Kansas Wesleyan University is launching a new climate-change related project believed to be among the first of its kind nationally.
According to the school, tentatively labeled “The Mentor Project,” Dr. Matthew R. Sanderson will lead a residential, immersive experience designed to re-work higher education in the context of climate change.
“The Mentor Project has been a Kansas Wesleyan goal for years,” said Dr. Matt Thompson, KWU president. “Climate change is the challenge of our times. As a United-Methodist-affiliated institution, we have an obligation to prepare students for the world into which they will graduate. This includes helping them to understand their role in changing the climate and preparing them for the effects of climate change on our communities, our work, and our families. Our goal is to prepare students for more than just careers or jobs. We must prepare them to think broadly, understand connections, put their education to use and lead change. To bring in an experienced professional in Matt Sanderson – one of the top experts in this field – is the ideal way to initiate this revolutionary program. His appointment marks a transformational moment in the life of KWU.”
The program will be built from the ground-up and it will integrate practical, skill-based knowledge with more traditional forms of learning. A piece of farmland in the small town of Mentor, six miles from Kansas Wesleyan, is a potential aspect of the project.
“For decades, there has been a division between traditional higher education and skilled labor, or to put it another way, the practical application of education,” said Dr. Thompson. “For the past 80 years, we have seen college enrollments spike, and we have seen CO2 emissions spike. Just providing more information and knowledge to students is clearly not fixing the problem of climate change. We need change – and we need change now. We need education to be part of the solution, not the problem. We need to bring skill-based knowledge into the classroom, no matter what a student’s future career is. The Mentor Project is not just about one way of thinking, or one type of skill. It’s about a change of mindsets, worldviews and ways of life.”
A fifth-generation Kansan, Sanderson has been Randall C. Hill Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work and Professor of Geography and Geospatial Sciences at Kansas State University since 2011. He is Editor-in-Chief of Agriculture and Human Values, the leading scholarly journal for interdisciplinary research on culture, agriculture and food. Prior to his position at Kansas State University, he held a joint appointment as Assistant Professor of Sociology and Global Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Sanderson has also been a Visiting Professor at the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas-El Paso and a Research Fellow at the Hugo Centre for Population and Migration Research at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
“Matt is one of the top professionals in this field,” said Dr. Thompson. “He is leaving much behind to come to KWU to start this program: a tenured, full-professor position with an endowed chair at a research university – his alma mater no less – his successful research programs and his graduate students. It is a tremendous leap, both personally and professionally, and it is one that very few would have the courage to make. We cannot wait to participate in the work he leads as we move forward into a much more uncertain future for our climate, our society and higher education.”
Sanderson’s official title, until the launch of the new program, will be special assistant to the president. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance and Economics and a Master of Arts degree in Sociology, both from Kansas State University. He earned the Doctorate of Philosophy degree in Sociology, with concentrations in Population and Environment, from the University of Utah. Sanderson’s research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Australian Research Council, among others.
“I did not arrive at KWU by following any sort of conventional career path,” said Sanderson, “Nor do I come here as yet another step on a career ladder on my way to somewhere else. I am here because I continue to search for answers I have not yet found. More than two decades of soul-searching, guided by my scholarly research, led me to this point. I am humbled by the nature of the challenges in front of us, and by the responsibility KWU has given me to lead.”
KWU will release more information about the Mentor Project’s program of study following the accreditation process.
“Change is in the air,” said Sanderson. “Business-as-usual is no longer an option, at least not if we value life. The problems we see in higher education, our communities, and our relationships with the Earth are not completely separate. As the era of energy-intensive development draws to a close, we must find softer glidepaths into a lower-energy future. That means we must build communities that have the cultural capacity to live into transformation – communities of people who are more comfortable with uncertainty, who can adapt, create and enact new ways of living more meaningful lives. Education that translates into meaningful actions in a particular place can help us find our way.”
“If the changes we need were easy, we would have made them by now,” said Sanderson. “What is easy is the status quo, business-as-usual. But, business-as-usual is creating an uninhabitable world. The cultures and social structures that got us into this mess are not likely to help us find our way into more sustainable relationships with each other and the world. To be sure, we are likely to fail, and fail many times along the way in our efforts to create new models. But, this moment marks an important point in our journey. I am ready to get to work. It is long past time to get started.”