This topic is one I have written on multiple times so I thought I would reduce the volume of garbage in Higher Education by repurposing a blog post I wrote five years ago with some updated information and ideas. So, enjoy!
It was a symbol of excess and waste in 1980s New York City. The massive 2,200-acre Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, N.Y., was once the largest garbage dump in the world.
And it smelled.
Each day as much as 29,000 tons of New York’s garbage rolled across the bay on massive barges and it just stacked on top of each other until there were over 150 million tons of solid waste. The garbage was coming so fast and furious that it never had the chance to decompose.
In the late 1980s, college researchers drilled holes into the massive garbage dump and what they found was amazing. They found that nothing had decomposed: Newspapers still as crisp as the day they were purchased 20 years before, a ham sandwich that looked deli ready but was made in 1967, baseball cards, cans of soup, and countless banana peels.
Because the trash came in and was dumped on top of the other garbage it never had a chance to decompose because oxygen and microbes could never break down the organic material. It was left to just sit there and stay in a festering animated state forever.
The issue was real – the city had to do something.
The first thing they did was begin to say “No!” In 2001 the Fresh Kills garbage dump took its last barge of garbage. Then scientists, environmentalists and interested citizens went to work.
In just 15 years the place is transformed. The garbage dump has been allowed to naturally decompose. The gas produced from the rotting garbage is harvested and used in city buses, the landscape has been reshaped. The Audubon Society has worked to make it a bird habitat, local leaders have made it into a park for visitors, and many aquatic reptiles have returned. Fresh Kills has gone from eyesore to treasure by a city ready to re prioritize.
So where did the garbage go? Well, New York has become a model for separating refuse into recyclables, and better distributing the rest into compost and more responsible elimination of solid waste. The result is a city that smells a lot better and everyone’s quality of life is much, much better.
Higher Education is much like the Fresh Kills garbage dump.
I make a poorly worded and supported physics joke in my class that Higher Education Initiatives can only be created and can never be destroyed. Simply put, higher education does not have a will to kill. Over time we have developed student success program after student success program and placed them all in the priority 1A slot. Decades of this ability to add and never subtract has built an impressive tower from which we can observe our fiefdom but most of it is built on garbage that needed to be taken out years ago.
For example, I worked at a university and for an activity in class. I asked the class to go to the student affairs website for the university and to count all the mentoring programs that division sponsored. After some time, the class came up with over 70, separate and unique mentoring programs. While some may say this is great, more opportunities to get more students mentors. And in some ways, this makes sense. But we looked closer. These mentoring programs differed little from each other, tended to serve the same populations of students, and, in many cases looked to be running at less than capacity. Now, this is not an argument against mentoring programs. They are great and evidence shows many works. What this is an argument is the duplication of programs that lead to salary, resources, time, energy, and personnel being poorly distributed to provide the best coverage and support for our students.
I believe that higher ed leaders who become good at auditing will be the next generation of leaders. Afterall, the amount of funding for higher ed is beyond strained and to grow we may need to contract. Also, we may also need to have a real conversation on what is the best use of our time and resources. Here at the Florida Consortium, we aim to do just that. Our three universities work together to identify areas we share an interest in and share our work across boundaries. This reduces R&D, time to implementation, and we save money. If we can make this happen between universities, why can’t we do it on one campus?
On a personal note, we can do this in our own areas. How revolutionary would it be to go to your next budget meeting and showing an ability to return funding or resources because you edited properly? And here is my guess, if you are thoughtful about it you will likely show an increase in efficiency and student success. That is what happened in New York.