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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

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When society recognizes a need that can be satisfied through advanced education or research and when sufficient funds are available to pay the cost, American universities respond in exemplary fashion... On the other hand, when social needs are not clearly recognized and backed by adequate financial support, higher education has often failed to respond as effectively as it might, even to some of the most important challenges facing America... After a major social problem has been recognized, universities will usually continue to respond weakly unless outside support is available and the subjects involved command prestige in academic circles.3
- former Harvard University president Derek Bok

Sustainable development remains barely recognized as a significant social, economic or environmental challenge for the United States. The President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) 4 was disbanded in May 1999, based in part on the perception of Vice-President Albert Gore's campaign that sustainability was not an issue for the American electorate. Little funding from either governments or foundations supports higher education initiatives to promote sustainable development, and only a few disciplines are beginning to afford a measure of legitimacy to teaching, research, and outreach in this area. Hopeful signs are emerging, but education for sustainable development in America is still at the margins.

The seeds of the movement to green higher education in the U.S. go back to the emergence of environmental concerns in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first Earth Day in 1970 was a student-based effort. Internationally, the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 5 related environmental concerns to all societal sectors, including education. Only after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit 6 did the term education for sustainable development (also "education for sustainability") enter the vocabulary of educational reformers. While the movement continues to draw on an environmental foundation, concerns have broadened to include the social and economic dimensions of sustainability.

In the U.S., higher education for sustainable development (HESD) has been given impetus over the years primarily by a small number of champions from the academy, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and business communities, and to a minor degree from government. In other countries (notably European, but in some developing countries as well) sustainability in higher education is supported by governments and has made deeper inroads in the disciplines and professions. 7 Some colleges and universities in the U.S. are actively pursuing an authentic commitment to sustainability, yet there is little consensus as to what the end goal looks like. Sustainable development, when deeply embraced by higher education institutions, means essentially that these values are reflected in each of the core areas of university life: research, teaching, outreach and operations.

While teaching and scholarship must begin to reflect these issues, so that students learn how to think in a more integrative fashion, there is an emerging consensus that institutions must also model sustainable practices. It is important that academics keep experimenting with, and sharing, their efforts to embody sustainability, especially in making it a focus of their disciplines and professions. But it is even more critical that major stakeholders, such as the business community and funders (foundations and governments) support sustainability in higher education.

It may well be that the United States-obsessed with increasing consumption and economic growth-will not take the lead in this societal transformation. While there are increasing indications that higher education is moving toward a commitment to sustainability, there are also powerful societal forces at work against this progress. This Chapter will examine the roots of the HESD movement in the U.S. and reflect on its progress and possibilities.
(3) Derek Bok, Universities and the Future of America 104-05 (1990).
(4) The PCSD was formed in June 1993 by executive order to develop policy recommendations for sustainable development in the U.S. It was a 25-member council consisting of five cabinet secretaries, chief executive officers of businesses, and executive directors of nongovernmental organizations.
(5) Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, June 16, 1972, reprinted in 11 I.L.M. 1416 [hereinafter Stockholm Declaration].
(6) Declaration on Environment and Development of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, June 14, 1992, reprinted in 31 I.L.M. 874 [hereinafter Rio Declaration].
(7) See Walter Leal Filho, "Sustainability and University Life: Some European Perspectives", in Sustainability and University Life vol. 5 (W.L. Filho ed., 1999).

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