Mission Don't Kill the Earth


What is academia worth if there is no world left to save with new knowledge? One alma mater, one current academic institution, two great schools, and zero mention of preserving the earth for future generations in either mission statement. Both institutions boast incredibly well acclaimed architecture programs. Both institutions graduate some of our society’s most prominent builders and developers. Both institutions have situated themselves with current or future campuses next to Amazon’s new headquarters in two of the East Coast’s most prominent metropolitan areas (Cornell Tech in NYC and Virginia Tech’s proposed Innovation Campus in Northern VA near DC). Both align themselves with technology as a means toward progress. Yet neither of them commit to sustaining the earth as a tenet of their mission. What good will new knowledge do, all this endless outreach and commitment to the community, if there is no Earth left to sustain us?

Virginia Tech’s Mission: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.

While I love the mention of outreach and engagement, and admit that Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim motto meaning ‘That I May Serve’ is a big part of what drew me to come to school here in the first place, I still do not think it is enough. The mission trumps the motto, and though ‘advancing social and community development’ gets at a similar spirit, the true essence of Ut Prosim and the words themselves are absent. It seems the ‘economic competitiveness’ of an academic industrial complex distract from the more meaningful elements of the mission. And the idea of serving the earth and the environment and preserving this delicate ecology that facilitates the very existence of the university is never mentioned at all.

Cornell University’s Mission: Cornell’s mission is to discover, preserve and disseminate knowledge, to educate the next generation of global citizens, and to promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community. Cornell also aims, through public service, to enhance the lives and livelihoods of students, the people of New York and others around the world.

Again a focus on knowledge and public service, not just locally but also globally. I cannot help but hear undertones of neo-colonialism. I loved my time at Cornell, and I know the positive effect that the University and its research initiative has indeed had on communities across the globe. But without the prioritization of a local lens this work can quickly get convoluted by power dynamics. Just like Cornell departed from Ithaca to form Cornell Tech in New York City, a big part of Virginia Tech will leave Blacksburg when the focus shifts to the Innovation Campus next to Washington DC. Cities represent our society’s greatest concentrations of wealth and the engines of our economy. It makes sense that Universities feel the need to jump on board in order to survive in a capitalistic world. But we cannot forget our home and our sense of place in the process.

This is why this semester, as I lead my own team of students for the first time in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon Design Competition, my mission statement will be a bit different. I have learned immensely from my time at both of the institutions mentioned in this post, but my goals will refocus on addressing critical ecological issues locally here in Blacksburg. We want to rethink the way the built environment relates to the nature surrounding it. We want to reconsider buildings as constituent members of their contextual ecology. We want to rediscover waste streams as a critical resource in a circular economy. We want the Internet of Everything to work towards an equal environment for everyone and not just convenience for the lucky few. We want to define a path toward truly regenerative development that leaves the Earth better off than it started. We want to build net-postive housing that heals the world. And we want to teach our own University and others around the world How to Not Kill the Earth.