  We will try to discuss what and how we as an academic institution and scientists should respond to such a polemical set of ideas.  I was hoping to have an environmental ethicist in this group, but unfortunately the one available environmental ethicist publicly stated that they would boycott this presentation and recommend that their students do so as well.

I will be involved in the forum.  And I will be introducing two thoughts.

The first thought, I think in response to the environmental debate notably with respect cost-benefit analyses, is the issue of stakeholder perspective.  An initial basic concern for cost-benefit analysis is whose costs and benefits are going to be considered.  A second basic concern is how to value these costs and benefits. 

Arguably, depending on perspective and valuation, the cost-benefit analysis will be very different.  The anthropocentric perspective and valuation, as espoused by the invited lecturer in his writings, will almost always undervalue the environment.

The contention here has always been that the environment can only have proxy voices in man’s ethical, moral and economic valuations.  Human and social issues have significantly louder and greater proponents in this debate.  That is why I believe the triple-bottom line angle of sustainability may actually hurt environmental progress and investment, especially when the fundamental underpinning is that tradeoffs are inevitable.

A second thought, one that recently has caused a ripple in academia, is based on Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times opinion on the need for public intellectuals from academia.  One piece of this argument is that academics and their work have become so arcane and internally focused that they have ignored their external obligations to further intellectual understandings of today’s problems.

There are concerns here ranging from the definition of a public intellectual to acting as a public intellectual in an anti-intellectual policy and social environment.  Is it acceptable to the academic community that our most prominent public intellectual today is Bill Nye, the Science Guy? 

Arguably, these blogs serve as an outlet for public intellectuals and intellectual debate.  But even in these circumstances we still seem to be speaking to each other and not to the broader community.  Evidence of the malaise of public intellectualism is that many of the original bloggers we had at the initiation of this blog site have not posted in years. 

Are we, in this academic community, too busy to be public intellectuals?  Are we not incentivized to be so?  Do we not have a large enough megaphone?  As scholars do we join and encourage skeptics to our scientific findings by our silence?

To be fair, I know colleagues who are quoted and interviewed continuously by major media outlets. Why are their voices not heard? I view them to be public intellectuals. 

Someone such as Bjorn Lomborg is given a larger audience. Why is this so?  Is it because traditionally focused stakeholders with great self-interest, who are resource rich, agree with what he says rather than agreeing with the consensus of the scientific community?  Is there a vacuum in the intellectual debate?  Or as one colleague stated, he is a very good self-promoter.  Are academics viewpoint of public intellectualism tarnished by this image of public intellectualism as self-aggrandizement?

There are clearly many issues revolving around these issues, but to sit back idly and not be involved at some level, whether it is the classroom or in blogs, is something we should reflect on.  In a future blog, I hope to return to a discussion of our obligations and whether we should take a moral stand on issues that we try to study objectively.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

We Don’t Believe the Numbers!

By Joseph Sarkis
For a number of years I’ve been investigating topics related to making the business case and justifying investments in environmentally conscious business practices, sustainability investments, etc.   These investigations focus on aiding organizations in evaluating various programs and investments to make themselves greener and more sustainable.  There have been many decision support tools.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Organizations and Climate Change: Planning for Today and Tomorrow

by Joseph Sarkis

This blog is my last for 2013, given that this is the last day of the year.

This blog focuses on three recent stories in Time Magazine and the New York Times, here, here, and here.  These series of stories exemplify how carbon emissions (climate change) and organizational responses are still at the forefront of the environmental agenda.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Transdisciplinarity of Corporate Environmental Sustainability

By Joseph Sarkis 

This blog has no surprises.  Understanding corporate environmental sustainability, the natural environment and organizations, involves many disciplines and requires understanding and collaboration with practitioners.
Schaltegger, Beckmann and Hansen, 2013 have categorized corporate sustainability research and practice efforts into disciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary categories.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Designing Learning - A Process Approach

By Joseph Sarkis

When developing courses I begin by constructing a syllabus and then trying to structure the readings, topics, and supporting material.  Depending on the topic and level the design of the course, delivery and syllabus may be structured differently.  Even though I had done this many times, I never felt completely comfortable since some details were missing.  For example anticipating the time and effort for a student was not part of my class or course design.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Big (Green) Data

By Joseph Sarkis

There are data we would like to have and there are the data that we do have.  How to make these two congruent?  That’s where data analytics and ‘Big Data’ may play roles.  In this blog I seek to continue the discourse on big 'green' data.  Unfortunately, few answers are given.  Raising awareness and continuing the discussion is my major goal.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Blue Skies Ahead? The UN Global Compact in 2013

By Joseph Sarkis

In September the United Nations put out its latest (2013) Global Compact report on corporate sustainability practices.  The UN Global Compact (Compact) program commenced  as a concept in 1999 under General Secretary Kofi Annan.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Teaching Technology and Tools

by Joseph Sarkis

This past week I spent a couple days at an AACSB workshop on on-line and hybrid learning.  Much was discussed and pre-workshop preparation was required.  The preparation had each participant be part of an on-line course related to this topic.  It was certainly different for me to be on the student end of an online experience.  I don’t believe I was a good student though, but it clearly provided some discussion of the busy lifestyle of part-time and professional MBAs.