Dr. Mercer Full Interview
NJHEPS | New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability
A View from the President’s Office
Gary Minkoff, Executive Director of NJHEPS, recently sat down with Dr. Peter Mercer, President of Ramapo College. They had a wide-ranging conversation about sustainability-at Ramapo and to a broader extent, Higher Education in New Jersey. Here are some excerpts from that dialogue.
Dr. Mercer’s biography may be found here: http://www.ramapo.edu/president/biography.html
Gary Minkoff (GM:) Can you tell us briefly about your background and how you think it informs your view of sustainability?
Dr. Mercer (PM): My background is a little unusual; I was born/raised in Canada-and my perspective on sustainability was formed relatively early in my life. I grew up in several small fishing villages in Newfoundland and there was a premium on family and community. The lifestyle there created a kind of interdependence-most people had a small plot of land in the hills behind the village and grew vegetables, many had a few chickens-most people also fished. To the extent they had a job that generated income, they found that the job was temporary and it produced just about enough to buy staples. Inherent in that kind of life is the notion of a community bond, and that is something important to me in a sustainability context. A friend who grew up across the street from me in one of those villages built a house next to his parents-with his brother next door…that was the pattern for living in most of those communities. I was reminded of this when I read that the crime rate in Newfoundland was remarkably low, and that was a form of community sustainability; that is, you wouldn’t steal from your neighbor because it was like stealing from yourself.
GM How important do you feel sustainability is at Ramapo and why?
PM: Sustainability has generated an extraordinary range of interest and activity; I haven’t seen something like this for some 40 years. In its own way, sustainability seems as generative a concept as civil rights was to prior generations. At all levels, societal, corporate, government, education and individual, there’s a growing recognition that without focusing on sustainability, the future can’t be secure. Not just for our basic needs, but for the very system that’s inhabited, we need to consider the sustainability of programs and institutions.
More specifically with respect to Higher Education, in terms of attracting students: They think it’s as important to go to a place where sustainability is embedded in the culture-that is- it’s part of the institutional focus and part of the daily conversation, as much as the actual curricular emphasis. Sustainability is very important to parents-who are stressed economically, and who have their own experience and ideas about sustainability; they have their own frustrations and realize the status quo can’t prevail-and among policymakers it’s become critical. Everyone senses that the world is not the same as it was- and there’s a belief that sustainability is mechanism for systemic change.
I’d also note that sustainability works on different levels in attracting faculty. Some disciplines are overtly related-such as the environmental sciences, which are at the core of the understanding of the purpose of sustainability. However, sustainability’s relevance is not typically as readily ascertainable to a comparative linguist or history professor, but even in these situations, if the concept of sustainability isn’t highly significant from a curricular standpoint, it would seem that it still must be important to the faculty on a personal level. As thoughtful people, they realize that the systems they inhabit and as currently constituted, may not have given sufficient thought to sustainability. So that becomes an area of focus and an opportunity for dialogue, research and debate.
As for the Importance to the administration/university professional and lay leadership, I would that on a personal level I begin with the concept of waste. People are increasingly conscious of waste; the extent to which they create it, or are guilty of it… (such as turning off lights, conserving water, etc.) People recognize that conservation/waste avoidance is important as part of their daily activities. They’ve realized that at the institutional level, the concept of waste has to be examined. Yet, this presents a difficulty. If an intelligent or insightful person realizes that, perhaps, 20% of their job is unnecessary or unproductive, would they come to the leader of their institution and ask to explore that waste? Human nature is such that the person will likely be quiet in that instance. So people need to understand they won’t be punished because they highlighted waste…and they need to be comfortable with disruption that comes from assessing the balance associated with waste reduction and efficiency.
As a practical aside, this type of thinking is particularly relevant in large colleges and universities. I once had colleague who was a physiologist. He taught in 4 discrete courses and had 4 offices in 4 schools that were all part of the same academic institution; 80% of the content he taught overlapped. This may be the extreme but I think it highlights the concept of capacity and waste. Perhaps a more realistic example is a person working at 20% capacity at 100% of their salary. This can happen because people have entrenched habits and we have entrenched methods of operating our institutions. For us to adopt more sustainable practices in Higher Education-it would require such an individual to be responsible for monitoring some behavior. For example, administrators love the notion that classes would be full on nights and weekends to enable us to cover our fixed costs. So it may not be sustainable to continue to operate on a relatively brief workweek, which I define as a 5 day workweek in this instance. This is what I meant earlier when mentioned the concept of balance. If someone is teaching 12 hours a week… would it make sense to do that on 1-2 day from an efficiency perspective? Well, if everyone did that-you could predict the days for peak demand for resources, facilities, traffic, etc. -and there would be situations where there would be completely empty classrooms, and times of complete congestion.
So in such situations, the virtue of following sustainability principles requires some strategic innovation around housing, transportation, teaching, scheduling, etc. That is, the efficient and appropriate use of all of resources does require a level of ingenuity.
GM: Our discussion thus far seems to have a little more emphasis on environmental and economic considerations; do you see sustainability in terms of a social justice component, as well?
PM: I tend to be wary of the term social justice-because as a lawyer I am used to the word justice. But when you graft “social” onto justice -it implies a hierarchy; that is, it’s “just” if I like it. Of course, sustainability does go beyond economic concerns and it’s easy to think of in terms of sound environmental practice. They are generally consonant with each other. If you have facilities that are sustainable -heated, lighted, etc-it’s obviously better to have that happen 90% of the time vs. 40% of the time, the benefits are clearly practical in such cases.
GM You have been in/around academe for some time-how have you seen sustainability become more important and to what do you attribute this? Was it different in Canada than here?
PM: It was not markedly different in Canada and wouldn’t limit this to the academic setting. As a child-would not be unusual for me to be out on a drive with one of my parents and to see someone roll down a window and litter. I don’t think we litter in that way anymore. Generally, I would say we are more environmentally conscious. But it’s a broader set of concerns that informs, this, too. People used to smoke in class when I was in law school (in early 70s); but now, people have generally looked at inhibitors of good health and have/are trying to optimize what works and do away with negative influences.
By the way, a lot of statistics one sees in the sustainability debates don’t really help this discussion as much as you might think. They are incomplete. For example, if we looked at the portion of the world’s energy used by the United States, I think the picture painted is an unfair one. I think in context, one should ask how that energy is used. Is it to make products for other countries who don’t have to make them and who therefore use less energy? Shouldn’t that somehow be considered as part of that country’s domestic consumption of energy? So when we think of goods producing countries, of course China, the U.S. , and Canada will use more resources as they produce more goods and services that are consumed by the rest of the world.
And while some may say that progress is not fast enough, I find it interesting to see the improvements-(even though this is a moving target). My first family car was a big old Chevy with lots of metal and very poor gas mileage. Compare that to a similar auto today; relatively speaking, emissions from a comparable vehicle are way down, and gas mileage is way up. And that trend will obviously need to continue. This has come about because of a greater recognition of the importance of our individual, as well as, our collective behavior.
GM: Do you think Ramapo has a special role to play as a public college in NJ in terms of leadership in sustainability?
PM: As a public college-Ramapo has a public responsibility. So it should be concerned about public welfare. It’s hard to imagine a concept of more importance to the public welfare than sustainability. So yes-I think it does have a special responsibility.
GM: What is your vision for sustainability at Ramapo-has this changed over the past few years-if so-how and why?
PM: My vision has evolved-virtually every college is into this now-it’s very popular. Sustainability actually is pretty deeply rooted here. Even though the environmental studies and related sciences programs only recently found their way into the classroom. For Ramapo-the history is very important. Sharp center build on the site of the old ramshackle one-sust. Studies is relatively groundbreaking. But don’t want isolation -we need to be better organized to be more focused and efficient. Would like to see the carbon footprint reduced….and operate in a more sustainable fashion.
GM: Are there sustainability-related activities accomplishments of which you are particularly proud?
PM Building the Sharp Sustainability Education Center. I think that this convinced most concerned people on campus that I was serious about continuing the legacy of commitment to sustainability at Ramapo. Our masters program in sustainability heightens and extends this commitment. And engagement by our students is significant. In general, any sustainability-related event here is of interest to our campus community. We have 30 students in sustainable living arrangement –specific dormitory settings they have chosen due to their personal interest. We have clubs on campus which focus on sustainability. I would note however, that sustainability doesn’t always fit easily with our lifestyle. For example, when first-year student parking privileges were eliminated, partly to support sustainability, the decision was not overly popular with that group of students.
GM: We appreciate the intense-competing priorities you face as the President of a public college here in New Jersey. Given this competition for your attention and resources, how much of a priority is sustainability-and do you see that emphasis increasing or decreasing?
PM: Institutional sustainability has become more important. We share with most colleges -the things that make sustainability an issue. For example, can we have the same number of programs, while house and teach the same number of students that we always have? Often to answer these questions, we just add things like new facilities but-do we take things away that aren’t necessary? At one time that may not have been necessary, but now it’s a crucial analysis. I can remember that the former president of a college in Canada, would have a 2 hour lunch and talk about the budget, and that was a budget that only saw increases….
Times are different now. Our budget approval at Ramapo happens in June, but by mid-July we have already begun planning the following year’s budget. It’s a scramble every year to allocate resources-but that also forces us to coordinate our activities more carefully. Additionally, as some of our faculty evaluate the sustainability of programx on campus, we find that this stimulates a rich debate. For example, If we only worried about sustainability from a financial standpoint it would change the character of Ramapo fundamentally, but we would be very efficient from an operating perspective. So that’s a balance that has to be considered.
GM: What do you think the Higher Ed community in NJ should be doing to advocate for sustainability?
PM: Higher education generally has to avoid talking out of both sides of its mouth. We can’t advocate for greater financial support from the state if that support is subject to being audited and is shown to be wasteful. So if the lights are on all night when buildings are empty there should be a cost to those who waste. This requires an intense examination of internal practices to see what might be curtailed or cut back.
GM: Among your peers on the NJ Presidents’ Council, clearly there are many priorities to be balanced; do you feel sustainability is one of these priorities? Has that changed in the past few years-what do you anticipate as the trend-and what do you think would drive it to be a higher priority?
PM: Sustainability has emerged as a priority-everything from LEED buildings to carbon footprint calculators to economic viability.
GM: Is there a closing theme, call to action or “takeaway” message that you would like to share with our readers?
PM: My takeaway would be…that the emphasis on sustainability is likely to continue-and it should. But that shouldn’t generate unrealistic expectations. Inculcating sustainability practices typically isn’t easy; you have to change institutional and personal behavior. And, sustainability must not become an easy dodge for the government. That is, they should not blithely say “We are cutting, or, not increasing, budgets because not enough has been done with sustainability.” The government has to do a lot more for itself and not cynically pawn off the responsibility for this activity as an excuse for its own problems.
For example, without funds to maintain facilities-institutional capital is consumed. Here’s something that happened to me in Canada. I had a Director of Facilities who came with me on a tour with a government Minister who “held the pursestrings” in Public Works. My director brought a small sledgehammer and showed him some space we planned to renovate. He gave the hammer to the Minister and asked him to pound the wall and said “I guarantee when you create a hole-will find a repair in that hole…” It was actually worse. When the hole was opened, evidence of 3 prior repairs was found. My director then said “I guarantee that the 3 repairs cost us more than had the proper repairs been done the first time.” So, we have to sustain our campuses with respect to capital replenishment -and you can’t “kick the can down the road.” In many places in our economy, if a problem isn’t immediate and direct, it gets deferred. However, in Higher Education, we know we have to make investments, but will they get deferred until absolutely necessary-or even later? For example, if the useful life of a piece of capital equipment was determined to be 30 years and it-still functions at 28 years, do we then do a 5 year capital plan only have to have the equipment before year 33? That creates emergencies and just makes planning much harder.
I believe we make a similar mistake when it comes to human capital. If we don’t make adequate provisions for sound investments in higher education, we are going to have problems. We can either invest now-or invest later. As the economist Anthony Carnevale has said, “Education allocates earnings; work alone is not enough.”
So without these investments -the competitive advantage of a knowledge economy is gone. You have to educate to participate -you had better sustain your system of education. Brazil, Russia, India, China, Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia have all made these investments and that is not what has been happening in the United States. Yet all the projections tell us that the jobs that will need to be filled will require a college education. So from an economic and societal sustainability perspective, we need not to maintain-but to enhance what we are doing to meet the demands of the future.