Beginning next fall, undergraduates in Columbia College and the School of General Studies will have one more way to declare themselves. The latest development of the University’s course bulletin is the creation of a sustainable development major. Previously limited to a special concentration (i.e. students had to major in another subject as well) consisting of roughly 20 points, sustainable development will now also be offered as a 47-point major, which will allow students to attempt complex problem-solving and interdisciplinary analysis of the Earth’s ecosystems, oceans, and atmosphere. This new major embodies the best kind of change: an emphasis on Columbia’s unique strengths in response to student interest.
The prominence of Columbia’s Earth Institute and its academic star, Jeffrey Sachs, within the field of sustainable development puts the University at the epicenter of environmental research. Yet, with the exception of its journal Consilience and the special concentration, the Earth Institute’s programs have mostly excluded undergraduates. Given Columbia’s preeminence in this area, it stands to reason that students interested in sustainable development would come to Columbia. The new major encourages early interest in an important and popular subject while extending the University’s noted excellence in sustainable development to the undergraduate level. While Columbia is not the first university to offer such a major, it is certainly a leader in the field.
Perhaps more notable, however, is the reason given for the change. The Earth Institute attributed the decision to a high level of student interest in the existing concentration. The addition of the major thus stands in sharp contrast to the bureaucratic lethargy that bogs down many potentially positive progressions at Columbia: A research institution, largely isolated from the undergraduate population, took students’ considerations into account.
Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, has noted that while bringing the University up to sustainable development standards will take time and money, it is a long-term goal toward which the University can and should work. Similarly, adjusting Columbia’s overall academic offerings to be in tune with undergraduate interest and global demand surely will not happen overnight, but the new major is indication that, over time, change can occur. This is a step in the right direction, and the undergraduate body should look to Columbia to sustain it.