Sustainability and Scholarship
Rethinking the separation of academics and engagement at Emory
Peggy Barlett, Professor of Anthropology


Vol. 10 No. 6
May 2008

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Battling the Demons
Students, mental health, and the specter of violence on campus

Getting help for troubled students

Video: Dealing with students at risk

“Today a student walks out of a math test and picks up the cell phone, and Mom knows immediately how the test went.
Parents haven’t cut the apron strings, and many little issues get blown out of proportion.”

The thing you’re most worried about is not someone going out and shooting people. . . . Suicide, eating disorders that can lead to heart attacks, alcohol and drug abuse that lead to accidents—those are the ways we lose students. ”

Sustainability and Scholarship
Rethinking the separation of academics and engagement at Emory

Re-imagining health care reform
From old paradox to new paradigm


In the early 1990s, when I completed my study of the farm crisis in Georgia (American Dreams, Rural Realities: Family Farms in Crisis, UNC Press 1993), explorations to find a site for my third anthropological fieldwork wouldn’t gel. I realized that I wanted something more. As a medical researcher and sustainability leader at another institution told me, “I’d written hundreds of papers and killed thousands of rats.” His desire for a new direction echoed my own.

At the same time, a sense of urgency for change was gathering around this campus. Billy Frye, then our provost, shared with me his concern that if we didn’t slow acid rain within ten years, it might be too late to save many vulnerable forest ecosystems in North Georgia, his treasured home. The negative health effects of Atlanta’s smog and suburban sprawl were front-page news. Reducing acid rain or smog means changing consumer use of energy and the emissions of dirty, coal-fired power plants—both personal and political challenges. I felt strongly that “someone should do something,” but as I’ve written about in Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change (MIT Press 2004), I was reluctant to take the lead. On reflection, however, it seemed that with the privilege of tenure, my position as full professor, and recognition within my field, if I could not set aside the mandates of “publish or perish” for a time to engage in public scholarship, who could? Plus my years of committee service at Emory gave me strong networks around the university. Looking back, I see that I made a slow transition to a new role and to feeling comfortable thinking with others across the country about how to transform higher education. For Emory to become a truly sustainable institution requires rethinking the separation of academics and operations, rethinking the meaning of research and service, and broadening our definition of teaching.

This new direction had deep roots in my earlier work. I began as an economic anthropologist, interested in Latin American economic development. By the mid–1990s, many Latin American governments and nonprofits were embracing environmental issues as an essential part of economic development. This came as something of a surprise to me, because the notion of environmental health as a component of development was quite invisible in the United States. As an anthropologist, I had long recognized that the high consumption of resources in industrial countries was not viable in the long run, and anthropology textbooks offered examples of other lifeways. I saw that these Latin American groups were articulating a new paradigm, a major challenge to our definition of a desirable future.

Intrigued, I began to look around the United States for this new paradigm of what we would today call sustainability. I discovered very little on the national level, but local entities were thinking creatively. Sustainable Seattle presented a new way of doing urban planning; the Center for the Evolution of Culture, based in Palo Alto, articulated a new ideology of living on the earth that incorporated biological and geological approaches with some cultural anthropology; the Whidbey Institute offered experiential learning about bioregions and spiritual connectedness with living ecosystems. There were many other such experimental groups.

I didn’t think these approaches would gain much traction in Atlanta, however. I could discern no willingness to begin to question our growth ethic. I had become more grounded in Atlanta’s environmental movement through involvement in local watershed alliances. Being active in zoning issues and local greenspace preservation efforts also helped me assess whether any of these new approaches might resonate with the Atlanta scene. I was doubtful.

I came to realize, though, that the unit I knew best was not Atlanta—with thickets of politics and players where I had no personal connections—but Emory. And as a “small city,” the university can have considerable impact. Little did I know that today we would be encouraging major corporations to reconsider the sustainability of their production practices, in order to keep a contract with the university.

The movement to bring sustainability issues into university governance began in earnest in fall 1999, when twenty to thirty faculty, staff, students, administrators, and alumni began to meet as the Ad Hoc Committee on Environmental Stewardship. By December, the group had crystallized two main directions for action: monthly woods walks that built an awareness of the campus’s precious forest resources and an effort to develop an environmental mission statement to guide campus actions and decisions.

As an anthropologist, I love to watch social action and am always curious about what motivates people. All my research has focused on differences within groups of people—how different farmers with different amounts of land or different personal goals will use their resources, for example—and I continue to wonder which language, which issue, which perspective will motivate new behavior or new understandings around sustainability. For example, during one environmental walking tour with administrators, we stood in a parking lot and learned how the heated water of summer rains harms creek organisms. Death of these organisms then lowers the ability of the creek to clean itself. The person standing beside me exclaimed, “Wow, I never thought about that.” Her eyes widened, “But of course it would do that.” A pause: “This tour is so important. We need to find a way to bring this to the Board of Trustees.”

In 2000, the faculty Green Lunch Group—a monthly gathering sponsored by the provost, environmental studies, environmental and occupational health, and the science and society program—began bringing one to two dozen faculty members together to hear a research presentation on an environmental issue, to discuss some sustainability-related challenge, or to brainstorm about teaching dilemmas. In 2001, with the help of Arri Eisen of the Program in Science and Society and leaders from Northern Arizona University, Emory launched the Piedmont Project, a summer faculty development program to infuse sustainability and environmental issues across the curriculum. Each summer’s program involves twenty faculty from all units of the university, and this summer will mark the seventh group to carry out syllabus revision, brainstorm teaching methods, and engage sustainability in fields as diverse as Chinese, public health, law, business, theology, music, chemistry, and psychology. Currently, 120 participants offer more than 150 courses affecting thousands of students a year.

Faculty love the woods walks led by Oxford biology professor Eloise Carter during the Piedmont Project, and even years later they can recount vividly what they learned. When asked what they liked best, most participants echoed the person who said, “The chance to learn from a wonderful group of Emory colleagues.” Another said, “I didn’t realize I was going to enjoy the group so much. It was a really big thing for me.” The meaning of the Piedmont Project included a sense of Emory’s mission as well: “I get a sense of satisfaction of being part of an institutional process dedicated to positive ends. It feels good to be a part of an environmentally-friendly institution.” The positive feedback on the evaluations stimulated me to interview all Piedmont participants, who consistently stressed the intellectual stimulation, experiential learning outdoors, and ties with colleagues across the university as meaningful parts of the experience. Said one, “It really did change the way I think.”

After five years of leading the Piedmont Project, I took a sabbatical and traveled around the country to interview sustainability leaders in other schools. I was amazed to learn that Tufts University’s faculty development program, like the Piedmont Project, was still an important stimulus to faculty cooperation and action, though it had been moribund for ten years. I joined with a Tufts faculty member to survey their program’s alumni and compare the results with my own study of Emory faculty. We found a lasting impact on curriculum from these faculty development efforts. In addition, participants reported new directions in their research, collaborative grant efforts, effects on teaching philosophy and methods, and personal impacts on daily life and public service. The importance of community and ethical engagement with one’s daily work is salient to participants from both schools. Our study is forthcoming in College Teaching.

Observing what helped people engage with public scholarship led me to see that stories are as important as facts. This approach contradicts my preferred style as a social scientist, but I found writers from many fields were saying the same thing. I collaborated with Geoffrey Chase, a dean and former English professor, on an edited volume of such narratives, Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change. We worked with national sustainability leaders on campuses around the country, insisting they write honest, flesh-and-blood accounts of what steps they took, what worked, and what didn’t. Many folks around the country have let us know the realism in the volume has empowered them, inspired them, and supported their work on campus.

Each step of change at Emory has brought new intellectual challenges for me. As Ciannat Howett, director of our new Office of Sustainability Initiatives begins to implement the strategic plan with a program of sustainability representatives for each campus building (among other efforts), I wonder about the conflicting lessons of applied psychology. As new studies show how green-space affects creativity, mood, and immune function, I wonder how to research the impact of our “green” building program. My current work on sustainable food systems in schools around the country brings me to phenomenology, critical anthropology, and Southern cooking. The work of transformation of higher education toward sustainability still feels urgent, but there are many more of us now with linked arms. I have deeply enjoyed the new partnerships across the campus and the country—and I am deeply grateful for the satisfaction of new scholarly directions.