And We're Rollin'

If the higher education sustainability movement were a song, it would sound something like Tina Turner’s rendition of the John Fogerty classic, “Proud Mary.” 
In past years, the movement has been defined by successes on single campuses, 
much like the lone rasp of Tina as she tells us about leaving a good job in the city. Today, that slow, soft tempo is crescendoing into a chorus of campus and community partnerships toward food security, green economies, and access to an affordable higher education. Like the song’s powerful chorus of soulful singers, frenzied guitar, and bass beats, the higher education sustainability movement is also finding its 
collective rhythm.

As Tina says, “Listen to the story, now.”

And We’re Rollin’
In recent years, renewable energy and green building efforts on single campuses have dominated the stories captured by the AASHE Bulletin, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) weekly  e-newsletter devoted to higher education sustainability news.

From solar installations to campus energy competitions, energy efficiency efforts continued at a rapid clip in 2011, with 284 initiatives announced in the Bulletin; a 28 percent increase from 2010, which reported 221 initiatives. The year 2009 yielded 183 stories, and 2008 featured 129 stories in this category.

In 2011, AASHE released a new database of hundreds of campus solar photovoltaic installations that showcases higher education’s rapid adoption of solar. The database reveals a 450-percent growth of installed solar capacity in the higher education sector over the last three years.

With 191 environmentally friendly building stories in 2011, there were more sustainably minded campus buildings reported in the AASHE Bulletin than ever (2010 saw 180 green structures, and 166 were reported in 2009). Data from the U.S. Green Building Council shows that the higher education sector continues to be one of the largest user groups of LEED, with nearly 390,000,000 registered and 130,000,000 certified sq. ft. to date.

Amid these important accomplishments, however, another realm of the higher education sustainability movement is growing stronger. Campuses have started including their surrounding communities in their conversations, working in partnerships that move the higher education sustainability movement out of the single campus mindset and into an inclusive one that is, simply, more sustainable.

Food-Secure Communities
After grocers told Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell that they didn’t want to invest in the underserved Dallas, TX, neighborhood where the college is located, he made it his own mission to provide fresh, local food to the campus community. Sorrell turned to the Sustainable Food Project at Yale University in Connecticut, which has operated a mini-campus farm since 2003, to help turn the college’s football stadium into a farm.

Now, Sorrell is tackling another problem: the neighborhood still needs greater access to healthy food. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in July that Sorrell is “leading the charge to challenge the city of Dallas and fight for a grocery store for the community.”

Higher education efforts to create food-secure communities on and off campus is an emerging trend that is finding its voice in forward-thinking presidents like Sorrell and student activists across the country.

Two years ago, wrote University of Arkansas student Julia Lyon in a recent White House blog, a group of students at her University started talking about the issue of food insecurity and how it affected students on campus. Today, their Full Circle Campus Food Pantry not only addresses the needs of students and staff facing food insecurity, but also holds food drives for the community. The student-led initiative is one of five recent winners of the inaugural “Campus Champions of Change Challenge,” an effort by the White House to highlight student initiatives that are moving their communities forward.

Other popular student-led initiatives toward food-secure communities include campus-community food gardens, farmers markets, campus co-ops, and sustainable agriculture education community outreach.

Green Economies
Recently, President Barack Obama declared that community colleges are an integral part of increasing energy efficiency and decreasing the country’s dependence on foreign oil. As reported by the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Community College Times, the president toured Prince George’s Community College in Maryland in March, where he learned about the College’s Sustainable Star initiative, which works with local companies to provide on-the-job training for students. This training often takes place in the community, such as weatherizing low- and middle-income homes. Impressed, the president said that community colleges are “the surest path to success in this economy.”

Nearly 60 percent of all new programs or training opportunities reported in the AASHE Bulletin in 2011 were focused on training students for renewable energy and green careers, with $543M recorded toward the green job training effort. Compared to 2009, green job training efforts have skyrocketed, with a 142-percent increase.

Community and technical colleges are by and large at the helm of the green job training movement, with more than half of the new programs and opportunities captured taking place on two-year campuses.

“Explicit in the community college mission is this commitment to sustainability — building healthy and economically viable communities,” says Sustainability Education and Economic Development (SEED) Center Director Todd Cohen, in a Q&A for AASHE’s upcoming 2011 Higher Education Sustainability Review. “Community colleges are heavily invested in their local regions, where college administrators often sit on various local and state boards, and where a diverse array of graduating students typically stay within the region. This college tie to ‘place’ fits nicely with the higher education sustainability movement.”

Higher Education Access & Affordability
This synergy between community colleges and their local communities is emerging as one solution to what is becoming one of the higher education sustainability movement’s biggest hurdles: access to an affordable higher education that results in strong job prospects and low student debt.

The conversation around accessibility and affordability in higher education is swelling amid rising tuition costs, weak job prospects, shrinking academic programs, and student debt that is at an all-time high. Also swelling is the collective chorus to make things better. The Occupy movement, a series of nationwide protests on campuses that are being held in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, features some of the most passionate voices in the higher education sustainability effort.

“The Occupy movement should give true sustainability advocates reason for hope. Sustainability isn’t just about cleaning up our environmental act, but about building a new society that respects people and planet,” says Justin Mog, one of the voices calling for affordable education.

Mog serves as assistant to the provost for sustainability initiatives at the University of Louisville, and was featured in AASHE’s recent Higher Education Occupation Project: “Sustainability happens when Earth justice meets social justice. At the core of this new society must rest equal access to higher education for all, no matter what their background or wealth.”

While it’s too early to say whether the Occupy movement on campuses — referred to by some as Occupy Education — is succeeding in any real reforms in the higher education system, it is accomplishing the scale of mobilization needed to create real change.

Rollin’ on the River…
“People on the river are happy to give,” sings Tina, before the chorus jumps in again. One of the most uplifting aspects of the collective, inclusive nature of higher education sustainability movement today is that people are happy to give: to give their knowledge, time, and resources in the name of a more sustainable society — on campus and off. This generous and committed chorus grows even stronger as it includes a more diverse range of voices: from presidents to student leaders to underrepresented minorities to wind technician trainees to social justice professors to those willing to spend a Thursday night at a community-campus forum.

And we’re rollin’…rollin’…rollin’ on the river.

Margo Wagner is the publications coordinator and AASHE Bulletin editor for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). She has written for Billboard Magazine, Edible Missoula, Green Building Journal, and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.