How the Climate Crisis May Shape Duke’s Second Century: A Conversation with Bryan Alexander

Universities on Fire

As Duke turns 100 years old next year, with the adoption of the Climate Commitment, our historic institution is looking forward and aligning itself with futurists like Bryan Alexander, author of the new book Universities on Fire

Universities on Fire explores possible answers to the question: what does climate change mean for the future of higher education? Alexander recently joined Learning Innovation’s director Shawn Miller to discuss how some of the themes and findings in his book align with the ongoing efforts at Duke such as the Climate Commitment, emerging pedagogies (such as artificial intelligence), mental health and lifelong learning.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Shawn: Duke has a reputation for interdisciplinary research and teaching, and recently launched the Climate Commitment. In your book you pointed out that there are some solutions and work in this space that are going to require blurring the lines of the disciplines even more. When institutions are trying to figure out how to prioritize our strategies and efforts around teaching and learning, what do we do first? 

Bryan: In many ways, one of the deep challenges of the climate crisis is that this is an all-of-the-above crisis. This is one which is going to require not just all hands on deck, but also a huge range of strategies, not all of which will work.

“One of the deep challenges of the climate crisis is that this is an all-of-the-above crisis.”

In terms of scale, I’ve heard this compared to World War II plus the Industrial Revolution, and that sounds about right. So pretty much everyone has to try something. 

If we start with your focus in teaching and learning, there are a couple things to think about.

One thing to do is just expand the amount of teaching about climate. But then this runs into some interesting challenges. For example, how do you handle professional development for this? Take a geographer who says, all right, I’m interested in this. I want to include it in my classes, but I’m not skilled enough. How do I learn enough to be able to do this? So that’s a challenge for your office, Shawn, is how to provide that kind of professional support.    

And there’s the other aspect, which is that this is an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary topic. So how do you support that?

Different campuses have different cultures for this. Broadly speaking, all of American higher ed is still ruthlessly disciplinary. It’s very hard for us to break out of those boundaries. So you have to think about how you support this kind of thing, and that may lead you to a structural solution where the solution might be to create a climate center or to take [Learning Innovation and] add climate to it in some way. Or it may lead you to create more programs, like a minor or a major in climate mitigation, for example.

All that’s in the curricular side, and it sounds like a lot, and it can be, but one thing to think about is what if we think of this as a supply and demand problem? All the polling shows that traditional aged students are way more interested in climate change than their elders, right? So it looks like it’s a safe bet for Duke as well as for any institution to offer more curricula on this. But alongside the curricula, what we teach is a question of pedagogy and how we teach. And this gets interesting because climate change is a very complex topic. It’s very fraught. 

In fact, there’s a concept in contemporary philosophy called the hyperobject which describes something that you think about that is so vast, so complicated, so intertwined in so many aspects of everyday life, that it’s actually literally, hard to think through. In that case, how do you teach this? Well, we have a few different approaches. We know from a lot of environmental studies that project-based and inquiry-based learning are pretty powerful. We also know that simulations and gaming are very productive. How do you support faculty doing that for the first time?

“The hyperobject… is so vast, so complicated, so intertwined in so many aspects of everyday life, that it’s actually, literally hard to think through. In that case, how do you teach this?”

On top of that, pedagogically, we have the increasing problem that more and more students [and faculty and staff] have experienced climate change, which may include being through a horrific storm or seeing your entire community rebooted because of changes in flora. How do we honor that experience as faculty? And how do we do it in a way that is productive and supportive rather than re-traumatizing?

Shawn: Our organization supports innovation in learning — especially digital education. For Duke that can mean things like more hybrid and online learning — but of course, recently that means thinking about incorporating AI. One takeaway I have from your book is that things like online and digital won’t save us — in fact, with the rise in AI, it might be that we’re creating further climate damage and impact. Can you touch on the way we might need to think about AI in teaching and learning while also considering how to be truly climate committed? 

Bryan: One thing to think about is that within climate change, we have the idea of climate justice, right? That is, how are we going to adapt and mitigate climate change in a way that does not reproduce historical biases?

[DEI and climate change] link together really, really well. In some ways higher education has been much more committed to DEI over the past three years, but not anywhere near as much for climate. Duke is an outlier in that respect. When it comes to AI, we’ve got two countervailing forces. On the one hand we can think that AI is great for climate change in that we can use it to learn a lot more. We can also use AI along with other computations to try and reduce our carbon footprint, to help analyze our footprint better, to get a better sense of it, to model out actions we can take, but also perhaps to reduce travel. We have all kinds of positive benefits there that would work. 

At the same time, we have the problem that current large language models and some other ways of creating AI use a huge amount of data and process it with an enormous amount of cloud computing. We’re talking about using a lot of GPUs. An incredible amount of memory. Now, all of that emits carbon in different ways. This is a strategic choice for a campus to make: do we support AI and use it for these climate benefits? Or do we avoid it because of these carbon costs?

I think the broader question that’s implicit in your question, Shawn, is, how can a campus grapple with these huge challenges? After we’ve had three to five years of so much stress and so much strain, and we haven’t had a break. We haven’t really had extra resources. In fact, quite a few faculty and staff, when I talked to them about this, they said, “I’m barely keeping my head above water as it is. You’re telling me to grapple with the world’s biggest challenge? I can’t do it.” When you talk about putting climate change on the table alongside these other grand challenges, I think our capacity is really an issue, too.

“When I talked to [faculty and staff] about this, they said, ‘I’m barely keeping my head above water as it is. You’re telling me to grapple with the world’s biggest challenge?'”

Shawn: I totally agree with that. It’s just a general sense that people are, at least psychologically, still very exhausted. One of the quotes I always come back to is by Arundhati Roy about how pandemics are a portal. I’m very much on the side of, let’s continue with the positive changes that came out of the pandemic. Let’s not go back. Let’s not just refocus on what the “good old times” were.

Climate and AI were there, but they did not have the absolute emergency status that they’re getting now. A lot of educators feel like these issues add onto stress that they already haven’t processed. But at the same time, we have no choice but to deal with these things now. We can’t just pause because things are going to keep happening. 

If you’re talking about undergraduate education, especially if you want future students to be able to deal with this, it does have to be woven into the curriculum, but it’s so tricky when there’s so many other things to consider. I do think a big challenge is climate fluency woven into the curriculum as a whole. 

Bryan: Well, take a look at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. They have a sustainability program, which has an incredible amount of moving parts.

They have an off-campus organic farm where students help make and grow stuff. And then in town next to campus, they’ve got a store where they sell products that they grew on the farm, both raw and cooked.

They’ve got a ton of classes and they’ve done undergraduate research for things like – they’re based in a small town and they calculated the carbon footprint of the town, presented that to the town government, which loved it, and then forwarded that to the county. They also have a sustainability requirement for all undergraduates. 

Then go across the Atlantic and look at the University of Barcelona where students there just went on strike in order to compel the university to require all students, undergrad and grad students alike, to take at least one class in the climate crisis. And they won. 

Shawn: Student ‘climate anxiety’ — how real do you think that is? I saw a conversation on Twitter the other day about students claiming ‘climate anxiety’ surprising some colleagues. Like most conversations on Twitter, the first few comments were really dismissive. But then some people said, “this happens, this has happened to me for three semesters now.” I think some of it was geographic in response, but it’s something that we haven’t really talked too much about at Duke as far as I know. So I’d like your thoughts on how real climate anxiety might be and how we should think about it in the teaching and learning context.

Bryan: It’s depressing to hear people criticize students’ claims of anxiety, but I’ve heard a lot of that. Climate anxiety is a real thing. It’s a deep thing. If you think about interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and researching the climate crisis, psychology is an interesting field to look at because they’ve been developing all these models for understanding this. You have terms like, solastalgia and climate grief, and they’re raising really good questions. Like, what does it mean in personal development when the climate you grew up with is no longer there? 

“Climate anxiety is a real thing. It’s a deep thing.”

As you said, some of this is going to come from students who are physically exposed to it. Think about people in Florida. All the climate models put Florida underwater in a generation or two. What does it mean to grow up in that state? You think about your childhood locations and if they’re going to be destroyed, much less thinking about the sheer scope of this problem.

In my book, I have the best case and worst case scenarios. That chapter is the most depressing thing I’ve written in my life. Thinking about the possible collapse of civilization, there are a lot of people talking about this, and I don’t mean lunatics – think tanks, researchers. I think if you grow up with this, like an 18 year old has done, I think you have a profoundly different experience than someone who’s 60.

You can respond to [climate anxiety] in higher education in different ways. We know there’s an overall mental health crisis and campuses are struggling to be able to treat that, because in many ways we’re not.

We have questions about how you expand your mental health treatment capacity on campus. Do you hire more therapists and more counselors? Do you do some of this digitally or online? What kind of professional support do you provide for faculty who are trying to deal with students with mental health crises?

I think we’re going to see more and more of this occur, but we can anticipate it programmatically. Colorado College, which I just visited last month, has an interesting program. There’s an undergraduate degree program where the students live off campus in eco housing and they do ecological work. They teach K-12 classes and workshops. They do physical work in the environment, and they report that their mental health is better as a result, because they’ve actually done something. So I wonder about Duke and about the rest of higher education. What kind of opportunities are there for students to go forth and actually do stuff besides writing a paper or doing a lab report? 

“They do physical work in the environment, and they report that their mental health is better as a result, because they’ve actually done something.”

Shawn: Yeah, I think that’s a way to make it a little more positive. I definitely wanted to ask you that question [about climate anxiety] because I think, generally, like what had happened on Twitter, is that there’s not enough awareness, and you’re right. People will just awkwardly and, maybe not intentionally, dismiss actual trauma or concern.

Bryan: Think about this. Salt Lake is starting to shrink, and there’s this interesting problem that if it keeps receding and shrinking, it’ll actually expose a series of dangerous chemicals into the city and the surrounding area. Imagine being a teenager and learning that and, bonus points, learning that the adults around you basically aren’t going to do anything about it. 

There’s a design and fiction movement called solar punk, which has the avowed aim of trying to produce a positive climate change future. People have made computer games, they’ve written short stories, they’ve made art. The idea is to try and say, okay, well what’s the best possible future we can get to? I think trying to imagine a solar punk campus is actually a really, really good exercise. For example, does that involve more biomimicry and biophilic design? Do you have more plants and more water inside of buildings? What does a campus look like if it follows that kind of design idea? That’s one of the optimistic framings I wanted to put before you.

Shawn: Thinking along those lines, we have this concept at Duke we’re calling Emerging Pedagogies, where we’re trying to figure out, what are the things that will matter in the future? AI is certainly one of them. AR and VR haven’t quite taken the foothold that maybe they could. Gaming and simulations are always interesting. With climate change, there’s a lot of opportunity for educators to think about how to make use of some of these emerging pedagogies to help get students engaged in these things. Are there other examples you think would be useful for us to think about? 

Bryan: When it comes to climate, there’s all kinds of XR uses. Sheer visualization is a classic use. You know, how do you visualize a hurricane? How do you visualize the impact of El Nino globally? The impact of geoengineering? All kinds of good stuff. 

And then the AR side, think about being able to have layers for a city or a campus toggling back and forth based on what you have. Imagine walking across campus and putting on different plan layers. Like, what if we cover everything with solar cells, or put up wind turbines? Or if you’re on a coastal campus, what does the rising sea level actually look like? Being able to stand there, chest deep in water. There’s all kinds of benefits there. 

I mentioned some pedagogies earlier. I would add, just the general sense of care that the pandemic really seems to have kicked off, that sense of faculty and support staff paying a lot more attention to the quality of life for students — I think that’s a great thing. I don’t know if there’s a downside to that. 

“The general sense of care that the pandemic really seems to have kicked off… I think that’s a great thing. I don’t know if there’s a downside to that. 

Shawn: I’m glad you said that. Whenever I get asked to talk about what we learned during the pandemic, they usually invite me because they’re hoping I’m going to talk about Zoom or HyFlex. But what I always start with is that we learned how to care about students. It was a big deal to our team. And having students realize that faculty are humans, too. Because we were all seeing inside each others’ homes. Things became more real. And I think that’s great.

Bryan: Well said, Shawn, really well said. I would add to it one more thing as well. Forgive me if this sounds like a little professional bias here, but I think we also need to think futuristically in our teaching.

That is, what world our students are going to inhabit in 10, 20, 40, 50 years? That’s something which we actually aren’t really good at in academia. We’re here to conserve knowledge, to protect it, to make it available to students. We are also creatures of our own schooling, and we tend to reflect that. But to think about students moving into a different world is actually a bit challenging, but I think productive.

“What world our students are going to inhabit in 10, 20, 40, 50 years? … To think about students moving into a different world is actually a bit challenging, but I think productive.”

If we think about jobs, think about green jobs and think about the impact of climate on non-green jobs. You’re going to get a degree and go to law school and become a lawyer. To what extent do you have to be aware of climate? To what extent should business majors be aware of this for their field? If you see this as a global crisis, shouldn’t we be preparing students to be able to handle it? 

Shawn: This is a perfect segue into my next question. A big focus now for us, as an organization, is lifelong learning. You were talking about how we prepare students to live in this reality and lifelong learning is a big part of that. What we can do in the undergraduate, 18-to-22 space is only so much. So we’re thinking about a non-credit strategy for lifelong learning where learners engage with the university over time in different ways. Clearly that will be a lot about climate because people will need to keep re-skilling depending on what happens in the future. Can you discuss any of the ways that you’ve seen this sort of thinking unfolding in other universities? Are there other universities that are doing things that are preparing students for this lifelong challenge?

Bryan: Not very much, no. There’s a kind of howling demand for this from the business world. The category of green jobs is an interesting one. But then there are also other jobs that the decarbonizing economy really needs. 

In terms of us doing lifelong learning, for many people, many academics, lifelong learning meant lifelong donations and actually being able to teach and support alumni. So I think we haven’t been doing very well. I think there’s a big need for it. I just hope that we get ahead of it. MOOCs offer one solution already because you can get different MOOCs on different topics. But we can do better than that pedagogically, I think. 

Shawn: Yeah. It’s like, what’s the next level beyond that? It’s connecting students, creating communities, getting them networked in helping them discover these new opportunities, figuring out what the challenges are. It’s all those things. 

Duke is currently planning a lot of classroom renovation projects over the next several years, and I was asked to comment on pedagogy – like, is active learning, team-based learning important? – those sorts of things. I also decided to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but then I also stretched it and said, I’ve been reading this book about climate change and how climate affects classes. I said, we should already be thinking about what we’re going to do during the next crisis. How are we future-proofing for the next pandemic, for the climate crisis? My basic point is to make classrooms as flexible as possible because we don’t know what the future holds. Plus it’s pedagogically sound because we want people doing different sorts of things in classes, but it felt strange to summon climate change as something that people should be thinking about. But I figure I’m going to have to do it more.

Bryan: I was asked a couple of years ago to pitch a speech to a group of Asian educational technology enterprises, and I said, I want to talk about climate change. They said, you can’t. It’s too futuristic. And I asked, do you have representatives from Indonesia? And they said yes. I said, did you know that Indonesia is right now moving its capital? It’s in Jakarta, but Jakarta’s at sea level, so they’re moving their capital inland and upland because of the fear of climate change. This doesn’t sound futuristic to me. This sounds like next week.

“This doesn’t sound futuristic to me. This sounds like next week.”

That’s kind of our job. We have five year plans. We have 10 year strategic plans. So looking ahead, what does your campus have to do? 

Shawn: This has been really great. [Your book] helped me get my head around some things we’re already doing in a different way and I really appreciated the chance to read the book and to talk to you about this.

More information about Universities on Fire can be found at To connect with Learning Innovation about issues related to climate and pedagogy, please contact us.