The Commitment to Change: Leading the Charge

Many claim that there is a dearth in leadership too great to make the necessary changes to avoid runaway climate disruption. The Copenhagen negotiations in December 2009 failed to deliver a concrete, binding international treaty on climate disruption. The climate bills under consideration in Congress, while possibly serving as a decent start, are insufficient for addressing the climate challenge and the need for a better, clean energy economy. However, colleges and universities have formed the tip of the spear in terms of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, forging ahead towards climate neutrality where the public and private sectors have fallen short.

Through the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) network, more than 675 institutions have come together to provide leadership-by-example for other sectors by pledging to take immediate actions, create longer-term plans, and publicly report their progress toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly, they have pledged to promote the education and research needed for the rest of society to do the same.

The ACUPCC is comprised of institutions of all types from all 50 states and Washington, DC, representing more than 5.7M students and about one-third of the U.S. higher education student population. The leaders of ACUPCC institutions are preparing tomorrow's business leaders, architects, product designers, policy-makers, schoolteachers, and economists for sustainable 21st-century citizenship.

The higher education sector is setting the precedent for the larger communities — cities, states, the nation, and the world — that need to move toward climate neutrality with great urgency.

On campuses, students have been instrumental in moving climate disruption and sustainability from the realm of fringe groups to a strategic imperative for the schools. This type of broad-based, grassroots leadership is essential, but those in top leadership positions are also necessary to fully engage the entire institution when addressing a challenge as systemic and all encompassing as sustainability. In this sense, the ACUPCC is a “grasstops” initiative — led by a Steering Committee of 22 presidents from all types of schools from all across the country, including Arizona State University, Houston Community College, and Furman University.

Last year, a group of ACUPCC presidents created a resource for all college and university senior administrators called Leading Profound Change. The report encourages higher education leaders to:
  • Treat sustainability as a major transformative initiative employing all the leadership skills needed for a major institutional change;
  • invoke the broad-based support of emotional and participative change; and
  • empower a dedicated group to establish tangible metrics, milestones, and concrete results.

Active leadership on an ongoing basis from the presidents, chancellors, business officers, provosts, facilities directors, and all others in senior leadership positions is critical for ensuring the success of individual campuses. Like any other major initiative, the changes needed to focus institutional attention and resources on the climate agenda will require attention to institutional change.

In many cases, administrators, staff, faculty, and students begin the climate action planning process with feelings of optimism and enthusiasm, but quickly feel stuck because there is no clear way for the senior administrators to directly move the process along and ensure collaboration from all of the relevant departments and groups on their campuses. As a result, feelings of frustrations, paralysis, and resentment can emerge and derail the process. This may lead to the belief that the task at hand is not possible.

Of course, to address these challenges, each institution needs to continue to draw on its own proven approaches to organizational leadership, tailored to the cultures and circumstances of each institution. However, unlike most other recent nationwide efforts, the climate and sustainability agenda requires an effective alignment of campus operations, research and education, and campus-community collaboration in order to create an environment that supports the kinds of creative solutions needed.

Leading Profound Change draws on research from the academic and business sectors to reinforce the importance of active, sustained involvement in the change process and includes examples of how the presidents and other senior leaders of institutions like Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, Tulane University, and the University of New Hampshire are approaching this leadership challenge. They discuss successful strategies to communicate and foster collaboration, concrete steps to develop clear goals and metrics for accountability, the “Five Disciplines” of a learning organization, and strategies to address limiting factors.

Some of the most important benefits of the ACUPCC network are the innovative partnerships forged by insightful planning and leadership. Participating ACUPCC higher education leaders have collectively produced several guides for their peers, including the Energy Performance Contracting Toolkit; the ACUPCC Carbon Offset Protocol; and Education for Climate Neutrality. These guides for senior college and university administrators share best practices, so leaders can learn from one another.

Many schools pursuing climate neutrality are actively partnering with one another, as well as with other sectors. Babson College MBA students are working with Oregon Institute of Technology’s brightest engineers to develop new green technologies. University of Maine researchers are working with public and private groups from across the state to research and solve problems related to urbanization, forest management, and climate. With support from major corporations, NGOs, and public agencies, the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University have launched the Sustainability Consortium, which will enable reporting of the sustainability performance of consumer goods in a consistent, scientifically grounded way.

Climate disruption — though only one piece of the sustainability puzzle — is so large and complex, and is tied to so many aspects of our economy, it requires unprecedented modes of cooperation across departments, across organizations, and across sectors. Innovative partnerships and initiatives like the ACUPCC are necessary if we are going to be able to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable impacts of climate disruption.

The big question — the only question — of this century is: Will we be able to create a sustainable society before it is too late, before social systems (including economies) and ecological systems collapse on a planetary scale? And the only answer is yes — if there are enough leaders in time, and if higher education prepares current and future leaders for the challenge.

Anthony D. Cortese is the founder and president of Second Nature, a national, Boston-based nonprofit organization working with senior college and university leaders to make sustainability the foundation of all learning and practice in the higher education sector. Dr. Cortese is the organizer of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. He has spent the past four decades working for sustainability and environmental protection. Georges Dyer is a senior fellow at Second Nature, where he focuses on the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment and other leadership initiatives.