Sustainability in Higher Education: Going Strong

Sustainability in Higher Education


Sustainability has a very long history, and some of its deepest roots can be recognized in higher education. In recent years, much has changed in the world of sustainability: what it involves, how we talk about it, who’s doing it, how it becomes a part of how we operate. What hasn’t changed, though, is that strong leadership continues to be demonstrated — and necessary — for continued evolution and progress, and we see more and more evidence of this leadership at all levels of higher education, communities and business. Higher education has always had a unique leadership and connecting role to play, however, and we’d like to take a moment to say a few words about the current status of sustainability in higher education.

Alive and Thriving

The first thing to note is that the sustainability movement is thriving on college and university campuses. There are scores of people from all corners of campus life who deeply care about human flourishing, ecosystem health and community empowerment. They have diverse political perspectives and represent every conceivable academic subject — from art to aviation. They work in a variety of job settings — from the cafeteria to the president’s office. More than anything, they want to know that their efforts are contributing to a greater good. Sustainability initiatives bring meaning to people that work, live, study and play in campus environments.

In fact, arguably, we may now be able to say that sustainability has gone “mainstream.” This isn’t to say that there aren’t daunting challenges and that internalizing sustainable practices into campus planning, missions, endowments, curriculum, food services and so on isn’t difficult — it certainly can be, and many sustainability practitioners share frustrations about slow progress. Nonetheless, there ARE sustainability professionals on many campuses, helping to drive sustainability from a broad and sometimes disjointed practice to one of continuity and depth. Additionally, the rise of sustainability science as a degree option is evidence pointing not only to students’ desire to learn more in this field, but also that companies want to employ people with deeper knowledge of sustainability. At Second Nature, we’re seeing very clear evidence that sustainability is continuing to become embedded both as a principle and a practice. More than 680 colleges have committed their campuses to carbon neutrality through the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), and dozens of campuses are signing onto the newly created Alliance for Resilient Campuses (ARC). In addition, the Second Nature Climate Leadership Awards this year had some of the most innovative and engaging entries yet.

So what are some of the characteristics of this thriving movement and its recent evolution?

To name a few, sustainability is typically bipartisan, co-curricular, hands-on, community oriented, service-based, interdisciplinary, urban, experimental, aspirational and hopeful. Following are a few ways in which we have observed these trends.

Many of the colleges that we work with at Second Nature are in conservative parts of the country, and we often see that sustainability, properly explained, inspires the possibility of building diverse and bipartisan communities — both off and on campus — to make sound decisions for continued progress. Last year Mitch addressed over a thousand people at Central Community College in Grand Island, NE, and after carefully explaining how sustainability encourages both economic and ecological debt reduction, frugality, minimizing waste, maximizing efficiency, community service and improving the quality of campus life, many folks came up to him explaining how they consider themselves political conservatives, but they were very excited by what he had to say.

A Community Effort

Sustainability initiatives are typically co-curricular. Campus sustainability knowledge is a community effort, involving many different teachers. Faculty has much to contribute, and there are great sustainability-oriented courses, programs and degrees. But sometimes the most enduring learning comes from the hands-on experience of daily life practices, whether it’s working with the campus horticultural staff or working with the facilities people on energy-related issues. We could make a very long list of how campus sustainability initiatives emerge from every conceivable aspect of campus living, and how the habits one learns on a campus can stay with you for a lifetime. Also, co-curricular efforts generate community-based service learning. If there’s a campus local food program, it will typically involve farmer’s markets, partnerships with local food pantries and discussions about the virtues of clean eating.

If you attend a faculty workshop on sustainability, you will find faculty from every conceivable academic background. Sustainability institutes develop uniquely interesting academic collaborations. From engineering to business, economics, energy and environmental biology, and contributions from the liberal arts, you will find unique configurations associated with sustainability centers and institutes. These institutes are having no difficulty finding exceptional students and faculty.

It is very encouraging to observe the rapid growth of urban-based sustainability programs. This is where environmental concerns interface with social justice, economic equity, community organizing, multicultural learning, diversity studies, new media innovations, architectural design, social network studies, climate adaptation and resilience and dozens of other dynamic approaches to how we think about the future of cities. At Second Nature, we have seen keen interest in developing higher education resilience initiatives whose mark is working at the interface of campus and community, and fully blending environment, economic and social elements in resilience objectives and definitions.

A Better Future

One of the challenges of sustainability, particularly as it involves climate change, is that some of our language (especially from the science community) has been focused on the need to avoid future negative impacts. Of course, the potential for climate change impacts is alarming, but sustainability and resilience broadly offer us much more potential that simply avoiding a worse future — they give us the tools and community to create a better one. Quite possibly, the great excitement of sustainability programs is that they embody the best of the human spirit. They are inherently experimental, exploring new solutions to difficult challenges, combining technology, innovation, common sense and appropriate scale. They are aspirational, promoting a positive, problem-solving orientation, emphasizing practical and collaborative solutions for seemingly intractable challenges. They are hopeful, assuming that we can cultivate the very best ideas and intentions and lead the way by example.

Higher education has always been at the heart of innovative, committed, societally responsible change, and never has there been more and better evidence of this in sustainability. An incredible amount of progress has occurred relatively rapidly, and while struggles still exist in mobilizing and embedding sustainability on campus, we now seem to be firmly moving along a path of true progress and results. Working collectively with our communities and businesses, empowering our leaders, and listening to and implementing innovative ideas from diverse sources is how higher education is continuing to drive progress.

** Parts of this article first appeared in “The Sustainability Movement Is Thriving: A Report from the Field” in Sustainability: A Journal of Record, Vol. 7, No. 3 June 2014, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Reproduced with kind permission of Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

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