THE BLOG

More Than a Drafting Error: Why Scott Walker Is Wrong

03/11/2015 10:50 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Governor and Republican Presidential hopeful, recently took a calculated swipe at his state's university system. First, he proposed to cut the system's budget by $300 million. Then -- adding insult to injury -- he edited the university's century-old mission statement, deleting its charge to "educate people and improve the human condition" and "serve and stimulate society." Instead, according to Walker, the university should stick to the narrower goal of meeting "the state's work force needs."

Walker's attack on state universities may have been a naked attempt to curry favor with his party's right wing. And, when it backfired, he backpedaled -- saying that the altered mission statement was merely a "drafting error."

But this was no mere drafting error. Walker's proposed cuts and clumsy edits reflect a desire to scale back investment in public higher education, which is pervasive on the right. It's an astonishingly shortsighted view. At a time when a college degree is the surest ticket to middle class life, and private colleges are unaffordable for most, cutting funds for public universities will limit the horizons of countless young men and women.

And there is another reason why defunding higher education is the wrong thing to do right now. As we face the mounting threat of climate change, public colleges and universities can help us build the knowledge and skills we need to create a sustainable, resilient future.

Coping with climate change requires an all-hands-on-deck effort. We need to make the transition from carbon-intensive energy to sustainable alternatives. And we need to strengthen our communities' resilience in the face of extreme weather events and other disruptions. Public colleges and universities -- especially the nation's 1,132 community colleges -are stepping up to these challenges.

Hundreds of community colleges have formally committed to train students on the importance of sustainability, and to prepare them for green jobs. The American Association of Community Colleges' Sustainability Education and Economic Development Center helps community colleges deliver best-in-class programs, including a resilience training toolkit and sustainability curricula across all disciplines.

Community colleges are also greening their campuses and, in the process, creating living laboratories for sustainability. By merging campus facilities management with academic study, they are reducing their carbon footprints, saving taxpayers money, and providing experiential learning opportunities for students. For example, Laney College in Oakland is building a state-of-the-art green campus facility that will be used to develop curricula in sustainable building operations.

And community colleges strengthen social resilience by getting students involved in local problem-solving. The Democracy Commitment , as just one example, is a national effort to engage community college students in civic learning and democratic practice. And the Community Learning Partnership (CLP), a sponsored project of the Emerald Cities Collaborative (ECC), helps faculty and students collaborate with community-based organizations. One CLP initiative - a partnership between the Los Angeles Trade -Technical College and the nonprofit Community Development Technologies Center - enables residents of South L.A. to earn college credits by promoting energy efficiency in their community.

Finally, community colleges serve as "anchor institutions" in their communities (they are anchored because -- unlike fickle industries -- they are not going anywhere). As such, they can use their purchasing power to build community resilience by encouraging urban food production and creating local jobs. (For more on how to harness the power of anchor institutions, check out the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio.)

As anchor institutions, community colleges can help the most vulnerable communities mitigate and adapt to climate change. For example, colleges can use their energy and real estate assets to deliver back-up and alternative energy to the surrounding community. And, as trusted community institutions, they can offer safe havens during disasters. Another recently formed ECC collaborative, Anchors for Resilient Communities, is working with foundations, nonprofits and community-based institutions in the Bay Area to explore similar strategies.

Clearly, public colleges and universities have an important role to play in building community resilience to climate change. By slashing funding for these institutions, Scott Walker and his cronies will not only shortchange a generation of young Americans, they will also constrain our collective capacity to cope with a changing climate.

At the other end of the spectrum, President Obama has proposed a bold new plan to make community college education available tuition-free for millions of students. Unlike Walker et al., Obama understands that public colleges and universities have a mission to "educate people and improve the human condition" and "serve and stimulate society." In the era of climate change, that mission is more important than ever.