The Greening of the Administration:
Implications of Environmental Ethics for Organizational Structure and Function in Higher Education


This document may be too large for your printer buffer to handle. We suggest downloading this document to a disk if printing difficulties are encountered or e-mailing the author for a hard copy by clicking on his/her name.

Introduction: The Critique

Last year at this conference I attempted to suggest what I thought were some of the logical implications of environmental ethics for the undergraduate curriculum in American higher education. This year I hope to press the gist of that argument further in thinking about the ethical implications of modern environmental thinking for university policy and practice in the late twentieth century United States.

As I reported previously (Aper, 1996), the corporatist values of individualism, self-interest, technocracy, and free market capitalism (Saul, 1995) that have dominated economic, political, and social behaviors and policy in the twentieth century United States have been subject to severe critique by individuals from across the spectrum of thought and activity - e.g. - the natural and social sciences, philosophy, and government. Bowers (1993) perhaps most cogently summarizes this critique, arguing that 1) the ongoing destruction and degradation of the natural environment is a threat to the very physical foundation of human existence; 2) the traditional market based model of resource use and individual maximization of benefit is destructive of both social fabric and a finite resource base; and 3) that a public philosophy based on the promotion of individual interests above common interests is incompatible with the aims of democratic polity and the protection of individual liberty. This critique suggests nothing less than a revolutionary change from a primordial human aim - to control and improve the earth for the survival and comfort of human beings. In many ways humans in the industrialized countries of the world have been extraordinarily successful in achieving these aims. Relatively few people in these areas today suffer the privations of their pre-scientific forebears. Yet the unmitigated pursuit of individual comfort and the technological imperative that drives us to develop and then deploy every advance in science and technology is, and must be, under serious re-examination. The desire to finally convert the thin layer of life on earth, the biosphere, to a controlled synthetic environment is the ultimate, disastrous, and perhaps final, act of human hubris.

The Ethical Frame of Reference

To the ancient Greeks, ethics was largely a matter of asking how people should live in order to maximize individual happiness, well-being, and enjoyment of the good. The modern question raised by those of a more utilitarian bent asks rather what action maximizes the good? (Melden, 1967). I have sought to frame my deliberations in this paper from the perspective of act utilitarianism as defined by Smart (1961). Smart stated that act utilitarianism holds that "the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be judged by the consequences, good and bad, of the action itself" (p. 4). In the complex modern world the consequences of actions are often not readily determinable, however. A fundamental ethical principle from the environmental movement articulated by Hardin (1968), Ophuls (1977) and many authors since them, holds that apparently trivial actions on the parts of individuals may have profound aggregate effects. The logic of free market, individualist economic philosophy presses a constant refrain of and appeal to global interdependence and competition as catalysts for higher student test scores, higher worker productivity, and more aggressive business practices. Yet this frame of reference is not apparently coupled with the ethical implications of such interdependence. For example, my choice to use atmosphere damaging Freon from Mexico in my air conditioner, to eat hamburgers made from beef cattle raised on the remains of a Central American rainforest, or to rely exclusively on noxious emissions-producing private automobiles for transportation, all have both local and global consequences.

In spite of scientific and technical advances, for most of us individual reality still focuses on immediate personal needs in the same ways that our agrarian forebears did. As Henderson (1978) observed, "We do not adequately appreciate how individually rational micro decisions and actions can add up, by default, to dangerous, irrational macro decisions" (p. 305). Modern applications of chaos theory to the investigation of human collective behavior have further demonstrated the immense impacts that small differences in initial conditions or subsequent actions may have, even on large systems (Kiel & Elliot, 1996). Our understanding of the powerful consequences, both good and bad, our individual and collective choices can have requires, at a minimum, a commitment to careful thought about the possible results of our actions. This is a large step to attempt in a culture overtly devoted to a hedonistic ethic-that is, where the maximization of individual wealth, pleasure, and immediate happiness are literally advertised as the paramount goals of human existence (Barber, 1992).

The effects of human activity on natural and social systems and defining the good can be argued from another perspective, as well. Take the concept of entropy, which is well known to those familiar with the work of Sir Isaac Newton and his successors. What is referred to as the second lawof thermodynamics suggests that entropy, or disorder in matter and energy, is constantly increasing. Order turns to disorder. As Atkins, Holum, and Strahler (1978) have stated, "Life requires order. A living organism is a complex orderly arrangement of atoms set apart from its more disorderly surroundings. When there is no order left in the universe there will be no life. The second law of thermodynamics implies that life must ultimately disappear in the final reign of chaos" (p. 54). Life on earth arose, developed ever more complex levels of organization and sophistication, and continues by opposing the tendency toward entropy. Every human act that contributes to the disorganization of living systems in fact undermines the very foundation of life. Logically, this seems to suggest reason for frustration, if not despair, at the casualness with which we drive our private automobiles to campus, contributing to entropy by converting relatively organized fossil materials into highly disorganized heat energy and gaseous emissions. Thus, in that routine choice and act, we degrade matter and energy, and foul atmospheric systems that protect and sustain us and countless other living organisms. As Commoner (1974) has observed, on the primitive earth simple life forms rapidly consumed energy and other resources available in the environment to their ultimate destruction. In the unfathomable eons of cosmic time, it remains to be see if humanity will ultimately prove more wise and adaptive than micro-organisms that consume resources and produce wastes as fast as they can, to their ultimate self-destruction.

Yet humans value more than the mere fact of physical survival. It seems fair to say that psychological and even spiritual experience and values are critical to human well being. The concept of entropy has power as both theory and metaphor in that the values of a self-centered, consumer, industrial political economy have contributed not simply to the degradation of physical environments, but to the psychological/spiritual environments of human beings as well. Human culture has expanded to construct a synthetic world in which many humans are expected to live. The dependence on technology, linear and centralized systems of supply for food, energy, and other essentials, have in many instances resulted in a simplified and ultimately degraded and degrading human environment (e.g. - Farvar & Milton, 1972). The most highly developed human environments, cities, have many places where buildings far exceed a human scale, where acres of pavement extinguish the place of the earth's systems in human experience, and the air is thick with the breath of automobiles and factories (e.g.-Alexander, Ishikawa, & Silverstein, 1997).

In spite of our traditional motivations and contemporary scrambling to enhance our own immediate circumstances, the modern mania for acquisition, for having material possessions that ostensibly enhance the quality, convenience, or enjoyment of life, appears flawed even from the perspective of maximization of individual happiness. Henderson (1978), building on the work of Linder (1970) and Weisskopf (1971) noted that "while human interactions can be increased and made faster with technology, they are rarely bettered and sometimes worsened" (p. 312). Indeed, as Linder and Weisskopf, among others, argued almost thirty years ago, limitless material progress is not entirely consistent with enhancement of the quality of human life. Even those who have drunk deeply from the well of technical progress and material well-being have paid a price in intangible goods such as leisure time, personal relationships, and feelings of personal satisfaction with life. Individual actions and choices that are guided solely by ancient habits of acquisition and comfort do not pay off at any level, it would seem.

Thus, the successes and far-reaching effects and implications of modern industrial society have made the relation between self interest and right action perhaps the most important single ethical issue in human history. Yet environmental ethical concerns ask a larger question than definition for abstract notions of the good. Environmentalists insist that the collective survival of humanity and its companion life on earth is a substantial enough premise from which to argue that the good is that which affirms and sustains life, and that all humans and human organization are obliged to measure their motives and actions by that standard before all other considerations. They assert that the ultimate survival of humanity and companion species on this planet requires change in the behaviors of human beings, individually and collectively, that contribute to the degradation of natural systems. These changes must be of such scope and direction as to remedy the destruction of complex psychological/spiritual, living, and physical relationships.

A basic quandary remains, namely, that there would seem to continue to be conflicting goods, and "conflict between ends, responsibilities, rights, and duties" to quote Dewey (1932, p. 174). It should not be blithely assumed that the maximization of the collective good is a self-evident premise. There is no logical contradiction inherent in the position of the Nietzschean superman or hedonist who "is smugly content with the pleasures he is able to muster for himself even at the expense of untold harm to others" (Melden, 19647, p. 14). The aim of this paper is not to attempt a systematic calculus for the relative goodness of every human decision. As I have elsewhere noted, it does not seem logical, desirable, nor consistent with the value placed on individual liberty to construct or enforce a "rigid orthodoxy of thought intended to provide definite answers to difficult and even unanticipatable circumstances" (Aper, 1996, p. 8). Yet the "reflective morality" suggested by Dewey (1932) must be based on some foundational value premises, and these premises are what I am striving to suggest.

I have tried to present the outline of the argument that the undifferentiated race to produce more in order to consume more in order to produce more is ultimately destructive to both natural and human, physical and psychological systems essential to the well being of humanity and other species who share the earth. The growth of entropy means, ultimately, a degradation of organization to a final, inert uniformity that is incapable of supporting the complex systems that sustain life in every sense. This, then, is the crux of environmental ethics boiled down to essential elements - it is ethical to sustain, support and contribute to higher levels of organization; it is unethical to contribute to entropy (disorganization) in any of its forms (e.g.-Leopold, 1949; Pirsig, 1991). This is perhaps the most fundamental principle underlying the rise and sustenance of life in the universe as we understand it.

The Social Role of the University

The university in American society serves many roles in preserving knowledge and culture, expanding and applying knowledge, conveying knowledge , and providing social critique. More than any other social institution, higher education has a special role in American society. Academic freedom and faculty tenure survive because there is a widely held belief in, and official commitment to the value of the university as an independent agency of learning, thinking and doing. The university is granted at least the possibility of a leading, exemplary role for the future direction of society at large. The university is a place that can serve as a nexus of science, ethics, policy, and popular understanding of each (Sagan, 1996).

For example, the university, perhaps alone among American political or social institutions, could play a special role in technology assessment, environmental impact studies, and similar kinds of needed functions that call for technical/scientific knowledge as well as ethical, humans systems, and policy expertise. Who but the university might serve as a third party committed to fairness, balance, recognition of complexity, and the necessity of change? Unfortunately, universities in the U.S. have come to be sometimes heavily influenced by those individuals, agencies, corporations, or foundations that control the flow of resources (Henderson, 1978; Jacoby, 1991; Slaughter, 1990). If the ethical perspective suggested above is to influence guiding principles for the university, then that institution must reassert its independence and make clear a set of commitments that may not be popular to some constituents. Yet, if the university is not willing and able to provide guidance and leadership in the most forward thinking, important demonstrations of science and technology tempered with environmental wisdom, commitment to the critical nature of individual decisions that impact the earth's systems, and creativity in striking new directions for the fulfillment of human promise as a successful and beneficent presence on earth, that what human institution can?

This is a critical question in the 1990s: will the American university chart its course as an instrument of the collective growth in wisdom and technic of the human species; or will it align itself with the values of corporatism, existing largely, or entirely as an instrument of social efficiency? If the latter is our choice, then we seem to follow Barber's (1992) observation on an operational mission of the university to provide "service to the market, training for its professions, research in the name of its products..."(p. 204). After the Civil War American higher education embarked on a path of ever greater responsiveness to a market approach to admissions, teaching, and research (Trow, 1988). A result of this responsiveness has been one of the most remarkable collective investments in education the world has ever seen. U.S. higher education in this century has grown beyond the wildest imagination of any nineteenth century college president. There is a hint of Dr. Faust's bargain in the picture, however. This growth has been purchased at the price of some of the independence of higher education; of obligation to funding sources and markets. American higher education has embraced vocational training, social status, and credential granting as fundamental elements of its mission. American higher education has allowed research priorities to be shaped by those with the money to pay for them, and has accepted designation as a primary engine of economic development and assistance to business and industry (e.g.-Slaughter, 1990). The environmental ethic suggests a profound rethinking of the entire enterprise as it now stands. For our universities to remain obliged to money, power, markets, or social efficiency dictates means to forsake the primary duty of institutions of higher learning - to be the paramount source of the generation and implementation of new ideas, new paradigms, new integration of the collective knowledge, skills, and wisdom of the human race. As Bok (1986) suggested, universities have a powerful role to play in addressing the most pressing social, economic, environmental, and political problems of contemporary society.

The Organization of the University

Seeking and maintaining higher levels of organization in systems should not be taken as advocating rigidly structured, hierarchical organization in human institutions. It is probably unfortunate that our conceptions of organizations and human cultures are so laden with the concepts and values of machines (Mumford, 1986). Indeed, as Kiel and Elliott (1996) explain, our growing understanding of complex systems in nature continues to reveal the degree to which relative instability and unpredictability are "essential to the evolution of complexity in the universe" (p. 2). Though such behaviors may appear random and chaotic, they occur within finite parameters and are describable mathematically. Rather like quantum phenomena, the sum of chaotic behaviors at the macro level is stable, but at the micro level are unstable (Kiel & Elliott, 1996). Advances in our understanding of complex systems suggests that linearity and regularity are not very powerfully descriptive of such systems, and as prescriptions greatly limit the possibilities for change and evolution of such systems. This is increasingly being understood to apply to both natural and human systems (Cutright, 1996; Kiel & Elliott, 1996). Ironically, in spite of empirical evidence that suggests the severe limitations of the so-called rational model - hierarchical, highly structured, unitary in planning and administration - this remains the operational definition of most university organization in North America (Hardy, 1996).

Henderson (1978) argued forcefully that to survive means that organizations, like all living systems, must evolve and change or risk extinction. She held that viable organization must move from standardization, competition, and hierarchy to destandardization, heterogeneity, interaction, and a "new ethics in harmony with nature" (pp. 225-226). Consistent with contemporary implications of chaos theory for organizations, Henderson asserted that effective organizations need to be "less pyramidal, less hierarchical...participatory, flexible, organic, cybernetic" to deal with "cataclysmic changes" (p. 234).

Terreberry (1985) observed that, as in nature, social, political, and economic systems find themselves part of a progression from less to more complex states of organization. If the concept of entropy has metaphorical power in thinking about organizations, then Terreberry's observation is telling. Organizations succeed and persist through their ability to learn and perform according to changing contingencies in the environment (Terreberry, 1985; Lorsch and Lawrence, 1970). This success embraces a holistic view of the organization in which it must strive for some larger synthesis of itself and its environment as part of a coherent whole (Morgan, 1986). Beyond organizational survival, though, universities are perhaps uniquely positioned and commissioned in the U.S. to cultivate organizational structure and behavior that can meet human needs for meaningful and purposeful work and preparation of people for such work - opportunities for critical thinking, self-direction and expression, and personal and professional growth. Organizations must meet such needs as a way to avoid collapses into cynicism and the self-fulfilling prophecy of powerlessness and cynicism which leads many Americans to seek worth and meaning in possessions and participation in the consumer society (Maccoby, 1981).

The model of organization suggested here has both pragmatic and idealistic implications in that institutions could behave in ways that create opportunities that would promote human growth, creativity, and freedom as well as allow greater organizational flexibility and efficiency in problem solving and coping with changes in the external environment. Yet improvements in structure and technology alone cannot go deep enough for necessary adaptations; organizations must transform in ways appropriate to the emergent environment, or ultimately cease to exist. There is no guarantee or necessity that universities continue to exit in their present form, or at all, perhaps, if they are unable to adapt to the larger environment in all the meanings of that word.

With that hortatory introduction, I will attempt to sketch out one general possibility for the kind of organizational structure suggested above. Schumacher (1973) suggested five basic principles for finding and sustaining the human-scale dimension in large organizations. If followed by universities, these principles would result in organizations that were confederations of decentralized, semi-autonomous units over which criteria for accountability to the larger whole would be minimal and based on performance in the fulfillment of the unit's purpose. Taken further, the success of the units would lead to greater freedom within the larger organization, and only failure would result in closer scrutiny, assertion of central authority, or accountability reporting. The units would be driven by sensitivity to the needs of the constituents of the university, and to the intrinsic motivators of the people who work within the unit. Schumacher suggested that such organizations must constantly strive to maintain a balance between order and freedom, since neither one alone will permit the enterprise to flourish.

Interestingly, such a perspective is consistent with much recent work on organizational behavior, suggested implication of chaos theory for college and universities, and some of the traditional structures of universities (e.g.- Peterson, 1991; Cutright, 1996). Running counter to this literature and these traditions, however, is the trend in American higher education since the 1960s to enhance central authority in universities, enforce uniformity, and demand extensive, often standardized accountability data (Aper, 1993). It would seem that the direction suggested looks rather like this: the university should acknowledge and support decentralization of systems (material and administrative), but find and maintain ways to support self-sufficiency, efficient use of resources, conservation, alternative methods and sources of materials with an emphasis on decentralization, integration, and sustainability.

Specific Actions

More concretely, what might the university do if it operated on the basis of environmental principles? Below, I have suggested general practices that derive from a commitment first to the understanding and preservation of living systems, organized according to the functions of the university to convey, apply, and create knowledge, and as a living and working community in itself. I suggest the following 'laundry list' as no more than a starting point for the widely varied possibilities.

Conveying Knowledge

The curriculum would be grounded in principles derived from environmental studies and ethical considerations (e.g.- Aper, 1996). Rectifying the root causes of environmental concerns implies an initial, enormous task simply to help people recognize the reality of it, since there are strong personal and social reasons for ignoring or disregarding the direct personal implications of such issues. Further, study would be based on a foundation of interdependence and sustainability of systems and resources. A paramount aim of undergraduate education would be to contribute all possible to a post-university life for students that will be meaningful, productive, and creative. Henderson (1978) urged the development of integrative academic disciplines that could help illuminate the "intricate chains of causality and interdependence in complex societies and their reciprocal exchanges with equally complex host ecosystems" (p. 288).

Applying Knowledge

The university would provide material support for research and extension activities aimed at maximizing recycling behaviors, and improving the usefulness and uses of recycled and recyclable materials. The university would support demonstration and/or pilot projects related to research, policy, practices, and attitudes that enhance awareness of, application of, and understanding of sustainable and non-destructive human activities: e.g.- agriculture that does not depend on petrochemicals or other potentially dangerous destructive substances; transportation that does not rely on individual personal automobiles and fossil fuel combustion; improved battery technology and other methods of storing and utilizing renewable sources of energy. Support would be provided for the identification and use of renewable and alternative resources of energy, food, and other requirements. This would include efforts to help people achieve greater levels of self-sufficiency in terms of food and energy production as well as responsible consumption.

Creating Knowledge

The university would support research activities aimed at reducing dependence on non-renewable resources of all kinds, including efforts to enhance conservation and resource renewal. The university would further support research and activities related to transfer of technology and its application in less developed areas of the world. Support would also be provided for research and activities related to preservation of world gene pools ( to combat extraordinary rates of species extinction) as well as research into novel applications of materials, renewable and non-renewable, occurring in nature.

A Working and Living Community

The university would undertake priority efforts to recycle, conserve, and reduce dependence on non-renewable resources, including the reduction and recycling of paper and all organic materials. All paper products would be recycled materials, for example, as would other materials (e.g.- plastic garbage bags). Metal and plastics recycling would be maximized, again with maximum use of products made from recycled materials. Material support and incentive would be provided for resource conservation in all university facilities and activities. Institutional efforts might also quite reasonably include efforts to encourage student volunteerism - especially in community-campus improvement, to support efforts to enhance the "human scale" and esthetic qualities of the environmental values - e.g.- preventive health measures, emphasis on quality of experience over simplistic measures of economic efficiency. The university would support efficient public transit, the construction of safe and convenient walking and biking routes to and around campus, the development of safe residential neighborhoods in vicinity of the university to increase the numbers of faculty, staff, and students who would and could live within walking or biking distance of campus.

A Conclusion of Sorts

Having wrestled at some length with the specifics of the implications of environmental ethics for American higher education, I have above presented some ideas about what this might mean for the university. The reality, however, is that an institution of higher learning might develop in many directions and ways stemming from a commitment to the environmental imperative. If there is any point of certainty, it would seem to be that such a perspective and commitment could enrich the university in many ways - intellectually, spiritually and ethically, as a premier social institution at the forefront of social change and improvement, and as a full member of a complex interweaving of communities both smaller and larger in scale, local, regional, national, and international - the full and extraordinary sweep of human endeavor to be at home on this planet.


Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., & Silverstein, M. (1997). A pattern language: Towns, building, construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Aper, J. P. (1993). Higher education and the state: Accountability and the roots of student outcomes assessment. Higher Education Management, 5, (3), 365-376.

Aper, J. P. (1996). Environmental ethics and the ethical environment of the undergraduate curriculum. Paper presented at the Conference on Ethics in Higher Education, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, April 15.

Atkins, K.R., Holum, J. R., & Strahler, A. N. (1978). Essentials of physical science. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Barber, B. J. (1992). An aristocracy of everyone: The politics of education and the future of America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bok, D. C. (1986). Higher learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Commoner, B. (1974). The closing circle: Nature, man and technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cutright, M. (Winter 1996-1997). Can chaos theory improve planning? Planning for Higher Education, 25 (2), 18-22.

Dewey, J. (1932). The nature of moral theory, in Ethics, Dewey, J. & Tufts, J. H. (eds.), pp. 171-176. New York: Hold, Rinehart, & Winston.

Farvar, M. T., & Milton, J. P. (eds.) (1972). The careless technology: Ecology and international development. New York: Doubleday & Co.

Hardin, G. (13 December 1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science.

Hardy, C. (1996). The politics of collegiality: Retrenchment strategies in Canadian universities. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Henderson, H. (1978). Creating alternative futures: The end of economics. New York: Perigee Books.

Jacoby, R. (Spring, 1991). The greening of the university: From ivory tower to industrial park. Dissent.

Kiel, L. D. & Elliott, E. eds. (1996). Chaos theory in the social sciences: Foundations and applications. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Kiel, L. D. & Elliott, E. eds. (1996). Introduction, pp. 1-18, in Kile, L.D., & Elliott, E., eds. Chaos theory in the social sciences: Foundations and applications. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Leopold, A. (1949). A Sand County almanac. New York: Ballantine Books.

Linder, S. B. (1970). The harried leisure class. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lorsch, J. & Lawrence, P. (1970). Studies in organizational design. Homewood, IL: Irwin & Dorsey.

Maccoby, M. (1981). The gamesman, the new corporate leaders. New York: Columbia University Press.

Melden, A. I. (1976). Ethical theories: A book of readings (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Morgan, G. (1986). Images of organization Berkeley, CA: Sage Publishing.

Mumford, L. (Miller, D. L., ed.) (1986). The Lewis Mumford reader. New York: Pantheon.

Ophuls, W. (1977). Ecology and the politics of scarcity. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman & Company.

Peterson, M. W. (ed.) (1991). Organization and governance in higher education (4th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Ginn Press.

Pirsig, R. M. (1991). Lila: An inquiry into morals. New York: Bantam Books.

Sagan, C. (1996). The demon haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

Saul, J. R. (1995). The unconscious civilization. Concord, Ontario: House of Anansi Press.

Schumacher, E. F. (1973). Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. New York: Harper & Row.

Slaughter, S. (1990). The highest learning and high technology. Dynamics of higher education policy formulation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Smart, J. J. C. (1961). An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics. Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press.

Terreberry, S. (1985). The evolution of organizational environments. In Bennis, W. G., Benne, K. D., & Chin, R. The planning of change (4th ed.), pp. 176-185. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Trow, M. (1985). American higher education: Past present, and future. Educational Researcher, 14, 13-23.

Weisskopf, W. A. (1971). Alienation and economics. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.


FAX: (423) 974-6147

Talk to the Conference Participants

Questions and comments may be directed to the Conference Convenor, Alvin G. Burstein or individual authors by clicking on his/her name.

Main Page

This page has been accessed times.

Last updated: July 22, 1997