I once wrote a book review on effective executive sustainability leadership in our universities in which I declared that, in my experience, there were none who could live up to this accomplishment. I can now report that there is at least one: Michael M Crow, the President of Arizona State University. Today I listened to his 12-minute live broadcast at the UN HLPF meeting in New York (
In those few minutes he shredded any sense that today’s universities are fit for purpose in the 21st century. He argued that universities are “inadequate” for five key reasons:

  1. Universities are outcomes of their own design and its application. They teach and research in areas such as economics, based on models which are outmoded and sustainably untenable. In the sciences academics focus on inane arguments based on outdated notions of disciplinarity, which can be categorised as “epistemic myopia”. From a systemic perspective the whole university enterprise lacks epistemic sensibility.
  2. Universities apply inadequate system level tools; they are basically reductionist in focus and fail to teach and research the wider more complex global and social dimensions beyond the traditional disciplinary traditions.
  3. Universities do not reflect the cultural diversity of their local communities with respect to BAME and indigenous peoples. This narrows their sources of knowledge and its wise application.
  4. Universities are currently “closed sequestered” places not fully and pragmatically engaged with the real world. Universities do not involve themselves with the social, environmental, and economic consequences of their work. They have no moral sensitivity because of their obsession with reductionism.
  5. Universities are arcane, none-adaptive institutions which move at a pace which is not commensurate with the pace of change in the modern world.

Arizona State University has made some outstanding progress in developing a more systemic and transdisciplinary approach to learning with over 25 interdisciplinary programmes and many global interdisciplinary research institutes. Even so Michael Crow says that it is not enough. He believes universities need to change everything “down to their roots” and that sustainability should be a core value in everything they say and do.
Michael Crow and Arizona State University seem to me to epitomise the transformative, adaptive knowledge enterprise/model that Universities need to make them fit to tackle the grand challenges of the Anthropocene.

Published by Steve Martin

Steve is a passionate advocate for learning for sustainability and has spent nearly 40 years facilitating and supporting organisations and governments in ways they can contribute towards a more sustainable future. Over the past 15 years he has been a sustainability change consultant for some of the largest FTSE100 companies and Government Agencies such as the Environment Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. He was formerly Director of Learning at Forum for the Future and has served as a trustee for WWF(UK). He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Worcester and President of the sustainability charity Change Agents UK. He is currently a member of the Access Forum for the Peak District National Park and is supporting the local district council on its Climate emergency programme.

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