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
by Wynn Calder and Richard M. Clugston
(return to Table of Contents)
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).