Sometimes the question, “Is it sustainable?” is posed in the name of being responsible, measured, sober. Not getting carried away. But it’s a more complex question than it seems, a question that depends very much on timing, scale, and context.
If you’ve ever started something, you know that it’s usually a messy process — glad messy, to be sure, but messy nonetheless. People have been starting things since long before the era of spreadsheets and MBAs. Starting something is often a labor of love, imagination, and putting everything on the line. At least that’s how the good stuff starts. The things that begin with focus groups are a different matter.
At the small liberal arts college where I work, there’s a lot of scope to start things. In fact, one of the ways to get something growing is to call it a pilot. And it’s not usually easy to move from a pilot or grant funded enterprise to something institutionalized. So it’s not surprising that people ask of something aborning: Will it be sustainable? The trouble is that this is really a question about the context in which it is to be sustained, as much if not not more than it is about the thing under review. Take a new course, for example. Say it’s a community-based course that requires some funds to compensate partners and co-educators and support coordination. Is this sustainable? Well, the answer is of a piece with what the institution chooses to sustain — a matter often naturalized and thus invisible. Whether a course is sustainable is connected to how people’s expertise, skill, and labor are valued.
Speaking out of the start of my 25th year in the BiCo Education Program, I can say that it is not sustainable not to support this kind of work! It keeps knocking on the door because it is a necessary re-envisioning of how courses act and who they serve in the academy and in the world.
Yes, but is it sustainable? Certainly, if funding from the institution and/or beyond is sustained! And as it — a course, a new initiative, a program — realizes institutional aspirations, it will help the institution itself become sustainable.