Sustainability Programs Can Help to Avoid the Death of Our U.S. Democracy

This week, I take a break from discussing entrepreneurship and explore an issue that seems to be in the minds of many in higher education. Higher education is currently under attack for its political correctness. In 2013, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education counted 34 speaker disinvitation attempts. For example, The University of Pennsylvania canceled then future prime minister Modi from India. In 2016, there were a total of 42 disinvitations.

Just in this past week, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran major articles on this topic. An article entitled “The Free Speech University” (WSJ, February 17-18, 2018: A15) contains an interview with the University of Chicago’s President Robert J. Zimmer. Professor Zimmer is under attack for allowing Steve Bannon to come to campus. More than 100 University of Chicago professors signed a letter to Zimmer objecting to the visit saying: “the university should model inclusion for a country that is reeling from the consequences of racism, xenophobia, and hate.” The model of inclusion they advocated for included  “…that Bannon should not be afforded the platform and opportunity to air his hate speech on this campus.”

Amy Wax, a law school professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote “The Closing of the Academic Mind” in the same WSJ edition (C1). She referred to her and her colleague’s (Larry Alexander from the University of San Diego Law School) August 9 op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer with the headlines “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of The Country’s Bourgeois Culture.”  Her most controversial statements referred to some cultures as less suited in preparing people to be productive citizens in a modern technological society, for which she gave examples including Plains Indians and anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among Hispanic immigrants. She ends her article with “The American Way is to conduct free and open debate in a civil manner. We should return to doing that on our college campuses and in our society at large.” (C2)

I am not endorsing Professor Wax’s ideas nor do I believe Steve Bannon creates a healthy environment for our country. Yet, to deny these voices an opportunity for debate on college campuses is both antithetical to what is my vision of college campuses and to a healthy democracy.

A recent book helps us explore these issues. Harvard University professors Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt recently published “How Democracies Die.” The introduction laments that American politicians intimidate free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence service, and ethics offices.” They continue, “And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president.”

Toward the end of this introduction, they state: “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization – one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture. American efforts to achieve racial equality as our society grows increasingly diverse have fueled an insidious reaction and intensifying polarization. Plus, if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies. There are, therefore, reasons for alarm.”

I believe in universities and their special place in democracies. In an earlier blog I commented on the following:

Universities are important institutions in crafting possibilities and creating connections. A college president asked a graduation audience to think about a reality – that there are only 85 human institutions that have been in continuous operation for more than 500 years. Two you could get with a little thought: the Catholic Church and the British Parliament. If I were to tell you there were eight cantons in Switzerland, you’d be up to 10. But, the striking point is that of the remaining 75 human institutions that have been in continuous operation for more than five centuries, 70 of them are universities beginning with Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, considered by many scholars to be the oldest university in the world, founded roughly the same time as the city of Cairo in 969 AD.

That universities endure in this way testifies powerfully to that fact that universities are special institutions, and all of us are privileged to be the inhabitants of such a place.

My intent here is to echo others’ sentiments that the proper response to those with whom we disagree is to engage in reasoned debate and use logic and civil discourse as a means of explaining evidence, facts, and substantive arguments why you and I disagree or agree with their opinions. We should use our powers of empathy and civil discourse; our research skills to muster data and arguments; our intentional view to create a healthier more inclusive world.

In earlier blogs I suggested ways to get people to act on climate change and other sustainability challenges;  “E” in my CLIMATE model relates to education to build capacity to attack the important issues surrounding climate change and other environmental and social challenges. I focused on educating future organizational leaders in all sorts of university programs. The target markets are people entering the workforce in various jobs yet who share a common focus on creating a more sustainable world.

Part of this education must be to get these people to engage those with whom they disagree in dialogue. Every program on campuses, regardless of the content, needs to facilitate the development of these skills. One way to facilitate is to build tolerance and acceptance of the opportunities to dialogue. Also, for sustainability programs, I suggest questions to address that will tease out these differences of points of view. These questions are unifying while the answers may cause disagreement. The community of scholars who study sustainability are united by intellectual questions.  For example, I’ll end this blog with my ante for core questions in sustainability programs (see the table below).

It is up to you – how will you react in your programs, your work, and your life when people express an intolerance for others’ views? How will you facilitate conversation rather than inhibit it?


Major Questions in a Sustainability Program
Natural Environment/ Global TrendsWhat are the essential human and biotic global trends that impact our organizations and us? How do we learn to simultaneously think globally, regionally, and locally in examining the challenges facing us in developing sustainable solutions?
Common human challengesWhat is the relationship of the natural environment to universal human challenges? How can societies address this relationship and these common human challenges? What are people for?
Address these challenges and form assumptions; values and normsWhat is a just society?  What are the overarching outcomes we want for societies and how can we achieve them?  How do we become more humane and just?  How do we foster prosperity and a better quality of life without denigrating our natural environment? What are our global and sustainability mindsets and what impact do they have on our effectiveness to achieve sustainable outcomes?

What do we mean by sustainable outcomes?  How can we balance economic outcomes such as job creation with environmental protection? How do sustainable outcomes lead to resiliency and adaptation? How can we help people out of poverty while protecting the environment? How can everyone have access to clean energy? How can we make sure that everyone can enjoy a decent quality of life getting the needed water, food and nutrition?

Institutional arrangementsWhat institutional arrangements support sustainable outcomes?  What political-economic institutions and policies lead to and which destroy a humane, sustainable and just society? What legal arrangements will ensure a sustainable future?
Role of organizations and impacts on organizations and our civil societyWhich organizational arrangements, political-economic institutions and policies lead to and which destroy a humane, sustainable and just society?  How do we address this destruction within different contexts – local communities, states, nations and the world?

How do we judge best-in-class organizations?  What is the journey for becoming best-in-class?

How do environmental challenges impact the structure and functioning of value chains and industries, individual work patterns and choices and organizational governance?

What constitutes real value, to oneself and others?  What roles can creativity, innovation, and social entrepreneurship play in creating value?

Impacts on youHow do we become change agents?  As change agents, how can we individually and collectively develop transformative practices that enable us to re-shape our relationship to the natural environment? How can we use design thinking to formulate solutions that lead to sustainable outcomes? How do we engage in public scholarship and practices that bridge divides between the academy, communities, and corporate and non-governmental agencies to achieve sustainable outcomes?

Note: This document is adapted from the Wake Forest University graduate programs in sustainability vision statement for which I was the founding director. If you want the literature behind these statements please contact me at


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