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Columbia University's Earth Institute: An Academic Institution for the 21st Century

08/12/2013 09:11 am ET | Updated Oct 12, 2013

When people ask me what I do for a living I tell them that I teach sustainability management at Columbia University and that I'm Executive Director of the university's Earth Institute. Often, that's the end of it, except for the more curious who have the courage to ask: "What's the Earth Institute?" Unfortunately, the answer to that question takes a few minutes to deliver, because the Earth Institute is a new form of academic institution, and it's not easy to describe.

To understand the Earth Institute, it is important to understand the history of American higher education and how it has evolved. When Columbia began as King's College in lower Manhattan in 1754, it provided a classical education in philosophy, history and science and provided its students, such as Alexander Hamilton, with the knowledge needed to lead the new nation. As our higher education institutions evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries, we saw a system firmly based in meeting the practical needs of a growing economy and an increasingly more complex society. The land grant colleges focused on the development of agricultural technology and outreach to farmers to teach new farming techniques. And urban universities like Columbia began with traditional arts and sciences academic departments such as biology, history and philosophy and came to include professional schools like law, engineering and medicine. One of the missions of Columbia's School of Mines (today's School of Engineering) was to help figure out how to build New York's subway system.

In the 21st century, the preeminent need of our economy and society is to solve the problem of global sustainability. How do we create the high throughput economy that provides a decent life for the planet's seven billion people, without destroying the ecological systems that we depend on? We are all biological creatures and we require food, water and air to live. If we continue the style of economic growth now underway, we will destroy the planet's capacity to provide safe water, food and air for all of us. To address the problem of global sustainability we need to bring together the knowledge of many academic and professional disciplines. We need ecology, engineering, environmental science, chemistry, physics, law, medicine, public health, economics, political science, public policy, ethics and management. And we need to bring these fields together to help address the problems of climate change, renewable energy, ecosystem maintenance, water quality, food production, air quality, waste management and the manufacture of goods and services with the least possible environmental impact.

The problem with the modern university is that it is organized around disciplinary fields, like biology and economics, or professional skills, such as engineering and law. While public policy schools have brought together many fields to attempt to solve policy problems, and business schools have done the same in attempting to train business leaders, both lack the grounding in sciences and engineering needed to address the issues of global sustainability. What is needed is a new form of academic organization that is university-wide, with the mission of institutionalizing interaction among all of these fields to address the problems of global sustainability.

The Earth Institute is precisely that: a new form of academic institution that integrates the knowledge base of the 21st century university to address the problems of global sustainability. Its mission is to develop programs of research, education, outreach and practical application of knowledge to address the critical issue of global sustainability. The Earth Institute works to expand our understanding of the Earth as one integrated system - studying the Earth and its environment, human society and the interaction between the two - and training a new generation of interdisciplinary practitioners equipped with the tools to address this challenge.

The Institute is not a school, and does not grant degrees, but has partnered with schools to create and in many cases manage educational programs. These educational programs include non-degree programs of adult and executive education, but they also include the following degree programs:

  • Undergraduate major in Sustainable Development,
  • PhD in Sustainable Development,
  • MS in Sustainability Management,
  • MPA in Environmental Science and Policy,
  • MPA in Development Practice, and
  • MA in Climate and Society.

The Institute includes about two dozen research centers examining every aspect of sustainability. We have over 700 people on staff, including about 500 who work on our Lamont Campus, located on 150 scenic acres overlooking the Hudson River about 30 miles north of New York City. That campus includes the scientific heart of the Earth Institute, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. It also includes the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) and the Agriculture and Food Security Center. Our annual budget is about $130 million a year, most of it from competitive scientific grants awarded by the U.S. federal government.

The mission of this new institution is set by our director, Jeffrey Sachs, who draws on the wisdom of a governing council of 45 Earth Institute faculty members. The faculty includes 35 senior scientists and tenured professors who hold appointments in 16 departments and schools. The Institute does not sit within a school, but rather reports directly to the Provost and is considered part of the central administration of the university. In addition to the funding we raise on our own, we have received significant subsidies from the university since we were established in 1996. Those subsidies have totaled well over $100 million and represent a significant investment in the establishment of sustainability studies at Columbia University. Despite this investment, maintaining support for this type of institution within central administration and across the university is challenging and far from certain.
The university's policies and procedures are influenced by departments and schools and often favor the existing structure; and universities are not set up for rapid change.

When I first came to Columbia from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1981 I was expecting to teach a course in environmental policy. One of my mentors at the university suggested that I teach a course in leadership instead, since "no one comes to New York City to study the environment". And he was right. I didn't get to teach environmental policy until 1987, when I became the curriculum dean of the School of International and Public Affairs and was able to set up a concentration in environmental policy studies. Today, Columbia has well over 700 students studying in sustainability programs throughout the university. Times have changed, and the issue of environmental sustainability has moved from the fringes of the political dialogue to the center of it. World leaders, business leaders, and thought leaders are focused on sustainability and it is clear that the emphasis on preserving our planet is here to stay.

As the world gets more crowded and complex, I think that universities are in the process of evolving to meet the needs of that changing world. Academic departments and professional schools will remain, but these "stove-piped" independent organizations must find a way to work together to address the pressing issues of our time. At Columbia, we are seeing the start of a second university-wide institute. The Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind, Brain and Behavior Institute, will bring together scholars from medicine, psychology, biology and other areas to understand the human mind. As the Earth Institute mobilizes all our knowledge to understand the world outside the human species, the Zuckerman Institute will work to understand the world within the mind of our species.

These 21st century academic initiatives are exciting and of course are greeted with great skepticism by traditional scholars, not to mention deans. As we learn to deal with the complex planet we live on, we will need all forms of knowledge: disciplinary, professional and interdisciplinary. Universities are being challenged to adapt to this new world, and while it is not yet clear they are up to the challenge, they need to be.