The stormy season of “outer and inner weather”

THE POET Robert Frost wrote movingly in his “Tree at My Window” of the contrast between what he termed “outer and inner weather” — the external forces of nature and the internal “weather” of the mind.

We have opened the 2017-2018 academic year in American higher education influenced by the stormy weather patterns that affect and afflict us, outside and within.

The Category 5 presidency of Donald Trump has been overshadowed in recent days by the destructive winds and water of Harvey and Irma, two innocuous-sounding names that erased entire landscapes and whatever previous complacency Texans and Floridians had about riding out big storms.

They have also collapsed the premise that climate change has nothing to do with weather patterns, that it is not human caused and that it is nothing more than a passing phase in the mysterious cycle of nature.

Scientists know better, and Virginia Wesleyan University and educators around the nation are gearing up to separate fantasy from reality — a necessary exercise on campuses, as it should be in Washington, D.C.

As Eugene Robinson wrote in The Washington Post on Sept. 11, “Climate change never should have become a partisan issue in the first place. There is no red or blue spin on the fact that humans have burned enough fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution to increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 40 percent; or that carbon dioxide traps heat; or that global land and ocean temperatures have shot up; or that Arctic ice is melting; or that sea levels are rising. These things are directly measurable and true.”

Colleges and universities are soft targets in a hurricane. Dillard, Tulane and Loyola universities in Louisiana required years of physical recovery and rebuilding of enrollments after Hurricane Katrina. Rice University and the University of Houston were inundated by Harvey. Florida’s campuses were closed by the approach of Irma, and estimates of the damage are being compiled.

So educators know all too well what havoc the outer weather can cause. But we’re soft targets for “inner weather,” too, and it’s that form of storm that presents substantial, ongoing challenges to leaders at colleges and universities.

Most institutions with which I am familiar are grappling these days with student engagement. It’s not just a matter of avoiding the “suitcase college” syndrome whereby students take to their cars instead of partaking in campus weekend activities.

Far more consequential is helping them cope with the inner weather of self-doubt, anxiety, distrust of institutions and fear of failure. Today’s college freshmen are members of a generation with rising suicide rates, worries about employment potential, erosion of a sense of belonging to a community and anxiety about any issue that offends them.

Although student counseling, advising and other services have improved substantially over the years on our nation’s campuses, students’ feelings of personal vulnerability have seemingly never been greater.

Yet if there is a blessing to be found in the violence of this summer’s hurricanes — certainly for college students in Hampton Roads — it is the rallying cry around the environment that follows the tears of Harvey and Irma.

Perhaps it is the coming together of the outer and inner weather patterns, the joining of a tangible external threat (climate and weather change, sea-level rise) with the need to confront and overcome the internal anxiety of our time, that will prove to be the prescription, a common call to action, that our students need.

Nature has effective means of making us pay for our sins. Harvey and Irma have captured more attention in days than slow species extinction and collapsing ice shelves have in years.

In Frost’s poem, the narrator suggests that the tree by his bedroom has seen him at his worst. In our uncertain time, it could be that legitimate concerns about outer and inner weather can be addressed simultaneously and through cause and effect. Perhaps by way of a united commitment to saving our home we will see ourselves at our best and have solid footing on which to hope for better weather all around.

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Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Previously, he served as President of Bethany College in West Virginia (2007-15), Wesley College in Delaware (1997-2007) and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee (1991-97).

He wrote this for the September 24 issue of The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)

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