Incorporating Changing Reality into College Strategic Plans: Part 5: Extending Boundaries

Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller

My last blog finished with a promise that this blog would propose ways to incorporate attempts to understand accelerated global changes into the strategic plans of local schools. Again, I will focus on my school. These changes include:

Mandated decarbonization

Mandated decrease in the use of single-use plastics

Testing of sewage for early detection of viral threats

Running schools with decreased enrollments

Preparing society for adaptation to extreme conditions.

Various aspects of these changes have served as the main topics for the more than 600 blogs I have posted over the last 11 years. Our students will spend their lives under such reality changes and our main job is to prepare them to function under such conditions. Every school’s strategic plan should be clear about the way that the school is trying to accomplish such a task.

It should be fully understood that global changes such as these require research to understand, adapt to, and mitigate the most damaging effects. School faculty usually cannot draw from their own experiences, whether direct or learned in school, to confront such changes but they are hired to teach their students how to function under such changing environments. All of this means that the accumulated knowledge has to come from research. Global changes such as these never take place simultaneously everywhere. The best way to learn how to function under such changes is to study places where these changing conditions hit hardest and early so feedback to action can also be generated early and analyzed.

As I mentioned earlier, CUNY is a federated university (see the May 17, 2023 blog, part 3 in this series) that covers 25 institutions (11 four-year colleges, 7 community colleges, and 7 graduate/professional schools) and a central administration. Adaptations that reflect the accelerating global changes are compatible with President Abraham Lincoln’s original creation of large-scale, state-based higher education in the form of land-grant universities:

land-grant university (also called land-grant college or land-grant institution) is an institution of higher education in the United States designated by a state to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890.[1]

Signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the first Morrill Act began to fund educational institutions by granting federally controlled land to the states for them to sell, to raise funds, to establish and endow “land-grant” colleges. The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculturesciencemilitary science, and engineering—although “without excluding other scientific and classical studies”—as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class.[2][3] This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education concentrating on a liberal arts curriculum. A 1994 expansion gave land-grant status to several tribal colleges and universities.[4]

Ultimately, most land-grant colleges became large public universities that today offer a full spectrum of educational opportunities. However, some land-grant colleges are private, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Tuskegee University.[5]

The key sentence of this introductory paragraph is that which clarifies that the institutions were meant to teach multiple topics—both “practical” and those relating to science and classical studies. At that time, the US reality was dominated by land and agriculture. Now it is changing quickly, as a result of anthropogenic (human-triggered) dominance. The need to adapt to the changing reality is the same. New universities need not be created but their curricula need to be changed to accommodate.

Map of Land-Grant Universities in the US

Figure 1 –The Land-Grant Universities in the US (Source:

Back to the BC Strategic Plan. Aside from the creation of the Cancer Institute, the present strategic plan does not mention research content. However, this strategic plan is about to expire, to be replaced by a new one. I have no idea what shape the new plan will take, but I can hope and make suggestions.

CUNY has the advantage of being a multi-institutional organization with strong centralized governance. A few of the largest changes that need to be accommodated, such as timely decarbonization of energy use and decrease of single-use plastic, are mandated by the State and City governments. The university is now working on them and I am involved in this work.

These efforts are coordinated by the CUNY Central Sustainability Office (Sustainable CUNY, see June 4, 2019). To implement changes, the office invites representatives from each of the institutes to analyze issues and make recommendations. Usually, the results are not mandated by the central office. Rather, we see them as announcements from individual colleges that they are creating pilot projects. The colleges work with the central office to draft timelines and deliverables for the projects. The results are analyzed on a timely basis to decide if, how, and when, to extend these pilots to the entire university. Once this takes place, the changes become mandated.

These dynamics can be explicitly stated in the strategic plan.

Incorporating decarbonization of energy use and reducing the use of single-use plastic are both relatively simple, mandated changes. The pilot steps taken require feasibility and economic analyses but not scientific breakthroughs. Water stress and other calamities that result from climate change feedback can bring a major need for adaptations, in which new technology might be required. Here, we might take advantage of the federated structure of the country that we live in.

As I mentioned earlier, accelerated global changes do not hit either this country or the world uniformly. A good example is the impact of climate change on the water cycle.

Up to now, NYC, the place where I live and work, has hardly been impacted. The Southwest, where Sonya Landau, my friend, and the editor of this blog (June 22, 2021) lives, is already suffering temperatures in the upper 90s(oF) temperature and a multi-year drought. The region is now in a race against accelerated climate change, seeking ways to be less dependent on fresh water. There is no question in almost anyone’s mind that the water stress will expand to hit every corner of the world. The two recent references below will provide some background:

NYT Op-Ed: When One Almond Gulps 3.2 Gallons of Water

NPR: Arizona farmers rely on drought-stricken Colorado River to water crops

We all should be prepared—especially our students. We can strive to expand our boundaries and collaborate with schools in other areas to allow our students to do relevant research on these issues.

Next week’s blog will continue exploring the same line of thinking and will include experiences of College as a Lab and collaboration with local industry on college campuses.

Posted in Climate Change | Leave a comment

Incorporating Changing Reality into College Strategic Plans: Part 4: Incorporated Research

Physics laboratory at Brooklyn College

This blog tries to deliver on last week’s blog’s promise to look at the broader impacts of research in the Brooklyn College (BC) Strategic Plan. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs in this series, universities are endowed with the strongly interconnected dual functions of education and research. Much of the learning happens through research; at the same time, the structure of most universities is departmental, rooted in the education task. Furthermore, since most students come to universities in their late teens or early twenties with the expectation that the university will prepare them for a productive future of their choosing, the university’s vision should be focused on the future. Neither faculty nor students are prophets endowed with the ability to predict the future. Instead, the role of universities is to engage in research that contributes to understanding the past and present and draws sound consequences about the likely future and what needs to be done to prepare for a variety of scenarios that might develop.

All universities understand this mission. Again, as in previous blogs in this series, I will focus on my university (CUNY) and my College (Brooklyn College).

The key documents of the strategic plans, including the list of goals, were first mentioned in an earlier blog (May 2, 2023), however, I am repeating them below:

  • Goal 1: enhance our academic excellence.
  • Goal 2: increase undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students’ success.
  • Goal 3: educate students about opportunities for fulfilling work and leadership in their communities.
  • Goal 4: develop a nimble, responsive, and efficient structure to serve our students and carry out our mission.
  • Goal 5: leverage Brooklyn College’s reputation for academic excellence and upward mobility.

The two key documents include a 43-page detailed version  of the plan and a much shorter, tabular, version of 5 pages that focuses on the main performance indicators. Earlier blogs in this series focused on the shorter document. Taking only the Key Performance Indicators and Targets from the shorter tabular plan gives us the following entries, with the first number indicating the goal number:

1.2b Increase the average number of faculty pieces of scholarship/creative activity from 0.9 to 1.3 (2017-2018 PMP).

1.2c increased number of funded research grants from 45 to 53 (2017-2018 PMP).

4.4b Increase the total number of alumni donors by 30% from 5849 to 7644 (FY 2018, OIA). 4.4c Increase external funding (donor, grant and foundation support) by 50% from $8.9 million in FY 2018-2019 to $13.35 million in FY 2023 (OIA).

For more details, and to emphasize research, we need to examine the longer plan. Its typical structure consists of a list of objectives, along with a particular goal, the college office that will be held responsible, and a list of benchmarks to be followed. A brief reminder here, that shortly after this plan was instituted, we were all hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, which made most of the commitments difficult to follow. This week, I’m looking at three research-related examples from the latest strategic plan. Two of the examples are given below. I discuss the third one later in the blog.

  • Improve the office of grants and research:
    • Goal 1D:  Support and promote excellent research and increase sponsored research to advance intellectual inquiry.

 a. The Office of the Provost will enhance staffing and resources at the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs to meet the needs of faculty across the college.

YEAR 1 BENCHMARK: Assess the staffing needs of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP) and evaluate its effectiveness for faculty.

YEAR 2 BENCHMARK: Hire full-time grants manager for the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences (NBS). The dean will develop a school-wide plan for NBS to enhance research.

YEAR 3 BENCHMARK: Make necessary staff and operations adjustments based on the assessment in Year 1. Deans across the campus will develop plans to enhance research.

YEARS 4 AND 5 BENCHMARKS: New staff will work with faculty to carry out the plans to apply for additional grants.

5-YEAR OUTCOMES: Enhance staffing of ORSP to enable enhanced support for the pursuit of grants across the five schools

d. The dean of the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences and the Brooklyn College Foundation will work with departments to generate funds and coordinate researchers on campus to create an interdisciplinary Brooklyn College Center for Cancer Research.

YEAR 1 BENCHMARK: Establish the Brooklyn College Center for Cancer Research through Brooklyn College and CUNY governance bodies. Develop a fundraising case for support for the Brooklyn College Center for Cancer Research.

YEAR 2 BENCHMARK: Develop a methodology of using Research Foundation indirect cost recovery funds to create a stream of revenue for operating costs for the Brooklyn College Center for Cancer Research.

YEAR 3 BENCHMARK: The dean of the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences and the Brooklyn College Foundation will develop a list of potential individual and institutional donors to support the Brooklyn College Center for Cancer Research. Solicit lead support for facilities, endowed positions, and research projects. Develop a public communications plan that supports the effort.

YEAR 4 BENCHMARK: Refine the case and expand fundraising solicitations for the Brooklyn College Center for Cancer Research to individual and institutional donors prospects.

YEAR 5 BENCHMARK: Steward lead gift donors and expand engagement of individual and institutional donor prospects for priority funding opportunities for the Brooklyn College Center for Cancer Research.

5-YEAR OUTCOMES: Enhance external funding for facilities and operations of the Brooklyn College Center for Cancer Research.

Similarly to the task of the Dean of Behavioral and Natural Sciences, all five college deans are tasked to “work with departments and programs to generate funds to advance research and creative work,” in areas relevant to their schools.

Not surprisingly, the content of the research is hardly mentioned (faculty don’t like to be told what research they should do). The only content-related entry is the recent establishment of a Cancer Center at Brooklyn College, which I’ve mentioned previously. However, all research needs financial support and successful, productive, research enhances the standing of the institution. The “broader impact” of addressing the needs of society beyond the university walls is accounted for in both versions of the plan. Table 1 addresses the relevant sections in the tabular plan, however, the key performance indicators have yet to be assigned for these particular segments:

Table 1 – Selected “broader impact” segments of BC Strategic Plan 2

Objective Strategic Action Priorities Key Performance Indicators and Targets
3.4 Prepare students to become engaged, global citizens and decision makers in a complex, diverse, and sustainable society. The Brooklyn College Foundation and the Office of International Education and Global Engagement will expand funding to support students to study, work, and intern abroad
5.3 Position and develop Brooklyn College as a vital resource to advance the public good in our borough. Brooklyn College, working closely with the Center for the Study of Brooklyn, will strengthen partnerships, with organizations and projects that share our commitment to advancing the public good, such as the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the New York City Department of Education, The New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the Mayor’s Office, community boards, city parks, the National Park Service, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Department of Sanitation’s Compost Project, and increase students’ opportunities to engage with them.

The needs for interdisciplinary training of society and students are addressed separately in Goal 1A-b of the detailed plan:

The provost and deans will support and encourage the cross-school development and success of curricula, programs, and major/minor pairs that promote interdisciplinary work.

YEAR 1 BENCHMARK: The deans will collaborate to prepare an inventory of existing major/minor pairs within schools and major/minor pairs across schools that promote interdisciplinary work. The deans will catalogue, communicate, and promote these pairs.

YEAR 2 BENCHMARK: Building upon existing programs and supporting new ideas, the deans will collaborate with faculty to assess potential new major/minor pairs that promote interdisciplinary work.

YEAR 3 BENCHMARK: The deans will support faculty and departments in the development of new curricula to promote the major/minor pairs identified in Year 2. Curriculum changes will be submitted to Faculty Council.

YEAR 4 BENCHMARK: Faculty and departments will teach courses in the new major/minor pairs. These will be documented and promoted to students. Additional pairs will be developed.

YEAR 5 BENCHMARK: The provost, deans, and departments will collaborate to assess the effectiveness of the new major/minor pairs for promoting interdisciplinary work.

5-YEAR OUTCOMES: A well-thought-out set of cross-school course offerings that meets the needs of students and faculty in participating departments, interdisciplinary programs, and schools will be documented and promoted.

We are now living in an era of accelerated changing global realities (See September 27, 2022 blog) in areas such as:

  • Mandated decarbonization
  • Mandated decrease in the use of single-use plastics
  • Testing of sewage for early detection of viral threats
  • Running schools with decreased enrollments
  • Preparing society for adaptation to extreme conditions.

The present BC strategic plans do not mention such changes. However, this strategic plan is about to expire, to be replaced by a new one. The next blog will focus on my thoughts about preparation for such changes in future strategic plans.

Posted in Climate Change, Education | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Incorporating Changing Reality into College Strategic Plans: Part 3: How Do We Evaluate “Broader Impacts” in Research?

Image: Gray T-shirt with text: If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn't be called research would it? - Albert EinsteinThe picture above was taken from my favorite T-shirt, which features my favorite quote. It is also the main reason that I chose an academic career: to get a license to experiment. When I wear the shirt, it often triggers mixed responses despite Einstein’s name on the bottom. Often, people argue that there is a world of difference between not knowing what we are doing and investigating the unknown. From my perspective, regardless of interpretation, the quote strongly encourages experimentation with full knowledge that there is a high probability that most of the experiments will fail.

This is my 4th blog (starting with my Earth Day 2023 blog from April 25) about attempts to incorporate our changing reality into the strategic plan of my place of work. This time, the focus is on research.

Research and education go hand in hand in the role of every accredited university. This parity extends throughout history:

university (from Latin universitas ‘a whole’) is an institution of higher (or tertiaryeducation and research which awards academic degrees in several academic disciplines. Universities typically offer both undergraduate and postgraduate programs. In the United States, the designation is reserved for colleges that have a graduate school.

The word university is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means “community of teachers and scholars”.[1]

The first universities in Europe were established by Catholic Church monks.[2][3][4][5][6] The University of Bologna (Università di Bologna), Italy, which was founded in 1088, is the first university in the sense of:

  • Being a high degree-awarding institute.

  • Having independence from the ecclesiastic schools, although conducted by both clergy and non-clergy.

  • Using the word universitas (which was coined at its foundation).

  • Issuing secular and non-secular degrees: grammar, rhetoric, logic, theology, canon law, notarial law.[7][8][9][10][11]

Before I proceed further, I have to add a word about the designation of my working place as “University.” Wikipedia defines a university as a “college that has a graduate school.” As mentioned earlier, my working place is the City University of New York (CUNY). It goes far beyond a single graduate school. As our present Chancellor said, CUNY is:

…the premier and largest urban public university in the United States, serving approximately 226,000 degree-seeking students, 150,000 in adult and continuing education programs, and 40,000 faculty and staff at our 11 four-year colleges, seven community colleges and seven graduate and professional schools.

I am associated with Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Individual colleges and universities are subject to periodic external evaluation by accredited agencies:

The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality. Here you will find a list of accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education as reliable authorities concerning the quality of education or training offered by the institutions of higher education or higher education programs they accredit.

Students apply to individual colleges. Every college has its own strategic plan that is publicized on its website, for applying students to consider. However, in a federated university like ours, the college’s strategic plan has to conform with its university’s strategic plan. CUNY is a public university, whose goal is to enable every qualified student to enter, regardless of economic considerations. To accomplish this mission, CUNY, and hence its individual colleges, need public support. Because of CUNY’s structural complexities, public support comes from both New York State and the City. Present budget allocations for next year were announced recently (the Chancellor’s comments, quoted above, were part of this process). State and City governments are carefully looking at the strategic plans for indications that the public institution can make significant contributions that will benefit the general public in their constituencies.

Much of the support for the research that runs on US college campuses comes from the Federal Government rather than directly from the locality in which the school resides. The agency that supports much of this research is the National Science Foundation (NSF) (put NSF in the search box to find earlier entries on this agency). The NSF doesn’t look at the strategic plan of the researchers’ school (they look at the school to examine other aspects). The NSF wants to make sure that they are funding, on a competitive basis, the best proposals submitted as far as the quality of the science is concerned. However, an important consideration in the funding is the concept of “broader impact,” which the NSF defines as follows:

The Broader Impacts discussion is a critical component of any proposal submitted to the U.S. National Science Foundation. It answers the following question: How does your research benefit society?

The concept of broader impacts is not yet officially recognized on a local level, but unofficially, it is an important part of any lobbying activities for more resources.

Next week’s blog will try to look at the broader impacts of the Brooklyn College (BC) strategic plan.

Posted in Education | Leave a comment

Incorporating Changing Reality into College Strategic Plans: Part 2: Matching Students’ Expectations

This series of blogs started around Earth Day (April 25, 2023 post), with a question of how best to incorporate Earth Day’s aspiration on a local level. I decided to focus on my own college and university: Brooklyn College (BC) and CUNY.

Within this focus, last week’s blog started with a recent NYT summary of what students expect from their college experiences and what my college offers through its strategic plan. As I mentioned then, my college’s most recent strategic plan applies to the years 2018-2023, meaning it’s about to expire. The plan spans 43 pages; last week’s blog covered only an introductory paragraph and two lists of associated documents and goals. The purpose of this and the following blogs are two-fold. First, I want to examine how we could correlate our strategic plans with students’ aspirations; doing so would make the plans useful as a student recruitment tool. At the same time, by being at the forefront of addressing societal challenges, we could justify the support that the university is getting from society.

The two key documents are the BC Strategic Plan (revised August 1, 2018) and Strategic Plan 2, which was drafted in April 2019 and includes the tabulation and prioritization of objectives, key performance indicators, and targets. As I mentioned earlier, the original strategic plan spans 43 pages while the tabulated form is only 5 pages.

As I mentioned in the previous blog, the plan has 5 goals that I am repeating below:

  • Goal 1: enhance our academic excellence.
  • Goal 2: increase undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students’ success.
  • Goal 3: educate students about opportunities for fulfilling work and leadership in their communities.
  • Goal 4: develop a nimble, responsive, and efficient structure to serve our students and carry out our mission.
  • Goal 5: leverage Brooklyn College’s reputation for academic excellence and upward mobility

The goals each include 4 objectives, except goal 4, which has 5 objectives.

Table 1

Objective Strategic Action Priorities Key Key Performance Indicators and Targets
1.1 Improve undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs that distinguish our strengths in the liberal arts, science, business, creative arts, and education to support students for success locally and globally. The provost, deans, chairs, departments, and Faculty Council will critically examine our undergraduate and graduate academic offerings through regular program reviews, external evaluations, and annual assessment plan and reports. The analysis will ensure that our curricula, majors, and programs reflect emerging knowledge and skills and deliver academic excellence and value to our students. 1.1a All academic programs and departments will engage in detailed analyses to ensure academic excellence, alignment with the College’s mission, integration of emerging knowledge, and value to our students.

1.2a Increase the percentage of underrepresented minority faculty hired from 20.8 to 30% (2016-2017 IPEDS).

1.2 Attract, develop, and retain an innovative, diverse, productive, and engaged faculty and staff. The Office of Diversity and Equity Programs will require department specific affirmative action plans for tenure track, lecturer, substitute, and adjunct faculty to enhance opportunities in the areas where they are underrepresented 1.2b Increase the average number of faculty pieces of scholarship/creative activity from 0.9 to 1.3 (2017-2018 PMP).

1.2c increased number of funded research grants from 45 to 53 (2017-2018 PMP).

Table 1 shows two of the four objectives of the first goal: enhancing our academic excellence. The table ends with key performance indicators for each objective.

As can be seen above, the Strategic Plan is a very good assessment plan, with numerical targets that can be periodically assessed to indicate success or failure. One of the key documents in the strategic plan is the attached report card that summarizes how we are doing. However, the only report card available is from 2018-2019, which serves as a reminder that most of the plan covered the COVID-19 pandemic period, where all our best intentions were temporarily frozen.

I don’t serve in any administrative position in my college and I have no role in the decision-making of running the college. However, I am the assessment coordinator of my department and I serve in the Campus Planning Committee of our Faculty Council, which periodically meets with some of our top administrators. I suppose that makes me a “qualified observer.”

Strategic plans are common to almost all academic institutions. I haven’t gone over many of them but it is a safe bet that many of the goals are similar throughout.

If we try to compare this set of goals with student aspirations as documented in the NYT piece that I summarized in the previous blog (on which CUNY ended up rather well), we might end up wondering.

Figure 1 in last week’s blog was compiled to summarize students’ expectations from prospective students (ages 16 – 19) and recent graduates.

The top six priorities of the two groups were the following:

Pre-Freshmen: Affordable tuition, high-income potential for graduates, safe campus, low student debt after graduation, near family or hometown, and popularity of STEM majors.

Recent graduates: Affordable tuition, high earning potential for graduates, low student debt after graduation, safe campus, popularity of STEM majors, and racial and ethnic diversity.

As the NYT piece mentioned, the top criteria for both groups are financial. The three categories of top ten schools that Frank Bruni compiled all demonstrate high earning potential. So, if a school wants to attract students and financial support, it had better show the potential for future high earnings or at least significant improvements in earning potential.

To show potential high earnings, schools have to demonstrate a trail of significant earnings increases by graduates. A high earning goal is not enough (you can start rich), schools have to show significantly enhanced earning potential. However, proving such a change does not seem to be one of the goals included in the strategic plan itself.

A goal should indicate how graduates will do at least a few years after they leave school. There is a Wikipedia site that indicates this for Brooklyn College graduates. It’s organized by profession, and it is impressive. A summary of the site is shown the following results:

Listed (famous) alumni in all disciplines             1602

Famous alumni who graduated after 2000           39

Earliest famous alumni graduated in                      1933

The total number of alumni according to the BC official website is 160,000, meaning that the Wikipedia site only accounts for 1% of the total. Can one expect prospective students (or ones that just finished school) to associate their own prospects with this 1%? I doubt it. Colleges can do much better. They need to construct a much broader database of alumni and one that will better reflect how the college has been doing more recently. In a number of past recent blogs, I have advocated using the college as a laboratory for students to address current local and global challenges such as climate change (see Campus as a Lab Part 5 – October 4, 2022, and the earlier blogs in this series). Through this model, Social Science students can help construct such a database and pave the way for presenting the results to prospective students.

Next week, I will try to learn from the US federal government how to apply the concept of “broader impact” to the strategic plans of learning institutions.

Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment

Incorporating Changing Reality into College Strategic Plans: Part 1

Last week’s blog focused on the celebration of Earth Day, ending with a promise that this week’s blog would focus on a local effort. The natural local effort for me to address is my place of work: the City University of New York (CUNY). As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs (September 20, 2022, and April 18, 2023), CUNY is a multi-campus institution. My home campus is Brooklyn College and the central Graduate Center of the university. Like many other universities throughout the country and the world, we are now living through a transition period on many levels. I’ve mentioned many of these transitions repeatedly in earlier blogs, including the global need to change our energy sources away from fossil fuels, registration decline as a result of the decrease in population, adaptation to the tail-end of the COVID-19 pandemic, budgetary constraints, etc. These pressures are not unique to my school. Nor, in most cases, are they unique to the US; they are global. CUNY is a public institution that is supported by the state and city of NY. Like most other universities during the pandemic, most teaching and learning were remote. Like many other institutions and places of work, it was also supported by the federal government. This support is now ending and registration is still lagging behind pre-pandemic levels. Mandatory budget cuts are in the works, yet the amount is not yet known because the state budget is behind schedule (it should be voted on this week). Brooklyn College’s president has assembled a committee that includes students, faculty, and staff to advise him where to make the changes in ways that we don’t deviate from the college’s strategic plan. The goal is to avoid sacrificing our future to accommodate the present.

At the same time, state and city mandates require us to start to implement an energy transition away from fossil fuels so the state can be in the lead for zero carbon toward midcentury. If we don’t show progress on this front, the school will be fined. The guiding document for the required actions rests in the college’s strategic plan. The rest of this blog, and the following few blogs, will explore ways to accommodate fast-changing realities in that document.

Educational institutions have the clearest vision on this issue because we exist to ensure a better future for our students; if students don’t think that we are doing a good job at preparing them for the future, they will not come, and we will have to close shop.

Recently, an analysis was done on students’ motivation for colleges and universities.

The analysis was summarized by Frank Bruni in a New York Times op-ed entitled, “There’s Only One College Rankings List That Matters”:

Over recent decades, tuition at many public and private schools has risen much faster than inflation in general, to heights that have led millions of students to take on a magnitude of debt that dogs them and dictates their job decisions deep into their post-college lives. Still other students wonder whether college is even worth it in the end. The sticker price for tuition, room, board and required fees at some private schools is now over $80,000 per year.

Small wonder, then, that when The Times and Morning Consult surveyed 2,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 19 and another 2,000 between the ages of 22 and 30, those respondents rated the affordability of tuition and their likely earnings after graduation as the most important factors in the college experience — many times more important than, say, whether varsity sports are a major part of campus life or how small the size of a typical class is.

Figure 1 (source: Morning Consult via NYT)

The article’s conclusion, from the variety of responses in the poll, is that students’ priorities for choosing colleges mostly fall within the following three categories:

  1. If you’re a prospective student, your main consideration in choosing a college is likely the prospect for high earnings – the Ivy League schools dominate the top 10 choices (with some business school exceptions).
  2. If your priority is high earnings + low price, the top 10 are still dominated by Ivy Leagues but the exceptions include CUNY Bernard Baruch College.
  3. For those whose priorities are high earning + low price + less selective, CUNY schools make up half the top 10 selections.

I haven’t seen the raw data bases on which these rankings are based. However, the main point of the article is to show that there are many ways to rank colleges based on students’ priorities and preferences. Nevertheless, it appears that my place of work ranks decently, which is always heartening.

Let me now go from the country’s level to the document that outlines our goals and objectives. It attempts to figure out how to incorporate changing realities into our operations in such a way that after students leave the institution, they will be able to effectively and productively operate within the shifting world.

At Brooklyn College, the key document to achieving these objectives is the Strategic Plan. The most recent 43-page strategic plan covers the years 2018-2023. The introductory paragraph, given below, emphasizes the flexibility of the document:

The Brooklyn College community developed the Strategic Plan 2018-2023 (pdf) through an extraordinarily inclusive and transparent process. The Plan is not designed to sit on a shelf: it is a living document. Through internal and external evaluation, we learned that the Plan was too complex and that we needed to prioritize its strategic actions and develop its key performance indicators. We completed this work at the end of April 2019. The streamlined Strategic Plan is entitled Strategic Plan 2.0 (pdf). We undertook the process described below to do this work. By clicking on the hyperlinks, you can review the corresponding documents.

The rest of the document outlines the individual sections followed by the school’s goals.


Goals from the Strategic Plan 2018 – 2013:

  • Introduction
  • Purpose, mission, vision, and values
  • Goal 1: enhance our academic excellence.
  • Goal 2: increase undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students’ success.
  • Goal 3: educate students for fulfilling work and leadership in their communities.
  • Goal 4: develop a nimble, responsive, and efficient structure to serve our students and carry out our mission.
  • Goal 5: leverage Brooklyn College’s reputation for academic excellence and upward mobility

In next week’s blog, I will try to expand the plan and suggest how we can incorporate the major changes in global reality that have taken place over the plan’s 2018-2023 span.

Posted in Education, Energy | Leave a comment

Earth Day 2023

Earth Day celebration logo

 (Source: Houston Arboretum)

This is obviously not my first blog titled Earth Day. Just put the title in the search box and start investigating. The day is unique for me on two levels: it celebrates our physical environment and commitments to preserve it for future generations and it falls on my wife’s birthday. She often indicates that saving the world might count as a proper birthday present.

This blog will be fully dedicated to Earth Day. This year, April 22 fell on Saturday. Since Earth Day celebrates the ever-changing physical environment and our reaction to it, it is not surprising that I feel a need to revisit it on an almost yearly basis; I feel I can justify this with fresh observations. In addition, since the focus is on the physical environment and its interactions with humans on a global scale, a productive celebration requires a foundation in the physical sciences displayed in a way designed to be understood by everyone.

I will start with a short Wikipedia history and the global scope that this day is now (fittingly) acquiring:

Earth Day is an annual event on April 22 to demonstrate support for environmental protection. First held on April 22, 1970, it now includes a wide range of events coordinated globally by EARTHDAY.ORG (formerly Earth Day Network)[1] including 1 billion people in more than 193 countries.[2][1][3] The official theme for 2023 is Invest In Our Planet.[4][5]

The first Earth Day was focused on the United States. In 1990, Denis Hayes, the original national coordinator in 1970, took it international and organized events in 141 nations.[11][12][13] On Earth Day 2016, the landmark Paris Agreement was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and 120 other countries. This signing satisfied a key requirement for the entry into force of the historic draft climate protection treaty adopted by consensus of the 195 nations present at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Numerous communities engaged in Earth Day Week actions, an entire week of activities focused on the environmental issues that the world faces.[14] On Earth Day 2020, over 100 million people around the world observed the 50th anniversary in what is being referred to as the largest online mass mobilization in history.[3]

Anthropogenic (human-made) climate change is the biggest threat that we are experiencing in the physical environment. Most of us recognize the threat, and we are trying to do something about it. The largest component of the anthropogenic threat is still the use of fossil fuels (mainly coal, natural gas, and gasoline) as our main energy sources. These involve oxidation of the fossil fuels, a process that liberates and emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Thus, the main mitigation step requires an energy transition to sustainable sources that do not liberate the stored energy (stored in the chemical bond of the fossil fuels), and therefore don’t emit greenhouse gases. The most straightforward approach to achieving this objective is to transform most of our energy use to electricity and produce electricity with sustainable energy sources. But, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly in earlier blogs, electricity is a secondary energy source that must be generated through the use of primary sources. Until very recently, these primary sources were exclusively from fossil fuels. However, the global energy transition in electricity production is now starting to become visible, as can be seen in Figure 2 and the following two paragraphs from an article in Scientific American:

Figure 2 – Global generation of electricity by source
(Amanda Montañez via Scientific American)

Last year renewables produced more electricity than coal-powered plants for the first time in the U.S. Wind and solar now produce about 14 percent of the country’s electricity, up from virtually nothing just 25 years ago. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects that more than half of electric generation capacity added to the nation’s grid in 2023 will be from solar energy.

The main reason renewable energy has grown so much in recent years is a dramatic decline in the expense of generating solar and wind power. The cost of solar photovoltaic cells has dropped a stunning 90 percent over the past decade, partly because of ramped-up manufacturing—particularly in China—Bahar says. Government subsidies in countries such as the U.S. also helped renewables grow in the early years, as did policies making commitments to renewable adoption, says Inês Azevedo, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy. For example, many U.S. states set standards for how much of their electricity needs should be met with renewable energy by a particular year.

In New York City, where I live and teach, Mayor Adams just delivered an Earth Day present by resurrecting and retargeting ex-mayor Bloomberg’s (2002-2013)  PlaNYC program:

Mayor Adams Releases Ambitious Plan to ‘Get Sustainability Done’ — Full Funding to Come

The wide-ranging agenda, known as PlaNYC, includes proposals for electric car chargers, free solar arrays, and help for New Yorkers living in flood zones.

Adams’ first PlaNYC follows his efforts to expand food waste recycling citywide and cut emissions associated with food purchases by expanding plant-based offerings. In alignment with the state climate law, Adams’ agenda aims to run the city on electricity that doesn’t emit planet-warming gases — instead relying on sources like solar, wind and hydropower — by 2040, and to slash emissions from transportation, buildings and waste a decade after that.

But the administration says it is focused on improving quality of life issues sooner than that.

I am convinced and hopeful (but haven’t checked), that other local governments, around the world, are also in the process of giving presents to their citizens by mandating tools to preserve their environment and facilitate adaptation to future environmental changes.

In the US we also received a new national present from the federal government that has a good chance of significantly expediting the process:

The United States is on the brink of its most consequential transformation since the New Deal. Read more about what it takes to decarbonize the economy, and what stands in the way, here.

For the first time in history, the full financial weight of the United States federal government is aligned behind an epic transition to clean energy. A trio of energy, infrastructure, and science laws passed by the last Congress will deploy more than half a trillion dollars of public funding over the next decade to wean us off fossil fuels and make greener alternatives cheap and ubiquitous.

Uncle Sam will pick up a huge chunk of the tab for energy sources like wind and solar, and cleaner consumer choices like electric vehicles and heat pumps. Thanks to these new laws, which will also unlock hundreds of billions in private investment in clean energy, it’ll simply be the smarter financial decision to choose clean over dirty in the countless decisions made by millions of households and businesses. With the thumb firmly on the clean side of the scale, the fight against climate change in America has fundamentally changed.

And yet the work is just getting started.

In next week’s blog (and probably a few of those following) I will explore some of the complexities that we encounter by trying to celebrate Earth Day on a local level.

Posted in Electricity, Energy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching Students to be Involved in the Energy Transition

Spring Break at Brooklyn College

I am starting this blog at the tail-end of spring break at my university (CUNY). It will be posted as classes recommence for a month, followed by final exams and the summer break. This is a great time to start thinking about next semester’s classes. Over the fall of 2023, I will be teaching two courses focused on climate change and one on cosmology.

One of the two courses on climate change is part of our general education program and the other is more advanced, catering to our Honors College. The honors class is focused on our local mitigation and adaptation activities. My teaching in this course is part of a broader program focused on “Campus as a Lab” that I described in an earlier series of blogs (the last one in this series was from October 4, 2022). I am trying to approach the concept on various levels, spreading it around the campus at every opportunity. The details are summarized in the earlier blog.

Two weeks ago I got an invitation to attend a Zoom meeting that was co-organized by my university’s sustainability office and Con Ed, the dominant power company in New York City. The meeting was a workshop for solar and energy storage installers, part of a regular series of meetings that CUNY’s sustainability office organizes. The last one was pre-pandemic and was described in an earlier blog (July 2, 2019). I am attaching below the agenda for this meeting:

2023 NYC Solar+Storage Installer Workshop AGENDA

9:00 am Welcome and Workshop Overview

Tria Case, Exec Dir of Sustainability & Energy Conservation, CUNY
Sustainable CUNY’s Smart DG Hub: Accessing TA & Permitting Resources

Daniella Leifer, DG Ombudsman Emily Sweeney, Solar Ombudsman

9:15 am Con Ed Incentives, Interconnection Requirements, and Processes Opening Remarks

Shaun Smith, Director, Distribution Planning

Demand Response Program Gerianna Cohen, EE Program Manager EV Initiatives

Kevon Brown, Sr. Specialist, E-Mobility & Demonstrations FERC 2222 – NYISO Aggregator Participation Model Wassim Saloum, Project Specialist, Distribution Planning Kishan Patel, Project Specialist, Distribution Planning Utility Energy Storage

Masum Ahmed, Associate Engineer, Dist. Planning Technical Update from Dist. Engineering Constantine Spanos, Sr. Engineer Interconnection & Policy Updates

Christine Gorman, Sr. Specialist Julio Tardaguia, Project Specialist DG Ombudsman Team

10:30 am Sustainable CUNY’s Collaboration with FDNY

Daniella Leifer, DG Ombudsman Emily Sweeney, Solar Ombudsman

10:45 am Updates to FDNY Application Processes for Solar and Storage

John Ingenito, Supervisor – Rooftop Access Unit, FDNY Yash Patel, Engineering Consultant, FDNY

1:15 pm NYCHA’s ACCESSolar Program

Ron Reisman, NYC Solar Partnership Program Manager, Sustainable CUNY Christopher White, Program Manager – Sustainability, NYCHA

1:40 pm Updates to DOB Construction and Electrical Permits and Material Acceptance Application Processes

Yarnell Williams, Assistant Chief Plan Examiner, NYC Dept. of Buildings Abderrahim Charguini, Assistant Plan Examiner, NYC Dept. of Buildings Alan Price, Director, Office of Technical Certification & Research

3:10 pm Panel Discussion – NYC Solar and Storage Industry Outlook

Noah Ginsburg, Executive Director, NYSEIA Denise Sheehan, Senior Policy Advisor, NY-BEST Facilitated by Emily Sweeney and Daniella Leifer

3:30 pm Wrap-up and Next Steps

Ron Reisman, NYC Solar Partnership Program Manager, Sustainable CUNY

I am not a solar or energy storage installer and I am not trying to teach my students to become them. Two recent guest blogs that described the experience of solar installation (the last on March 21, 2023), are my only connections to the topic. The agenda of the meeting is so full of abbreviations that I had to use Google to decipher them. I will save you the effort and try to summarize them:

Sustainable CUNY’s Smart DG Hub: Accessing TA & Permitting Resources:

This collaborative effort was expanded to include energy storage systems (ESS) in 2013 and was formalized as the Smart DG Hub. Today, the Smart DG Hub’s dedicated and knowledgeable Ombudsmen provide support to the solar and storage industries as well as NYC agency staff who are tasked with creating new solar and energy storage regulatory structures (

FERC 2222 – NYISO Aggregator: NYISO is NY Independent System Operators; FERC is Federal Energy Regulation Commission.

FDNY – NYC Fire Department

NYCHA – NYC Housing Authority

DOB – NYC Department of Buildings

What intrigued me was the complexity that installers have to go through in order to make their input to our energy transition. While listening to the presentations I decided on a reasonable objective, that I can try to accomplish next semester with my students and with anybody else willing to listen: to try to guide them through the terrain of what else is being done to accomplish the same objective, including mapping the hierarchy of the organizations working on the problem.

I even came up with a new disciplinary name for the effort: Sociology of the Global Energy Transition. This is a reasonable title for a joint major of the Sociology Department and an interested STEM Department similar to the new collaborative majors that I described in an earlier blog (February 21, 2023).

According to Britannica, Sociology is defined as:

social science that studies human societies, their interactions, and the processes that preserve and change them. It does this by examining the dynamics of constituent parts of societies such as institutions, communities, populations, and gender, racial, or age groups. Sociology also studies social status or stratification, social movements, and social change, as well as societal disorder in the form of crime, deviance, and revolution.

Achieving the global objective of zero-carbon energy sourcing within a reasonable time will require efforts by all constituents of human societies to address needed changes in the physical environment. The line of thinking for students (and others) starts with “What can I do?” It often continues with “What is everybody else doing?” and “What will happen if I do nothing?” I will focus below on a derivative of these relevant questions:

“What can students on my campus do to speed up the energy transition?” To answer this question the students will have to recognize the roles that everybody else related to their campus is playing.

For students of my campus the sociology of the process will follow this narrowing focus:

Global > Federal > State > Local (City) > University > College. When a student on my campus is asked what this campus can do to approach the zero-carbon objective he/she will probably answer the obvious – change all energy sources from fossil to sustainable sources. Unfortunately, on my campus, that cannot be done. CUNY is a multi-campus consortia institution whose real-estate and energy delivery —as I’ve described earlier (September 20, 2022)—are controlled by the central government. So, such changes would have to be top-down. Students, however, will have to look at bottom-up solutions. In collaboration with everybody else on campus, they can make important contributions through more efficient use of energy. There are also ways for the university and the campuses to encourage energy savings. I will explore some of the possibilities in future blogs.

Posted in Climate Change | Leave a comment

Inserting Climate Change into our Collective Thinking

(Source: SafeKids Worldwide)

Last week’s blog focused on collective crimes, collective blame, and collective wisdom. A timely question relevant to my teaching and to this blog is how we “fertilize” collective wisdom to prevent or mitigate global disasters such as climate change. This issue is directly connected to another topic that I dealt with extensively in a series of blogs called “Educating in the Anthropocene.” The last blog that summarized previous entries on this topic was posted on February 21, 2023. The focus of that blog was on reorganizing the educational programs in universities to expand various forms of interdisciplinary programs.

As we saw in last week’s blog, “fertilizing” global collective wisdom on climate change requires much more than changing the structures of higher education institutions. It requires attempts to educate everybody. For many reasons, including from a personal perspective, April is a good month to think about such issues. I am approaching the end of the semester and am currently in the middle of Spring Break, which means holidays, visitors from around the world, and beautiful cherry blossoms all around. All of this is a great environment to start thinking about the future. This is also the time when I am often invited to give talks focused on climate change to audiences with little technical background on the issue. I find the picture that opens this blog to be the most effective in introducing the topic. In an earlier blog, (April 17, 2018) I described in detail the potential threats of heat exposure to small children or animals in a locked car. On many levels, this situation, in which the child or animal lacks the ability to open doors or windows to equilibrate the inside temperature of the car with that outside can be likened to the global impact of climate change. It also links to the role that our energy use has played in facilitating global heating and its consequences.

If we want to “fertilize” collective reasoning on the topic that will lead to preventive action in the form of mitigation and adaptation, we have to focus on the young, if for no other reason than because they are going to suffer most from the impact—directly and indirectly through their growing families. To impact collective reasoning on such a topic in audiences without some technical prerequisites is not easy but we are now in the process of learning how to do it. This blog will summarize some initial efforts in this direction in various settings.

Higher Ed Institutions:

Here’s one example of using private donations to start enriching academic institutions with relevant facilities:

John Doerr, one of the most successful venture capitalists in the history of Silicon Valley, is giving $1.1 billion to Stanford University to fund a school focused on climate change and sustainability. The gift, which Mr. Doerr is making with his wife Ann, is the largest ever to a university for the establishment of a new school, and is the second largest gift to an academic institution, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Only Michael R. Bloomberg’s 2018 donation of $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, ranks higher. The gift establishes the Doerrs as leading funders of climate change research and scholarship, and will place Stanford at the center of public and private efforts to wean the world off fossil fuels. “Climate and sustainability is going to be the new computer science,” Mr. Doerr, who made his estimated $11.3 billion fortune investing in technology companies such as Slack, Google and Amazon, said in an interview. “This is what the young people want to work on with their lives, for all the right reasons.”

Doerr clearly believes that the new Stanford Center on Climate Solutions will prompt something like the intellectual explosion of studying computer science. The difference is that although computer science is involved in almost everything, it serves a similar purpose as a language. Indeed, while in the beginning, there was a balance between software and hardware majors in computer science studies, students’ interest shifted the focus much more on the software part. Areas directly concerned with climate change are now leaning more toward the study of “everything,” meaning they resemble the ancient study of philosophy.

Status in K12 schools:

There are certain barriers to including climate change in school curricula, although they differ by age group. Within middle schools:

Climate change is set to transform where students can live and what jobs they’ll do as adults. And yet, despite being one of the most important issues for young people, it appears only minimally in many state middle school science standards nationwide. Florida does not include the topic and Texas dedicates three bullet points to climate change in its 27 pages of standards. More than 40 states have adopted standards that include just one explicit reference to climate change.

Barriers to inclusion in early grades mostly come down to implementation:

“Nobody really knows yet at what age kids can understand climate change,” said Gary Evans, an environmental and developmental psychologist at Cornell University who is conducting a study of children in kindergarten through third grade to find out what they know about climate change and how it makes them feel. “Anyone who tells you that they know the best way to talk to young kids about climate change is doing so without the guidance of data.”

That said, it’s not all bad: some places are starting to include climate change in curricula:

New Jersey public school students will be the first in the country required to learn about climate change while in the classroom starting this school year. “Climate change is becoming a real reality,” New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy, who spearheaded the initiative, told “ABC News Live” on Thursday. The new standards were adopted by the state’s board of education in 2020, but because of the pandemic, the roll out was halted, giving educators and districts more time to prepare the lesson plans for all students in grades K-12. “The districts themselves are able to design whatever it is that the way they want to implement and interpret this new education standard,” said Murphy. Lessons will focus on how climate change has accelerated in recent decades and how it’s impacted public health, human society, and contributed to natural disasters.

General communications to audiences with no prerequisites:

There are plenty of examples of anthropogenic (man-made) impacts that are readily available for use in schools—and outside of schools—on many levels:

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) water cycle diagram is still used by hundreds of thousands of students in the United States and worldwide. It’s also the basis for many, many spin-off diagrams. Today, the agency released a new diagram for the first time in more than 20 years, this time with humans as showrunners. Although people have long siphoned water from groundwater and diverted rivers into farm fields and industrial plants, the new diagram is the first time humans have been included in what was presented until now as a “natural” cycle. The change reflects the latest 20 years of research uncovering humanity’s central role in the cycle and how to communicate it visually. “We need to change how we think about these things to be able to live and use water sustainably for our future,” said Cee Nell, a data visualization specialist at the USGS VizLab, which designed the diagram. In addition to natural processes like ocean evaporation, precipitation over land, and runoff, the new diagram features grazing, urban runoff, domestic and industrial water use, and other human activities. Each label in the chart comes from data tracking the significant paths and pools of water worldwide.

Surmounting political opposition

Based on my own experiences of teaching the topic at Brooklyn College, we almost always include “denier” perspectives as part of the conversation. This is not just so that we comply with state mandates but also part of good teaching, which involves looking at all angles of an argument:

Ohio college and university instructors could be barred from teaching climate science without also including false or misleading counterpoints under a sprawling higher education bill that received its first hearing Wednesday. Senate Bill 83, or the Higher Education Enhancement Act, seeks to police classroom speech on a wide range of topics, including climate change, abortion, immigration, and diversity, equity and inclusion — all of which would be labeled “controversial.” On these and other subjects, public colleges and universities would need to guarantee that faculty and staff will “encourage and allow students to reach their own conclusions” and “not seek to inculcate any social, political, or religious point of view.” Colleges and universities that receive any state funding would be barred from requiring diversity, equity and inclusion training and have to make a commitment to “intellectual diversity” that includes “divergent and opposing perspectives on an extensive range of public policy issues.” The bill also includes provisions for annual reviews and reports, requirements for “intellectual diversity” in recruiting invited speakers, disciplinary sanctions for interfering with that diversity, a prohibition against faculty strikes, and more.

In many aspects, the slow introduction of complex topics such as climate change into the collective background of the general public, through its inclusion in curriculum, follows (from my own perspective) the slow introduction of the Holocaust into school curricula. As part of the last generation of survivors, I often participate in such efforts and often connect this effort with the probable future impact of climate change. As I mentioned in my earliest blogs (April 2012), this inclusion has been met with mixed reactions.

Posted in Climate Change | Leave a comment

Collective Guilt, Collective Blame, and Collective Wisdom

(Source: Spreaker)

A few days ago I was notified by our Judaic Studies Department about a new film that came out about the history of  German reparations to the Jewish people for the atrocities now known as the Holocaust. I saw the film, followed by a panel discussion with panelists who all looked to be born well after the signing of the Reparations Agreement on September 1952.

I have discussed my history with the Holocaust throughout the 11 years that I have been writing this blog, starting with the first posting (April 22, 2012). When the Reparations Agreement was signed, I was 13 years old, growing up in Israel. The signing followed major debates in Germany and Israel, and among Jews that lived outside Israel. The main issue in Israel was “money for blood,” an argument that boiled down to how anybody could set a price for the government-initiated genocide of six million people. The German government’s intent was to eradicate Jews (among other groups) from the face of the Earth; the toll only stopped at six million European Jews because the Germans lost the war. The main issue that the Jewish negotiators insisted on was that the reparations agreement not be confined to material reparations but rather expand to a public admission of collective German responsibility and sincere regret for the committed crimes, including an official apology to the victims. The main opposition argument in Germany was that the reparations and the moral admission constituted “collective punishment,” both material and moral. Collective punishment for crimes is still an open issue that continues to be discussed:

Collective punishment is a punishment or sanction imposed on a group for acts allegedly perpetrated by a member of that group, which could be an ethnic or political group, or just the family, friends and neighbors of the perpetrator. Because individuals who are not responsible for the wrong acts are targeted, collective punishment is not compatible with the basic principle of individual responsibility. The punished group may often have no direct association with the perpetrator other than living in the same area and can not be assumed to exercise control over the perpetrator’s actions. Collective punishment is prohibited by treaty in both international and non-international armed conflicts, more specifically Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II.[1][2]

When collective punishment has been imposed it has resulted in atrocities. Historically, occupying powers have used collective punishment against resistance movements. In some cases entire towns and villages believed to have harboured or aided such resistance movements have been destroyed. Occupying powers have claimed that collective punishment can be justified by necessity as a deterrent. Another view is that it is a retaliatory act prohibited under the laws of war.

Shortly after the agreement was signed, I grew up and entered high school. My high school got involved in the discussion, including in the form of a mock trial. I volunteered to be the defense coordinator for the trial, advocating for acceptance of the agreement. Our main argument was that we should look at the agreement not as money for blood but as a necessary step to build a strong Jewish state to make sure that the history of the Holocaust would not be repeated. I had to synchronize my position with a personal attitude. My mother and I were entitled to the reparations. My mother accepted but I rejected them. The reason for my mother’s acceptance was simple: she badly needed the money. The reason for my rejection, in addition to the fact that I really didn’t need the money, was a bit more complicated. Acceptance required that I produce a medical certification that I was “harmed” by the experience. Almost every physician in Israel would have issued me such a certificate, once he heard my family’s history, but my main effort in life at that time was to show that in spite of the experience I was growing up as a normal kid, meaning that any failure on my part was of my doing and not because of my earlier experiences. When my mother passed away some 20 years later, I inherited all her savings, so my “honorary” refusal became inconsequential.

As was mentioned earlier in the Wikipedia entry, most legal codes are anchored on individual responsibility. However, collective guilt and punishments are often invoked as “deterrents” or “accelerators.”  These border lines remain fuzzy. A relevant case that again is connected to the Holocaust and the fate of my family is the role of Polish citizens in the murder of 3 million Polish Jews during the Nazi occupation of their country. Below is an example of recent writing on the issue:

The framework of categories introduced by Raul Hilberg—perpetrators, victims, and bystanders—once conventionally employed in understanding the destruction of European Jewry has started to fall out of fashion among historians of the Holocaust. In the case of East Central Europe, particularly Poland, the people situated at the edges of the volcanic eruption of genocide have invariably begun their slide from “bystanders” to “perpetrators” in the recent turn in scholarship since the publication of Jan T. Gross’ Neighbors. Apart from the national debate unleashed in Poland in 2001, the major contribution of the book to the historiography was to banish a view of ethnic Poles solely as victims of Nazi Germany and to substantiate a long-standing claim found in Jewish survivor testimonies that Poles sometimes acted as perpetrators of Judeocide. The Jedwabne pogrom of July 11, 1941, has become the cornerstone of discussions about collaboration and perpetrators at the grassroots level in East Central Europe.

Throughout this blog and in other writings, I have invoked potential collective guilt in labeling the existential end-of-the-century threat of accelerating climate change “self-inflicted genocide” (see again the first blog in April 2012 and the two blogs that follow).

In a working legal system (to differentiate from a system that works to serve power), to convict an individual, you need to provide convincing evidence of the individual’s guilt. Can you do the same with collective guilt? One way is to prove that the collective education system and public communication are biased to encourage the crimes that are committed. In many cases, this involves cherry-picking of instances. Recently, a controversial technology has developed in which one can “chat” with a “collective” in the form of cumulative internet learning machines. These sites, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Microsoft’s Bing Chat, and Bard by Google, provide detailed, well-written, answers that represent collective internet “wisdom.” I tried this technology, asking it to answer a general question in one of my recent blogs (December 14, 2022). Below I quote from an NYT Op-ed in which three “deep thinkers” write about this technology:

In 2022, over 700 top academics and researchers behind the leading artificial intelligence companies were asked in a survey about future A.I. risk. Half of those surveyed stated that there was a 10 percent or greater chance of human extinction (or similarly permanent and severe disempowerment) from future A.I. systems. Technology companies building today’s large language models are caught in a race to put all of humanity on that plane.

Drug companies cannot sell people new medicines without first subjecting their products to rigorous safety checks. Biotech labs cannot release new viruses into the public sphere in order to impress shareholders with their wizardry. Likewise, A.I. systems with the power of GPT-4 and beyond should not be entangled with the lives of billions of people at a pace faster than cultures can safely absorb them. A race to dominate the market should not set the speed of deploying humanity’s most consequential technology. We should move at whatever speed enables us to get this right.

More recently, an interesting exchange was presented in the NYT between the author/journalist Kevin Roose and Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google. I cite below the relevant two paragraphs from this interview. The first question shown here relates to the issue of approaching AGI (AI that surpasses human intelligence). “Human intelligence” is not defined. Presently, we have 8 billion humans on this planet. Which of them is being used as a comparison? There is no escaping from the conclusion that the intelligence that we are referring to is our collective intelligence, in which case, AI is only the tool for extracting it. The interview blames this tool for imperfections and dangerous consequences. This blame should more appropriately be directed at our “collective wisdom.” The second paragraph puts the AI feedback to the collective concern with climate change:

On whether he’s worried about the danger of creating artificial general intelligence, or A.G.I., an A.I. that surpasses human intelligence:

When is it A.G.I.? What is it? How do you define it? When do we get here? All those are good questions. But to me, it almost doesn’t matter because it is so clear to me that these systems are going to be very, very capable. And so it almost doesn’t matter whether you reached A.G.I. or not; you’re going to have systems which are capable of delivering benefits at a scale we’ve never seen before, and potentially causing real harm. Can we have an A.I system which can cause disinformation at scale? Yes. Is it A.G.I.? It really doesn’t matter.

On why climate change activism makes him hopeful about A.I.:

One of the things that gives me hope about A.I., like climate change, is it affects everyone. Over time, we live on one planet, and so these are both issues that have similar characteristics in the sense that you can’t unilaterally get safety in A.I. By definition, it affects everyone. So that tells me the collective will will come over time to tackle all of this responsibly.

Recently ChatGPT was banned in Italy over privacy concerns.

I am trying the AI systems now as extra credit for my students in my Cosmology course who are trying to probe the “wisdom” of the collective to answer deep personal, cosmological questions and their concluding opinions about the quality of such probes.

Stay tuned.

Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment

Politicizing ESG Means Politicizing Our Future

I have raised the issue of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investments in earlier blogs. A blog from this summer (August 16, 2022) delves into the details of the acronym, shown again in Figure 1. That blog also describes how the concept has started to penetrate global markets.

Figure 1 – Details of ESG

As with many other parts of our life, the concept is now being seriously polarized—to the degree that now both houses of Congress have passed a law forbidding pension funds from considering ESG as a factor for investment:

Often known as E.S.G. investing, this approach takes its name from the environmental, social and governance factors that are used by millions of people in countless investment, business, lifestyle and government policy decisions every day.

In the financial world, trillions of dollars have been placed in investments that take E.S.G. issues into account. “E.S.G. investing is now totally mainstream,” said Jon Hale, head of sustainable investing research for Morningstar. “It’s part of the thinking of every major investment company because, at its core, it’s just common sense.”

Yet as this approach has grown in popularity, it has set off a powerful political backlash. That was evident in Congress this past week, when the House and Senate approved bills aimed at restricting E.S.G. investing in workplace retirement accounts in the United States.

The White House has said President Biden will veto the legislation, so what happened in Congress won’t have immediate effects.

The Republican party was solid in voting for the law in both the House and the Senate and two Democratic senators joined them in facilitating its passage. President Biden promised to block the law and followed through:

More than halfway through his term, US president Joe Biden had yet to use his veto power. But that changed after the US Senate voted earlier in March to block a US Labor Department rule that would have allowed retirement plans to consider environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in their investments.

Democrats argued that the Labor Department rule was neutral: Retirement funds could either choose to invest in ESG funds, or not. But Republican opponents have turned ESG into a political lightening rod, deriding it as a form of “woke” capitalism at odds with the needs of average Americans.

US pension funds manage over $20 trillion dollars (pdf) in assets and retirement savings, according to the OECD.

Congressional override of the presidential veto has failed. Joe Manchin, one of the two Democratic senators that joined the Republicans in passing the law, responded to the president’s veto:

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) blasted President Joe Biden’s veto of a congressional resolution to cancel a Labor Department rule allowing retirement fund managers to consider environmental, social, and governance guidelines when making investment decisions.

Manchin said Biden’s ESG policy “prioritizes politics over getting the best financial returns for millions of Americans’ retirement investments.”

“Despite a clear and bipartisan rejection of the rule from Congress, President Biden is choosing to put his Administration’s progressive agenda above the well-being of the American people,” Manchin said in a statement.

“This ESG rule will weaken our energy, national and economic security while jeopardizing the hard-earned retirement savings of 150 million West Virginians and Americans,” he said.

The law basically forbids those in charge of investing public funds from considering the issues mentioned in Figure 1 as factors in future profitability. To state it differently, investors can only consider present profitability and must ignore probable future impacts of broader issues that directly impact all aspects of our lives. This decision is being made when the world— in so many ways—is in upheaval.

The economic impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the global impacts of COVID-19 were discussed often in recent blogs. The resulting global inflation and its direct impacts on interest rates are a bit more recent.

Over the last two weeks, instabilities and outright defaults of banks both in the US and Europe have brought the smell of disaster to many of us. An op-ed in the NYT comments on the mess:

We were hours away from the failure of two regional banks and, more precisely, the new widespread recognition that deposits in excess of $250,000 might not be safe, setting off a chain reaction. Customers at other regional banks who thought their deposits were risk-free were suddenly questioning whether they should move their cash to safer havens. Withdrawals began, and as a result, previously remote risks of failure became real.

Unfortunately, the bipartisanship of last weekend has faded, and the blame game has begun. Progressives claim that greater regulation would have prevented the failure. Others claim that the failures were the result of a shift in regulatory focus from prudence to socially oriented directives.

Both claims are off base. Worse, this opportunistic political rhetoric may distract us from both the risks of the moment and, as we look forward, the critical role banks play in our society.

France is up in arms because its government is taking the “drastic” step of increasing its retirement age from 62 to 64 (see March 7, 2023 blog). Israel is up in arms because the new administration, nervous about how long it can hold power, has decided to make drastic changes to the structure of government (while it still can) by giving the Knesset control over the judiciary.

Figure 2 shows a self-portrait of my high school roommate (5 years after the establishment of the State of Israel) in front of what has become a weekly demonstration. He wasn’t even the oldest there—a group of ladies over 90 years of age—some of whom took part in the War of Independence—were also among the demonstrators, often with their kids and grandchildren.

Figure 2 – A recent demonstration in Israel through the eyes of a friend

Michael Bloomberg’s comments on the immediate impact of the instabilities on the Israeli economy are shown below:

Under the new coalition’s proposal, a simple majority of the Knesset could overrule the nation’s Supreme Court and run roughshod over individual rights, including on matters such as speech and press freedoms, equal rights for minorities and voting rights. The Knesset could even go as far as to declare that the laws it passes are unreviewable by the judiciary, a move that calls to mind Richard Nixon’s infamous phrase “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is courting disaster by trying to claim that same power, imperiling Israel’s alliances around the world, its security in the region, its economy at home and the very democracy upon which the country was built.

The economic damage is already being felt, as the pummeling of the shekel has shown. A large number of business leaders and investors have spoken out against the government’s proposal, publicly and privately. And in a disturbing sign, some people have already begun pulling money out of the country and re-evaluating their plans for future growth there. As the owner of a global company, I don’t blame them.

These are trying times for all of us. Stay tuned.

Posted in Climate Change, Sustainability | Leave a comment