Universities share blame for damaging Earth, summit told

Using his platform at a global summit on redefining university excellence in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Dr Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (ASU) in the United States, said that together with the fossil fuel industry and transportation sectors, universities and colleges were among five areas he held most responsible for bringing the world to the brink of disaster.

Addressing the annual gathering hosted by ASU and Global Silicon Valley (the ASU+GSV Summit), Crow said: “We decided to allow the disciplines not to talk to each other. We decided to go ahead and produce thousands of chemical structures and chemical manufacturing techniques and all these other tools and then said that someone else would solve all the problems this would create.

“We decided to create a hierarchy of knowledge that says that physics is more important than chemistry and chemistry is more important than biology and biology is certainly more important than ecology and all of that is wildly more important than the idiots who are in the social sciences.

“We have put ourselves in this situation where we have been stupefied by ourselves. We did not understand how to intellectually design a teaching, learning and discovery organisation capable of actually keeping us from killing ourselves. It is unbelievable.”

Redesigning universities

Crow, a champion of transdisciplinary education, has devoted most of his academic career to redesigning universities.

This includes 10 years at Columbia University where he designed the Earth Institute and the past two decades at ASU, where he established 25 new transdisciplinary schools, including the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Among his key messages was that the day of reckoning is with us now and that “we are moving at speeds slower than the transformation of the planet”.

As for higher education, he said: “The reckoning should be at the actual design of the intellectual enterprise that we think of as the university”, before urging the sector to stop trying to produce – and rank – institutions that replicate each other and instead tackle the global environmental challenges from different angles.

He used the summit to ask why chemistry faculty members had been allowed to build tens of thousands of molecules that cause cancer in humans instead of “starting out from the beginning to produce molecules that don’t cause cancer in humans”.

And he posed the question: why are ecologists held “hierarchically down” and not regarded at least as equals to chemists?

The desire for elitism

Global climate change, he said, is “largely a behavioural issue, as opposed to a scientific issue”, before urging universities to throw off their desire to be “elite or elitist” and instead take their social responsibility seriously by communicating constantly with the public about the challenges facing the world and what they are doing about it.

At the summit, Crow was on a panel of North American university leaders championing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a more responsible method than rankings and university league tables of recognising higher education excellence and higher education’s contribution to society.

The session was chaired by Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education (THE), often seen as one of the chief architects of the growing influence of university rankings in shaping the priorities of global higher education institutions.

Baty opened the session titled “Redefining university excellence: UN Sustainable Development Goals disrupt college rankings” at the summit on 5 April 2022 by readily accepting that traditional league tables “reward universities that turn away lots of students” and are “based on wealth and prestige”.

Disrupting ranking models

Baty then went on to claim that THE is “trying to disrupt” its own model by producing “impact rankings” based on the 17 UN SDGs.

He said that unlike its world university league tables, the THE Impact Rankings, of which the fourth instalment is due out on 25 April 2022, will see eight countries represented in the top 10 instead of just the usual suspects from the United States and United Kingdom.

Dr Mary Papazian, former president of San José State University in California and executive in residence at Rapid Education Prototyping (, which aims to incentivise new and equitable systems of public higher education, told the ASU+GSV Summit: “Rankings are part of the problem because they want to create only one at the top rather than celebrate those who follow the goals of the SDGs, for example”.

She accepted that rankings are now part of higher education’s communication strategy, but said they fail to capture what the large public universities, where most students are educated and where most academics work, are best at – and that’s serving their local communities.

“I [also] don’t think the SDGs are well known or well understood in the United States. Most of our institutions don’t really talk about them,” said Papazian.

Professor Joy Johnson, president and vice-chancellor of Simon Fraser University in Canada, admitted it took them until its second year in existence before they agreed to take part in the THE Impact Rankings as they were initially suspicious of what could be seen as “monetising the UN SDGs”.

SDGs as common ground

She believed universities around the world were now “embracing the SDGs” because it gives them ground for common understanding with international partners. “If I go off to talk to someone in Korea about SDG 13, they know what we are talking about.”

Elsevier Chairman Youngsuk Chi, who was also on the experts’ panel, said designing a ranking of global universities based on their contribution to SDGs “is certainly better than anything else we have had so far” and said he was pleased his company was able to share its access to scholarly material.

Elsevier is involved in developing and reviewing the metric key words for matching documents to SDGs in the THE Impact Rankings.

He cited three real benefits to SDGs being the framework for the impact rankings. First, it judges how universities are behaving themselves in terms of carbon footprint, gender equality and access and opportunity; second, through university research across disciplines and both fundamental and applied applications; and, thirdly, higher education is shaping the minds of future leaders to be much more responsible.

Chi said such a comprehensive framework across all 17 SDGs and the focus of using these to rank multi-type universities should help universities to communicate with non-higher education audiences, including the politicians, journalists, parents, students, job-seekers and employers who are the ones judging the sector’s performance. “We need them to become our allies,” he said.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at