Michigan Tech, this isn’t sustainable

“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.


5 Comments on "Michigan Tech, this isn’t sustainable"

  • Timothy Scarlett
    November 18, 2020 at 11:15 am

    Our University Mission Statement claims that we… “We inspire students, advance knowledge, and innovate technological solutions to create a sustainable, just, and prosperous world.”

    We are either committed to sustainability and justice, or we are not. We are either mature enough to use scholarship to critically understand the biases in the functionings of our world, or we will fail in our effort create a culture of continuous improvement based upon data-driven decision making.

    I agree with you that we should publicly identify our shortcomings, show commitment to continuous improvement by developing specific actions to fix problems, and holding ourselves accountable if we fail to follow through.

    This language is repeated in almost every college and department mission. Including:
    College of Engineering: https://www.mtu.edu/engineering/about/mission-plan/
    Michigan Tech Strategic Plan, Portrait of 2045: https://www.mtu.edu/stratplan/portrait/

  • Kerri Corser
    November 18, 2020 at 11:57 am

    Maybe Tech should remember its probably sitting on land stolen from indigenous people in the first place. Shame on you MTU.
    Get it together, you’re a disappointment after the first Trump parade you allowed. Whats next, the KKK…trust me that’ll go over well. Looks like you’re gonna be losing alot of beautiful bipoc from all over the planet once the word is out you only cater to ‘whitey’.
    Tsk tsk shame shame
    Thought you believed in science???

  • Jennifer Rachels
    November 18, 2020 at 10:57 pm

    As a graduate student, I am often asked to speak to prospective graduate students and answer any questions they have about Tech. Since this summer, I have told each and every one of those prospective students that they should ask schools how they responded to George Floyd’s murder and the events that happened afterward. At this point, MTU has no answer to that question. Frankly, students haven’t demanded that they have one, either.

    For those unaware, white supremacist groups have an ongoing effort to recruit students from our campus. Their campaign includes coded messages on Discord, Twitter, and Snapchat; and flyers, posters, and stickers on campus buildings, light posts, and the neighborhood between campus and Jim’s grocery. As far as I know, this has been going on for nearly three years, with no response. Multiple instances have been reported to campus safety and local police. Tired of seeing no action, a few friends and I regularly remove racist graffiti and stickers from buildings and lightposts ourselves. I am part of very early discussions about an education effort to help our local high school and first year Tech students learn how to spot the signs that they are being groomed by these groups. We are doing our best to set an example.

    I can’t help but think our school’s limp effort to provide programming for Rev Dr MLK, Jr. Day is part of a pattern of *their* example- we hosted a dinner and a speaker, and a tiny handful of people read books to children. Administrators sucked the oxygen out of the room, took up all the resources, and did not train or assist student leaders to plan and produce *their own* service projects and civic education and engagement efforts. They did not inspire, motivate, or support; they *told* students what they would do…made them passive observers in their own world. Not one voter was registered; not one hammer was swung on a Habitat house; there was no long term partnership maintained between a student group and a local nonprofit. I looked at the calendar of events at NMU, WMU, and Finlandia to see how many events they had and who planned them- the contrast was stark.

    Like the author of this post, I am personally aware of at least three students who have been terrorized by local police- two of them were physically assaulted, and one detained but not arrested. One of them got a traffic ticket- dragged out of his car and into the road for what eventually became a traffic ticket. When I first arrived here, before I started school, I personally had to protect myself from an officer who inappropriately came to my home to scold me for speaking up for myself at City Hall earlier in the day. The evidence is clear that we have a systemic problem here whether we want to face it or not. I hope I’ve made it clear that both students (if they are in the position to do so) and administration are responsible for taking the steps to address these issues. I do not need administrator from MTU telling me what is right or wrong or what needs to be be done about it. It’s clear they refuse to lead. I’d just like them to get the hell out of the way of those that will.

    I, too, worked on that departmental statement, and I’d like to see it posted.

  • Lynn Mazzoleni
    November 20, 2020 at 12:09 pm

    I am deeply saddened by the lack of response from our academic administrators & executives to this critical issue at Michigan Tech. This “negative/unsafe climate” is not a new issue sparked by the September Trump Parade, in fact, the 2018 Climate Survey indicates over 50% of the surveyed faculty, staff, and even academic administrators (N > 450 respondents) have seriously considered leaving the university (https://www.mtu.edu/worklivelearn/).

    I urge readers to listen to the last 20 minutes of the Senate Meeting. You’ll hear a few brave students call attention to overwhelming stress and a lack of support related to racism that is unequivocally associated with regional political extremists. They feel a heavy burden to speak up, while they are supposed to be here to study.

    As I’m in the process of completing my “Diversity Literacy” refresher course, I can’t help but wonder what impact this knowledge has when it’s clear that our administrators will not take action to support our BIPOC students in a time of local and national crisis? Did they forget the words they wrote: “…the workshop focuses on understanding, recognizing, and responding to unconscious bias related to gender, race, age, disability, religion, or other “protected” classes as defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These biases can hinder the successful recruitment, retention, and promotion of a diverse faculty at Michigan Tech.” (https://www.mtu.edu/advance/training/workshop/)?

  • Joe
    November 22, 2020 at 5:40 pm

    Wow, all of these comments are so thoughtful and I am glad to see people speaking out against injustice. It is truly a beacon of light in a time of darkness. I was a graduate student at Kent State University while I personally experienced bias and racism from other grad students. I am glad those at MTU are fighting for the push against it.

    Makes me happy!

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