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ULSF | Association of University Leaders For A Sustainable Future

U.S. Progress Toward Sustainability in Higher Education

This chapter appeared originally in the book Stumbling Toward Sustainability, John C. Dernbach ed., published by the Environmental Law Institute © 2002. All rights reserved Environmental Law Institute.

by Wynn Calder and Richard M. Clugston

(return to Table of Contents)

Assessing Developments in the United States

Since the late 1960s academic concern, as well as student, foundation and government interest, has ebbed and flowed for environmental protection, social justice and the reorientation of economics and social policy to serve these ends. Commitment of entering freshmen to pursuing environmental or sustainability related goals versus pursuing short-term gain has vacillated.45 Concern for the environment was strong in the early 1970s, almost absent in the 1980s and returned in the 1990s. Since there is little quantitative data allowing us to compare the state of HESD in 1992 with that of 2002, we must rely primarily on case studies and qualitative analysis of progress over the past decade.

What has happened since the Rio Earth Summit and Agenda 21? Education for sustainable development has been under funded and under supported, both within and outside of the academy. Tensions have arisen between environmental educators and sustainability educators and no consensus has been reached on who or what institutions should guide the HESD movement.46 National governments have shown little interest in pursuing this agenda, especially in the U.S.47 For the most part, pressure on universities and colleges to begin to embrace the challenge of sustainable development has originated from within.48 At a small minority of institutions across the U.S., highly motivated and committed presidents, faculty members, staff members, and students have affected change in very significant ways. At a larger minority, there is evidence of increasing eco-efficiency in operations or new offerings in environmental studies, but an authentic institutional commitment to sustainable development is rare.49

Despite the lack of transformative progress, colleges and universities in America are increasingly adopting sustainability initiatives in one or more of the seven critical dimensions of institutional life described above.50 Innovative curricular reform for sustainability is on the rise. More research is being devoted to sustainability in the sciences, and to a lesser extent the social sciences and humanities. Some colleges and universities are modeling sustainable behavior through their purchasing, building design, and energy use. A few institutions have altered their mission statements to reflect the broader vision of a sustainable future. Particularly promising is the recent emergence of regional university partnerships and consortia, illustrating a deeper level of commitment among and between institutions, as well as recognition that such partnerships can attract funding and affect policy.

Proceeding through each dimension, we will highlight some of the best practices of pioneering institutions and assess progress.51 In many cases, these critical dimensions overlap: a student's coursework may include an internship that brings her into the surrounding community to address sustainable development, thus involving the curriculum, student engagement and outreach dimensions simultaneously. To provide a clear illustration of our framework, however, we will cover each dimension separately. We will also highlight recent support for HESD from state governments and higher education associations, as well as address emerging links between the disciplines and the professions.


At universities and colleges across the country, increasing numbers of courses that incorporate sustainability are being developed in a range of disciplines.52 Various efforts are also underway to transform academic programs to foster interdisciplinary thinking. This is occurring despite some confusion and much debate about what sustainability means and to what extent it is relevant within the various disciplines.

Research on curriculum development at undergraduate institutions reveals several trends. It was estimated in 1995 that about 400 colleges and universities offered degrees in environmental studies or environmental science (out of approximately 3,700 higher education institutions).53 A 2001 national survey of environmental performance in higher education by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Campus Ecology Program indicates considerable progress with 43% of U.S. institutions surveyed offering a major or minor in environmental or sustainability studies.54 For the most part, however, these programs are based in biology and chemistry departments and do not teach sustainable development; nor do they make integrated thinking and decision making an integral part of their approach.

Eight percent of those schools surveyed in NWF's study actually require all students to take an environmental studies course.55 Florida Gulf Coast University, however, goes further. Founded in 1997, the university states in its mission a commitment to ecologically literate citizenry and requires of all students for graduation a course entitled "The University Colloquium: A Sustainable Future."56 In 1997, Oakland Community College, which serves 24,000 students in Oakland County outside of Detroit, established a core general education requirement including one course with an in-depth focus on global environmental awareness and one course with a focus on social responsibility.57 A 1995 Minnesota initiative required all state school students to take at least one "environmental theme" course.58 Despite the relatively small number of schools requiring such courses on environmental or sustainability issues, NWF's study indicates that in 45% of universities surveyed a majority of students take at least one course concerning environmental issues.59 Thus, while the vast majority of colleges and universities have not made sustainability a priority in the curriculum, increasing numbers are requiring or promoting this area of study in the curriculum.

Other innovative approaches to moving beyond narrow departmental and disciplinary boundaries deserve mention. College of the Atlantic, a small, private institution in Bar Harbor, Maine, offers only a Bachelor of Arts in human ecology. The college's approach to learning is fundamentally interdisciplinary and requires that students engage in problem solving to "develop important skills necessary to make meaningful contributions to society."60 In 1997, Ball State University (Muncie, Indiana) established an innovative approach to sustainability through an interdepartmental program entitled "Clustered Academic Minors in Environmentally Sustainable Practices." As of 2001, the program included five minors in Environmental Policy, the Environmental Context for Business, Environmental Contexts in Health Care, Sustainable Land Systems, and Technology & the Environment. The clustered minors are designed to expand the potential for integrative thinking by attracting students from other disciplinary areas. The closing course for all clustered minors is entitled "Creating a Sustainable Future."61

Among professional schools, there are sporadic examples of education for sustainability across the spectrum, but it is too early to quantify progress in most cases. In schools of natural resources or the environment, there appears to be a trend toward explicit recognition of sustainability concerns. For example, the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies "recognizes that equity and environmental progress must be combined and that a school of the environment must be a school of sustainable development."62 Masters programs in international development, public policy and diplomacy frequently teach about sustainable development, however few programs make this integral to the coursework. Brandeis University's (Waltham, Massachusetts) Sustainable International Development Program, founded in 1994, offers an interdisciplinary Master of Arts Degree that focuses on the state of world development and issues that affect future generations. Its mission is "to help build a new generation of development planners and policy makers for whom a global society free of poverty and environmental degradation is achievable."63 Engineering and technology schools are clearly engaging in the sustainability challenge, as the programs at Georgia Tech and other schools illustrate.

Business schools also appear to be responding to a rising interest in sustainability in the business sector. Beyond Grey Pinstripes 2001, a survey of graduate business schools in the U.S., Asia, Europe and the Americas, indicates a weak but growing commitment to teaching social and environmental issues. Fifty-eight out of approximately 403 U.S. Masters of Business Administration programs report including social and environmental topics in their courses. However, these issues are not yet being integrated into the core business curriculum and dedicated faculty remain isolated.64 Rare exceptions include the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which is well known for its dedication to "sustainable enterprises." Based on the assumption that the world will begin demanding "sustainability" within the next decade, Kenan-Flagler launched a Sustainable Enterprise Concentration Area in 1999, which provides required and recommended courses on such issues as urban reinvestment and minority economic development, environmental management systems, social marketing, life cycle management, finance and sustainability, and sustainable development.65

Environmental law and international environmental law are included in many law school curricula, and several law schools have programs that emphasize or provide advanced law degrees in these subjects.66 The Widener University Law School (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) offers a Seminar on Law and Sustainability,67 but this kind of explicit focus on sustainability in the curriculum is rare. Notably, The George Washington University Law School established the Center on Sustainable Growth in 2000, which explores sustainable solutions to the complex problems of urban growth. The Center works closely with various departments and schools throughout the University, including the schools of Business and Public Management, Engineering and Applied Science, Public Health and Health Services, and International Affairs. It hosted the first national gathering on "Smart Growth and the Law" in September 2000.68 Other professional schools appear equally slow to consider seriously incorporating sustainability in their curricula. The deans of schools of architecture, for example, increasingly claim to be interested in sustainable design, but there is little evidence of the topic entering core areas of study. As with business schools, external interest and demand seems to exceed the readiness of architecture and design schools to seriously embrace sustainability.69


Particularly critical to transforming American higher education is making sustainability a major research and scholarly focus. Sustainability-oriented research is increasingly funded in the sciences, but initiatives are also under way to bring the social sciences and humanities into the research dimension. The academic community has seen a rise in peer-reviewed publications focused on sustainability in higher education and on sustainability generally: the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (Emerald) was launched in 2000; and Environment and Sustainable Development (Inderscience) is due in 2002. According to NWF's 2001 survey, 23% of colleges and universities support research centers that focus on "environmental" issues. The level of support for these centers, however, and the degree to which they focus on issues concerning sustainable development is unknown. The following are some notable examples of efforts underway.

Numerous institutes of technology in the U.S. are turning their research toward sustainable technology. The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), a leader in this area, hosts the Institute for Sustainable Technology and Development, now the campus-wide advocate for sustainability in curriculum, research and operations. Recent research has focused on ozone pollution, fuel cells, diagnosing traffic gridlock, air pollution, and urban sprawl in U.S. cities.70 Georgia Tech also supports the Environmentally Conscious Design & Manufacturing (ECDM) Program, which integrates a long-term research agenda in environmentally conscious design and manufacturing with on-going economic development activities in Georgia.71 Furthermore, sustainability is a key theme in a new multi disciplinary building complex designed to support "research neighborhoods," which break down traditional disciplinary barriers by co-locating faculty from different departments who share research interests.72

Georgia Tech, along with many other engineering schools and university-based centers,73 is helping to define the emerging field of "sustainability science." The new practitioners of sustainability science claim that in seeking "to understand the fundamental character of interactions between nature and society," the field is called upon to investigate the vast range of issues that sustainability encompasses, to do so with urgency if a crisis demands it, and to reconsider the usefulness of knowledge for both science and society. This is an action-oriented science for which a topic like climate change simultaneously demands scientific exploration and practical application. In line with Georgia Tech's research neighborhoods, this new science depends on inventive techniques and requires problem-driven, interdisciplinary research.74

In the social sciences and humanities, the privately funded South Carolina Sustainable Universities Initiative, led by the three major research universities in the State, has made a "mini-grant" program one cornerstone of its activities.75 Mini-grants have funded research on such topics as sustainable tourism in South Carolina, environment and leisure, environmental children's literature, and integrating sustainability into the English curriculum.

Faculty and Staff Hiring, Development and Rewards

Few colleges and universities offer faculty development in sustainability or reward faculty for their contributions to the field. There are rare examples of schools that seek scholars with interdisciplinary training in environmental studies and another major discipline.76 NWF's study indicates that 8% of those schools surveyed "formally evaluate or recognize how the faculty has integrated environmental topics into their courses." More surprisingly, the study shows that 50% of colleges and universities surveyed "support faculty professional development on environmental topics."77 This finding is in keeping with the growing number of environmental studies programs in the U.S. (nearly 45% according to this study), but does not indicate the extent to which such faculty support fosters interdisciplinary work or integrated thinking in the context of sustainability. Furthermore, to the degree that scholarly attention to sustainability issues includes engagement in real world problems and public outreach (see discussion of "sustainability science," above), university departments are still far from embracing anything but "pure" research, untainted by popular writings or public speeches.78

The following two approaches to faculty development, started in the mid-1990s, illustrate attempts to address sustainability:

Northern Arizona University (NAU), a medium-sized state institution, began a faculty development program in 1995 known as the Ponderosa Project.79 Through annual two-day workshops, the project helps faculty from all disciplines revise their courses to include issues of environmental sustainability. An organic chemistry course uses environmental issues, such as the disposal of organic waste generated by industry, or the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides, to teach key concepts. An archaeology course uses the Black Mesa Project in northeastern Arizona to raise issues such as environmental racism, environmental degradation and overpopulation. To date, over 100 courses have been redesigned to reflect sustainability.

Georgia Tech has also made faculty development for sustainability a priority. Outside funding from General Electric in the mid-1990s enabled its Institute for Sustainable Technology and Development to improve faculty understanding of sustainable technology through the development of a sequence of four courses on engineering and sustainability. This process fostered over time a large community of faculty (from all disciplines on campus) committed to incorporating these concepts into courses and research.80


While many campuses have begun to redesign their operations based on eco-efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, few schools have made a comprehensive commitment to such practices.81 If performed well, these initiatives save money over the long-term. A 1998 report by NWF's Campus Ecology Program documented annual savings of over $15 million from 20 selected U.S. campus conservation projects.82 In part for this reason, more progress has been achieved in this dimension than in any other.

As concerns about energy scarcity and prices have increased in recent years, and cost-benefit analyses look promising, efforts to conserve energy (and water) have steadily increased on campuses in the U.S. since 1992. NWF's 2001 study, for example, indicates that 81% of campuses surveyed have enacted lighting efficiency upgrades. More than half of respondents said they've developed efficiency design codes for new and old buildings, and 72% reported they have installed efficient toilets, showerheads and faucets in all or some campus units.83 Prevalence of transportation initiatives has been disappointing, with low percentages of responding institutions reporting progress in promotion of mass transit (23% for students, 19% for employees), carpooling (17%), or minimal use of alternative fuel campus vehicles (20%).84 A consistent finding from the NWF study is that respondents tended not to answer open-ended questions on campus energy and water consumption and waste generation. A likely reason is that respondents have neither accurate records nor regular data gathering processes.85 This suggests a greater need for regular campus assessments so that facilities managers are both informed and encouraged to improve conservation practices.86

While there are hundreds of good examples of U.S. campus conservation efforts, the following initiatives illustrate some of the most ambitious and forward-looking:87

In energy conservation, the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) is a leading institution. Starting in 1982, UB initiated nearly 300 energy-related retrofit projects, including the installation of efficient lights and motors, weatherizing buildings, modifying heating and ventilating, and improving air conditioning systems. With the assistance of an energy service company on subsequent projects, UB today saves about $9 million dollars per year while producing a minimum of air pollutants and other wastes. UB's conservation programs have continued to expand with a recent campaign promoting "green computing," a needed response to the exponential increase in computer use on campuses everywhere.88

Related to the UB story are emerging efforts linked explicitly to global climate change. The Tufts Climate Initiative (TCI) at Tufts University (Medford, Massachusetts), for example, is committed to meeting or beating the Kyoto target for university-related greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2012. Tufts and TCI are working diligently to address energy conservation on campus and contribute to an improved public understanding of climate issues.89

Sustainable design on campuses is perhaps the most exciting recent trend in the HESD movement. It is particular critical since estimates indicate that our built environment will double size over the next 20 to 40 years. Ironically, the impetus for green buildings appears to be coming more from the liberal arts side of the academy (rather than the graduate schools of design90). Middlebury College (Middlebury, Vermont), for example, has a stated commitment to sustainable building practices, and has officially adopted green building principles.91 Northland College (Ashland, Wisconsin) opened "the world's most advanced environmental student residence hall" in the fall of 1998. The building offers unique living and learning opportunities, which emphasize resource efficiency and renewable energy.92 Oberlin College's recently completed Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies brings sustainable design into its mechanical and solar power systems, indoor air quality, material selection, landscaping, and wastewater treatment. The Center is meant to serve "the larger education of the Oberlin community [which is] aimed to promote the practical skills and analytic abilities necessary to reweave the human presence in the world."93

Starting in the late 1980's, the Rutgers-Camden campus of State University of New Jersey began to transform its purchasing practices. Partly in response to the state's progressive environmental regulations, Rutgers' purchasing staff started to work with vendors on adapting bid specifications and contracts for the benefit of the environment. By the mid-1990's, they were attaching "public awareness clauses" to requests for contract proposals, encouraging vendors to support Rutgers' tough environmental standards. Rutgers' large annual budget demanded cooperation, but in the long run both parties benefited. The contractor for recycling and waste-hauling, for example, was required to place educational advertisements in campus publications and provide information on the latest industry trends, products, and recycling markets. Another major Rutgers vendor was required to reuse and reduce packaging and shipping materials.94 Since the annual budget of the U.S. higher education sector now exceeds $200 billion, environmentally responsible purchasing strategies have tremendous potential to push local and regional economies toward sustainability.95 Universities appear to be catching on: nearly 50% of respondents to NWF's survey reported having programs to "encourage" environmentally sound purchasing, an indication at least of awareness and intent.96

Student Opportunities

While student opportunities to engage in sustainability issues often arise through the university curriculum and campus outreach, this dimension is singled out to emphasize first, the centrality of students to the HESD movement, and second, the range of opportunities for students that could be further expanded in the service of sustainable development. The following two initiatives have made it a priority to focus on student development.

The Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), which includes 16 small, liberal arts institutions across the South, received a major foundation grant in 1997 to embark on an ambitious multi-year environmental initiative. A fundamental goal of the initiative is to cultivate and graduate "environmental citizens" from every member institution. The program is currently based on six "Alliances," each committed to the same long-term goal but with a different emphasis. The "Student Development and Engagement" Alliance seeks to help the institutions prepare students for environmental or sustainability-oriented careers; train student leaders to expand education and awareness efforts on their campuses; and develop environmental campus projects through student grants. These objectives are intended to maximize student environmental interest and engagement on campus and to prepare students for related opportunities once they leave. A major challenge for the ACS Environmental Initiative, as with other initiatives discussed in this sub-section, will be to ensure that Alliance objectives become institutionalized at these schools, so that critical activities continue on long after outside funding has ended.97

Another notable example of student engagement in pursuit of sustainability is the summer environmental internship program coordinated by Harvard University's Green Campus Initiative (HGCI). Eleven students interns in 2001 worked directly with different administrative units within the university on practical, results-oriented projects. Project outcomes included the introduction of organic foods in the dining halls, a study on computer energy reduction, research on alternative fuel vehicles, recommendations for a sustainable buildings policy, and a greenhouse gas inventory. According to HGCI's director, the internship program has provided "a new vision of how addressing campus environmental sustainability can occur in alignment with the university's core mission, conserving financial resources and enhancing human resources while also contributing to teaching and research outcomes."98

Outreach and Service

There are numerous examples of innovative attempts on the part of universities and colleges to connect with their surrounding communities and beyond through projects and programs that contribute to sustainable development. Many of these involve students engaged in internships and service-learning projects, and faculty engaged in research. Service learning has increased dramatically at institutions nation-wide since the late 1990s. This trend has been embraced by mainstream higher education, and while it is not promoted in the name of sustainability, it is a good indication that priorities may be turning in that direction.99 This sub-section describes a community-based initiative at Allegheny College (Meadville, Pennsylvania), illustrating the potential for a deep level of involvement between a college and its surroundings. It also offers examples of newly emerging statewide and regional partnerships for sustainable development involving universities and other organizations.

Allegheny College, a small liberal arts institution in rural Northwest Pennsylvania, hosts a Center for Economic and Environmental Development (CEED), which was created in July 1997 "to work with the community toward a forward-thinking vision for the region that is both economically inspiring and environmentally sustainable." CEED has numerous areas of focus, including watershed protection, educational outreach, sustainable energy, industry, agriculture and forestry and environmental justice. Each year, nearly 150 Allegheny students work with over 100 community partners on sustainable development in the region. Projects include partnerships with local K-12 schools to investigate waterways and collaboration with landowners and logging companies to establish sustainable forestry in the region. The highly successful CEED initiative, like others of its kind, spans both the "outreach" and "student opportunities" dimensions.100

Since 1998, state and regional partnerships and coalitions between universities, government agencies and NGO's have been forming to promote and share information on sustainability. This may represent the most significant single development in the advancement of HESD, since it indicates a growing critical mass of institutions within certain regions committed to changing state policy in support of sustainability. The following three initiatives vary considerably in terms of funding, structure and range of activities, but they share a long-term goal of institutionalization of the programs and activities they support.

Founded in 1998, the New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability (NJHEPS) is a coalition of 16 New Jersey colleges and universities promoting sustainability in teaching, research, operations and outreach throughout the state. Partly supported with private funding, this initiative depends primarily on the in-kind services of member institutions. "Campus teams," consisting of faculty, administrators, staff and students, develop action plans, perform campus environmental inventories, and engage in campus specific projects. Member institutions also seek partnerships with stakeholders such as government, businesses and community groups. In a recent major achievement, NJHEPS was instrumental in getting the presidents of all New Jersey colleges and universities to sign a "Covenant of Sustainability," committing their respective institutions to a state-sponsored Sustainability Greenhouse Gas Action Plan for New Jersey (which calls for a 3.5% reduction in the state's greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2005).101

The Pennsylvania Consortium for Interdisciplinary Environmental Policy, founded in 2000, is a partnership involving environmental policymakers (from the Departments of Environmental Protection and Conservation & Natural Resources) and 41 universities and colleges. On the belief that government decisionmakers and academia must work together to enhance sustainable development, the consortium is striving to overcome the traditional divide between scholarship and policy. The work of the consortium is done by program committees consisting of university representatives (primarily faculty) and state environmental policymakers. This structure encourages both collaborative, interdisciplinary thinking and institutional commitment. Current projects focus on greening the State's colleges and universities and promoting a "Sustainable Pennsylvania" by addressing climate change and energy, watershed management and land use decisions.102 NJHEPS and the Pennsylvania Consortium are unique in that they are sustained primarily by their member institutions. Conversely, the following initiative is an example of how significant external funding can initiate reform in a comparatively conservative environment.

In 1998, Clemson University, the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina joined together in a five-year Sustainable Universities Initiative (SUI) to lead the way toward a more sustainable future in the state through teaching, research, community service, and facilities management. In 2000, the state's General Assembly supported expansion of the program to include other state-supported institutions of higher education. By late 2001, 13 four-year and technical schools had joined. Like the ACS Environmental Initiative, SUI is privately funded and is striving, within the time limit of the grant, to establish programs that will permanently change the culture of participating institutions as well as the communities in which they reside. SUI supports a variety of programs in student and faculty development, campus environmental management and community partnerships. The initiative's unique approach is to help individual schools address the aspects of sustainability that fit each institution best.103

Institutional Mission, Structure and Planning

An institution's mission statement expresses its fundamental vision and commitment. Most university presidents and trustees are reluctant to tamper with these pronouncements, and only recently have more forward-looking schools voted to include an overt support of the environment or sustainable development. According to NWF's survey, 34% of respondents claim to have either a written declaration linking education about environmental responsibility to the school's mission, or a clear intent to do so.104 In contrast, a 1999 study of U.S. university websites found that only 10% showed an interest in the environment in their mission statements.105 This sub-section looks at two such institutions, explores the value of signed statements such as the Talloires Declaration, and cites the new prevalence of university offices and positions created for the support of campus sustainability.

In 1995, Middlebury College's trustees endorsed the following Statement of Environmental Commitment: "Middlebury College as a liberal arts institution is committed to environmental mindfulness and stewardship in all its activities. This commitment arises from a sense of concerned citizenship and moral duty and from a desire to teach and lead by example…. Respect and care for the environment, sustainable living, and intergenerational responsibility are among the fundamental values that guide planning, decisionmaking, and procedures."106 This was one of the first examples of a U.S. college making the values of sustainability foundational. It has led to the further institutionalization of environmental commitment at Middlebury with the hiring of a Director of Environmental Affairs, continued expansion of an innovative Program in Environmental Studies, and a bold new sustainable design policy.

In a very ambitious attempt to embody a broad definition of sustainable development, the Board of Trustees at Northland College approved a Sustainability Charter in July 1998. The Charter begins: "We believe our greatest legacy, both to ourselves and to the outside world is to change the way we think about living, learning and doing business. As Northland College moves into the 21st century, the best of our ideals as an environmental liberal arts college can be channeled into long term efforts to sustain living communities." The Charter calls for educational innovation in sustainability curricula and programming; commitment to the well being of future generations; global equity; ecological integrity; community vitality; and economic viability. Middlebury and Northland are genuinely striving to engage their students in a serious conversation about sustainability. They offer visionary examples for university presidents and trustees elsewhere.

A less integral but significant addition to an institution's mission statement comes in the form of signed documents such as the Talloires Declaration. In February 1994, the total number of signatories was 179, and U.S. signatories numbered 40.107 That number now stands at about 73.108 This suggests a growing recognition that academic research, teaching, and service must address the sustainability challenge. However, the perennial question regarding the Talloires (and other voluntary agreements like it, including the Halifax and Copernicus declarations) is: "How many signatory schools have actually implemented the principles?" The usual answer is: very few. Ball State University may be the best U.S. example of a genuine attempt to do so. After Ball State's president signed the Talloires Declaration in April 1999, the school embarked on an ambitious multi-year plan to accomplish all 10 action steps. Separate committees were assigned to each step and plans of action have been drawn up with input from over 100 university representatives. The process is well underway, but significant results are yet to be seen.109 In another example, Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, Ohio) has recently "rediscovered" the Declaration, and used the signature of a past president to successfully request the formation of a committee from the new president to explore the implementation of the declaration.

According to one researcher, while few signatory institutions have organized explicitly around the Talloires Declaration, many have used it as part of an overall environmental strategy, particularly to establish legitimacy for environmental efforts.110 Another researcher claims that while being a signatory institution is not a valid indicator of a university's commitment to sustainability, international declarations are still significant because "they symbolize the prominence of the sustainability movement, aid in the communication of major ideas to universities around the world, and implore those who have not committed to any sustainability initiatives to 'get on board'."111 Three researchers studying the usefulness of international voluntary HESD declarations have criticized them for lacking compulsory requirements to demonstrate accountability. Based on a survey of 21 Talloires Declaration signatories (three from the U.S.), the researchers concluded that the Declaration was "not a crucial stimulus" to change, mostly because it lacks an implementation strategy, a monitoring process, and close guidance from the signatory secretariat.112

At a few universities in the U.S., staffed offices have been established with mandates to incorporate sustainability into various facets of institutional life and the surrounding community. In these rare cases, the intent of the institution is to engage in the challenge of sustainable development in a comprehensive way. For example, the Office of Sustainability Programs, established in 1997 at the University of New Hampshire, "develops University-wide education programs and projects that integrate sustainability practices across all facets of the University including teaching, research and public service."113 Interdisciplinary projects, which involve students and faculty as well as the local community, include Climate Education, Food and Society, Biodiversity Education, and Culture and Sustainability.114

The University of Florida Office of Sustainability, established in 2000, has three areas of focus: "Greening the University of Florida," a grassroots movement of students, faculty, and staff which focuses on curriculum and operations; "Healthier Communities," which works to improve community health through sustainable practices on and off campus; and "Future Research Activities," which will establish funded research in the field of sustainability and help coordinate research teams across the university's range of competencies.115

Outside of these seven critical dimensions of university life, and primarily external to academic institutions, there are notable developments and efforts in support of HESD that warrant discussion before turning to recommendations for accelerating the transition to sustainability.

The Disciplines and Professions

It is the responsibility of eminent scholars in each of the academic disciplines to define what is understood and appropriate to pursue within them. Departments are the local, campus-based manifestations of the disciplines, and the current body of fact and theory accepted by the disciplines largely determines what is taught in these local places. Thus, promoting sustainability in higher education depends significantly on the active engagement of disciplinary leaders in promoting ecologically sensitive theory and sustainable practices as central to the scope and mission of their fields (e.g., in peer-review criteria for journal articles when relevant and in the themes and organization of professional associations).

It is a positive sign that numerous scholars are engaged in transforming their disciplines at both the national and local (campus) levels. Members of various professional associations have started special interest groups, divisions, or sections focused on the environment and sustainability. For example, the American Institute of Architects has a Committee on the Environment and provides an environmental education program for teachers called "Learning by Design."116 The American Society for Engineering Education and the American Association of Engineering Societies jointly sponsor an Engineers Forum for Sustainable Development, which was founded in 1997. The American Planning Association and the American Management Association both have formed special interest groups.117 The American Academy of Religion has an ecology and religion section. Professional journals are emerging, such as Ecological Economics and the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. The latter publication provides a forum for critical studies of the literary and performing arts proceeding from or addressing environmental considerations, including ecological theory, conceptions of nature and their depictions, the human/nature dichotomy, and related concerns.118 The May 2000 issue of American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association (APA), focused on "Environmental Sustainability" and its implications for the field.119 These are at least hopeful signs of a growing movement within the disciplines and professions.

Support from Government, NGOs, and Higher Education Associations

The movement to promote HESD in the U.S. has had minimal and sporadic support over the years from the federal and state governments,120 minor but consistent support from a small number of NGOs focused on HESD, and minimal (though increasing) interest from higher education associations. Still, these various stakeholders deserve brief mention.

At the government level, environmental education is synonymous with sustainability education. The largest single source of funding and support for environmental education comes not through the U.S. Department of Education, but through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Environmental Education. A recent government report affirms that over the past several years "Congress has appropriated less than $8 million to support OEE's programs, which in turn support programs at the international, national, state and local levels."121 The report also affirms that funding for environmental education at the state and local levels is at best inconsistent. This situation is confirmed by a 2000 Report to Congress on the status of U.S. environmental education by the National Environmental Education Advisory Council (NEEAC), a consultative body that provides advice to EPA on implementation of the National Environmental Education Act (1990).122 The 2000 report states that "the overall national environmental education effort remains far weaker than it should be in terms of adequate funding, coordination and leveraging of resources, and serious evaluation and assessment tools."123 Furthermore, "environmental education has not been effectively infused into the educational reform movement, nor has it been institutionalized throughout K-12 or higher education. Thus, environmental education has not achieved the desired impact in government and business, or in communities."124

Notable exceptions to the trends in government support for environmental and sustainability related initiatives include two prominent campus greening efforts in the early 1990s and more recent initiatives in Massachusetts and Michigan. EPA gave initial funding to Tufts University and The George Washington University (GW) in 1990 and 1994 respectively. These initiatives met with varying success, and support for the GW initiative was short-lived due to changing priorities at EPA.125 In 2000, EPA and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA) provided $65,000 to conduct an assessment of the four (non-medical school) University of Massachusetts campuses to ascertain the level of education for sustainability activities and to develop plans to foster such programs. The EOEA refunded this project in 2001 to further the implementation of sustainability programs. To date, the chancellors at every campus have been persuaded to appoint and charge official campus sustainability committees.126 Also in 2000, EPA awarded Michigan State University (one of the largest single campuses in the U.S.) $250 thousand dollars to develop a campus sustainability program.127

States are supporting HESD efforts in small but significant ways: South Carolina contributed to the Sustainable Universities Initiative in 2000; Pennsylvania gives basic support to the Pennsylvania Consortium; and New Jersey has contributed seed money to the Partnership for Sustainability there. The Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance (MOEA) has recently funded several projects in higher education: a Midwest Green Campus Workshop in 2001 and a Greening of the Campus Conference in 2000; an ongoing ecological footprint project of the University of Minnesota Sustainable Campus Initiative and a UM Center for Sustainable Building Research.

Since the early 1990's, four U.S. NGOs committed to promoting sustainability in higher education have helped articulate both the nature of a sustainable university and strategies for moving forward. These are the National Wildlife Federation's Campus Ecology Program,128 Second Nature,129 University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF),130 and World Resources Institute's Sustainable Enterprise Program.131 In 1996, these NGOs formed an Alliance for Sustainability through Higher Education to be a stronger voice for university reform. The Alliance played a significant role in ensuring that higher education was included in the program of the National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America in May 1999, an unprecedented gathering of over 3,000 Americans aimed to inspire a national movement toward sustainability.132 Following the National Town Meeting, which was co-sponsored by the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD), the PCSD disbanded (as anticipated), and the energy generated there quickly dissipated. The lesson learned was that sustainability was still not a national priority. These NGOs continue, however, to promote the HESD agenda by providing information and assistance, and working with institutions and individuals committed to slow but steady transformation. In January 2000, they helped launch a Higher Education Network for Sustainability and the Environment (HENSE), which expanded the original Alliance to provide a more powerful platform for faculty, students and professionals in the U.S. and Canada to share information, collaborate on HESD projects and more rapidly advance the movement.133

Recent efforts of the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) are very encouraging.134 Due largely to NCSE's work, the National Science Board in February 2000 approved a report, Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21st Century: the role of the National Science Foundation, which recommended that NSF funding for environmental research, education, and scientific assessment should be increased by $1 billion over the next five years, to reach an annual expenditure of approximately $1.6 billion. This could be critical as an external stimulus for university research on sustainability related issues. NCSE has attracted leaders from the academic, scientific, governmental, environmental and business sectors to its annual National Conference on Science, Policy, and the Environment. Sustainability science and its application has been a central theme of the first two conferences held in 2000 and 2001, and breakout groups have discussed the role of higher education in sustainability. The third NCSE conference, to be held in January 2003, will have as its theme, "Education for a Sustainable and Secure Future." NCSE has also recently established a Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), which include the deans of colleges of environment and natural resources and directors of institutes of environmental studies at more than 40 universities and colleges. The new organization facilitates peer-to-peer communication and collaboration and external relations with federal agencies, the U.S. Congress, employers and NGOs. This network will be a powerful force for engaging internal and external stakeholders in the pursuit of sustainability in higher education.

Some higher education associations, like their disciplinary counterparts, are beginning to pay attention to sustainability issues. The Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), the Association of Physical Plant Administrators of Universities and Colleges (APPA) and APPA's strategic partner, the Professional Grounds Maintenance Society (PGMS), have identified environmental issues as an important global concern that must be addressed by the organizations' constituencies through specific initiatives. The American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) are also starting to look seriously at the challenge of sustainability for higher education and recognize the need to educate their constituencies on the issues involved.135

Clearly, most of the motivation and funding for HESD in the U.S. are coming from within. This is occurring despite tremendous barriers to change within the structures of higher education. In all of the major dimensions of higher education identified in this section, there is evidence of reform for sustainability on campuses across the U.S. The numerous projects, programs and initiatives that have been discussed here indicate a significant effort on the part of many individual faculty, administrators, students and staff to change the institutions in which they work to better reflect our fundamental challenges in the world at large.

Footnotes for this section are available here.

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