“Sustainability” is most conventionally defined as the ability to meet the needs of current generations without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to also meet their own needs. This definition was popularized in the Brundtland Report. It assumed that balance could be achieved by considering long term impacts across three dimensions: social, economic, and ecological. More recent definitions of “strong sustainability” embed these three dimensions within one another, as concentric circles rather than a Venn diagram, recognizing that economic systems should operate to support social wellbeing and that both social life and economies ultimately depend on ecological systems.
One immediate question we can ask about the conventional definition of sustainability is: are we meeting the needs of current generations? Globally, the answer is clearly no; we live in a world rife with poverty, unnecessary malnutrition and starvation, and death from preventable disease. Narrowing our gaze to the United States, the answer is also clearly no; events throughout the summer of 2020 highlighted the continued violence, including systemic and structural violence committed by the very institutions intended to uphold law and order and justice, towards people who are Black (and Indigenous and People of Color, hereafter abbreviated BIPOC) in America. People who have historically been marginalized and oppressed by centuries of settler colonialism, genocide, slavery, and segregation in America continue to have unmet physical, economic, and social needs including safety, wellbeing, and inclusion.
There is another way to think about this word and concept “sustainability” – we can ask ourselves, is this system as it exists sustainable, meaning can it continue to exist in the long term (like seven generations)? The systems of violence and oppression based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, and ability are not sustainable. They are quite literally tearing our country apart, as we become an increasingly polarized, increasingly violent, and increasingly unsafe nation, for BIPOC and everyone else who cares about the rights to safety from physical harm and justice through institutional process shared by every human on earth.
Finally, we can also ask, is Michigan Tech as an institution sustainable? Is its ability to respond in meaningful ways to current events, to make itself relevant to its students and the social world, supporting its ability to sustain itself as an institution of higher education? The answer is definitely and absolutely no.
Michigan Tech has failed to provide any kind of institutional response denouncing white supremacy (even when it is right here on campus) and continues to fail to provide support for BIPOC students who are categorically less safe than their white student counterparts. Every BIPOC student I work with has experienced hate in this community, sometimes at the hands of the police. Every time this is brought to the attention of Michigan Tech administrators, they respond as if they’re shocked by some isolated incident of hate rather than treating reality as it is: we live in a society that is systematically racist and oppressive to BIPOC, and it is the obligation of an institution of higher education to acknowledge empirical realities and educate their students about them.
An event at a recent University Senate meeting makes this lack of sustainability perfectly clear (start at 1:45). When a student read a thoughtful, heart wrenching open letter about how hurtful and damaging it is that the University continues to remain silent about these issues, the most senior administrator in the room asked for, of all things, a minute of silence! With a student imploring them to stop being silent, University administration literally responded with more silence.
BIPOC students at Michigan Tech know that this is an emotionally and physically unsafe place to learn. It will be impossible for Tech to increase the diversity of students on campus without addressing this reality as a systemic, structural issue. Michigan Tech is making itself irrelevant, and therefore unsustainable, in the world of higher education.
As you’ll hear if you listen to the end of the University Senate meeting, there are faculty on campus who care deeply about seeing structural changes that will better support BIPOC students. As a member of the Department of Social Sciences, I’ve been collaborating with a group of faculty and students since summer 2020 to develop a shared statement and list of commitments to action we can take at a Department level to address systematic oppression and systems of violence that harm BIPOC students, faculty, and staff at Michigan Tech. The University administration has told my Department that, although no written policy exists, we are not allowed to post that statement on the Department’s website, lest it be confused for an official university statement (which only the Board of Trustees is allowed to make). So, let me be unequivocally clear that this writing represents my perspective as a social scientist, a scientific expert in understanding social life. It is my professional opinion, but mine alone and not representative of anyone at Michigan Tech, that Black Lives Matter, that BIPOC students are not being supported in the ways they deserve, and that our University’s non-response is one indication that this University is not sustainable.