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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)


In the next 20 to 40 years, society must adopt new strategies that allow the needs of an expanding population to be met in an environmentally sustainable and equitable manner. Higher education will play a critical role in determining whether we succeed or fail.136

Academic institutions reflect and refine the priorities of the society in which they function. They adapt to the demands of government and foundations, students and employers, the disciplines and professions. The curriculum is shaped by what the disciplines perceive as legitimate and what federal funding, state legislators and jobs require. A variety of factors determine the success of sustainability initiatives in higher education. Derek Bok points to the determining influence of external forces, i.e., the extent to which funders, the academic disciplines and the public-especially parents, students and employers-regard sustainability as essential.

In addition, there are a variety of determining factors internal to higher education institutions, such as the ability of sustainability champions to draw others into these issues; the support of key administrative leaders; the perceived benefits of sustainability initiatives among the different campus constituencies; a strong fit between the initiatives and the institutional ethos and culture; the engagement and participation of a broad section of the campus community; and the success of the initiatives in attracting critical resources.137

Our fundamental recommendation is to mobilize a critical mass of internal and external stakeholders to fully develop, in a variety of higher education settings and communities, the model sustainable university described hereinabove.

The specific recommendations below are organized to highlight the changes that must be made internally and externally to ensure a deep commitment to sustainable development in higher education. There are two levels to these recommendations: (a) what colleges and universities should be doing themselves to advance sustainability; and (b) how to encourage these changes in higher education through the specific actions of key stakeholders. These recommendations address three critical constituencies: (1) each of the over 4000 higher education institutions in the U.S.; (2) the disciplinary and professional associations of the many academic, professional and administrative fields in higher education, and (3) the external stakeholders-particularly government, foundations, private sector employers, NGOs, media, parents and students.

Over the past decade a variety of groups have studied higher education and identified what is needed to make progress toward sustainability in higher education. The recommendations below are drawn from numerous helpful sources cited above.138

Recommendations for Incorporation of Sustainability in Teaching and Practice

(1) Higher education must commit itself to steady reform in teaching, research, faculty and staff hiring and development, operations, student opportunities, outreach, and mission and structure. More specifically, colleges and universities should:

  • Promote interdisciplinary teaching and learning to cultivate integrated thinking and decision making skills, as well as negotiation and mediation skills139; support more active and experiential learning through internships and service learning;
  • Support sustainability oriented research in all disciplines,140 utilizing "research neighborhoods" where possible141;
  • Hire faculty and staff based in part on potential contributions to interdisciplinary programs and sustainability on campus; offer faculty development for sustainability, including workshops and conferences; change tenure and promotion requirements to reward innovative scholarly focus on sustainable development and contributions to public debate and policy development142;
  • Conduct annual campus environmental assessments with public disclosure; create a multi-year plans to reform physical operations to make campuses model sustainable communities143; buy green products and use campus purchasing to leverage development of sustainable local and regional economies144;
  • Foster student engagement by creating a student environmental/sustainability center on campus145; support student activism beyond the campus146; encourage interdisciplinary and integrated thinking through internships, service learning, work study and capstone courses; reform university career services to include a major focus on environmental and sustainability related jobs147;
  • Conduct outreach that links service to wider community efforts to establish just and sustainable cities, bioregions and global economies; and
  • Encourage university presidents to sign the Talloires Declaration or make sustainability a major component of university mission statements; create official positions or offices that lend support to campus sustainability efforts.

(2) Form partnerships for sustainability with other universities and organizations, especially on the state level. This recent practice has been particularly successful, especially on a state or regional basis, and should be a first level strategy for advancing the HESD movement.

(3) Higher education leaders must speak out on the importance of a societal shift toward sustainability, as well as advocate for government funding to support interdisciplinary, environmental and development research.148

(4) Incorporate environmental reporting mechanisms into institutional sustainability action (or implementation) plans, especially with Talloires Declaration signatories. Corporate environmental reporting is an established and successful process for ensuring accountability, and it is easily adapted to higher education. Such mechanisms can accommodate individual institutions at different stages of progress toward sustainability.149

(5) Identify and disseminate best practices. Hundreds of stories and case studies describe successful environmental and sustainability initiatives in U.S. universities. One effective way to facilitate further change is to collect and disseminate these individual success stories (as well as examples of what did not work), and to elevate the visibility of the good models that already exist. European universities can also offer many exemplary models. Various European countries have made sustainable development a more central social priority than it is in the U.S. They maintain their national councils on sustainable development and encourage the use of Agenda 21 in their colleges and universities.

(6) Support research, analysis and capacity building for HESD. More research is needed to develop sustainability indicators for higher education and to conduct in-depth research and evaluation of sustainability in higher education. There are many sustainability initiatives under way. Yet the information we have on them is mostly anecdotal; we do not really know how well these initiatives are working and why. To strengthen sustainable development in higher education we need research to develop:

  • Analytic frameworks for further defining and understanding sustainability in higher education;
  • Comprehensive case studies on the range of sustainability initiatives in higher education (both in the disciplines and professions and in various types of institutions). These would be both longitudinal and cross-sectional--looking at all institutional dimensions--and analyze degrees of institutionalization as well as factors determining success or failure;
  • Formative evaluation and assessment processes that can assist institutions and disciplines in moving down the path toward sustainability;150 and
  • Regional centers for faculty development to accelerate this transition. Those locations that already embody sustainability most fully can provide education, demonstration and research services to higher education.151

Strengthening Sustainability as a Major Concern of the Disciplines and Professions

(1) For sustainability to become a priority of the university-beyond cost savings and responding to specialized demands-it must become a priority of the specialized academic organizations that influence universities. The disciplinary and professional associations largely determine what is taught in the departments and programs of the institutions through their journals, their influence upon accreditation boards, and their role in faculty development. Therefore strategies must be developed to:

  • Foster special interest groups, and strong disciplinary foci on sustainable development152;
  • Gather and present compelling information to higher education associations that highlights the long term cost advantages of many environmental improvements153; and
  • Work with college and university accreditation organizations.154 These organizations should be educated to understand the importance of sustainability and how and why colleges and universities must help develop environmentally and socially aware citizens.155

Recommendations for External Stakeholders Such as Opinion Leaders, Alumni, Employers and Funders156

(1) External stakeholders should pressure federal and state governments to move the education and research agenda of higher education toward a greater focus on sustainability. Since the federal government provides over 90% of the funding for academic research, it influences deeply the priorities for research and helps shape academic fields.157 Federal agencies such as the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) could make sustainability a major focus of higher education if those agencies made sustainability a research priority. Organizations such as NCSE, which is positioned to leverage support for sustainability teaching and research through federal agencies, should aggressively do so.158

(2) External stakeholders should actively encourage colleges and universities (especially those schools with which they are directly affiliated) to educate for a sustainable future.
Clearly if parents, students and employers demanded that college and university graduates be ecologically literate and oriented to sustainable living, higher education institutions would move rapidly in this direction. If bequests and alumni donations were directed toward sustainability initiatives, this would also encourage significant adoption of sustainable practices. The question is how to get these critical stakeholders to value and demand sustainability from higher education. It is at this level that our strategies, as advocates for HESD, must also be directed.

(3) Funders of educational initiatives (especially foundations, governments and industry) should expand their support for higher education programs (such as the ACS Environmental Initiative and the South Carolina Sustainable Universities Initiative), as well as NGO projects that promote HESD. Groups like the Funders' Forum on Environment and Education should more aggressively advocate for such support.160
(136) Essex Report, supra note 33, at 4.
(137) These factors are summarized from a discussion in Clugston & Calder, supra note 69, at 34.
(138) The Essex Report, supra note 33, for example, utilizes Blueprint for a Green Campus, the Talloires and other declarations and makes thoughtful recommendations for accelerating change toward sustainability. A more recent NWF Campus Ecology commissioned study of higher education associations and the recommendations of the National Council for Science and the Environment are also drawn upon for this section.
(139) Essex Report, supra note 33, at 18.
(140) David Orr, professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College, asserts that committed universities would "conduct research to support sustainable livelihoods, sustainable communities and ecological economics." See Richard Clugston, "A Strategy to Accelerate the Shift to Sustainability through Higher Education," The Declaration, June 1998, at 1.
(141) Model used at Georgia Tech (see Research sub-section hereinabove).
(142) Essex Report, supra note 33, at 21.
(143) David Orr suggests that successful universities would aspire to "power campuses with current sunlight plus efficiency; eliminate waste in all forms, becoming zero discharge campuses; and adopt green standards for architecture and landscaping." See Clugston, supra note 128, at 1. Abundant information exists for developing environmental management systems for campuses that achieve operational reform in a systematic and comprehensive way. See, e.g., Voorhees, supra note 115.
(144) Using, for example, the Rutgers model (see Operations sub-section hereinabove).
(145) See Blueprint for a Green Campus, supra note 31.
(146) See id.; Class of 2000 Report, supra note 34.
(147) See ACS Environmental Initiative, supra note 91; see also ULSF, Sustainability Assessment Questionnaire, available at http://www.ulsf.org/programs_saq.html (last visited Mar. 30, 2002).
(148) See Essex Report, supra note 33, at 20. NWF's 2001 survey lends support to this recommendation: 64% of those presidents and executive officers surveyed felt that "environmental programs" fit with their local culture and values; 60% claimed that government regulations "played a role in shaping their environmental programs." State of the Campus Environment, supra note 46, at 45. David Orr has been an outspoken advocate for sustainability in higher education since the mid-1980s, and many have been inspired by his writings and actions. Paul Sabin, a young and publicly engaged scholar, speaks eloquently to this issue. Sabin, supra note 71.
(149) See Walton, supra note 103; Walton et al., supra note 103. Some higher education institutions in the United Kingdom are employing environmental reporting.
(150) NEEAC's "Report to Congress II" supports this recommendation in calling for a national measure of environmental literacy, a national assessment of status of environmental education within the U.S., and other research on the effectiveness of environmental education. See Report to Congress II, 12-13. Supra note 120.
(151) See Clugston, supra note 128, at 1.
(152) See the sub-section Disciplines and Professions, hereinabove.
(153) This recommendation, the low-hanging fruit approach, is supported by Morri, supra note 123. Also, NWF's publication, Green Investment, Green Return (1998), has already been well received and deserves more promotion in this regard.
(154) Many such organizations exist in the U.S., based on geographic groupings, disciplines, and minority status.
(155) Presidents and provosts report that this is an effective way to get their attention because of pressing time commitments. See Morri, supra note 123.
(156) As Anthony Cortese observes:
Higher education is not likely to change in its direction far enough or fast enough without strong outside influence. Strong, rapid and largely unprecedented efforts by all of higher education's stakeholders are necessary to motivate the system on a path to sustainability. Students, parents, prospective employers, organizations funding research and education (government, industry and foundations) and the public are all consumers of higher education's services. If we are to encourage the educational system to produce the environmentally aware professionals and specialists needed to lead us on a sustainable path, the stakeholders must work with the higher education system in creative ways to encourage environmental education and research.
See Essex Report, supra note 33, at 18, 19.
(157) European government funding flows toward sustainability research, and because the federal governments play a key role in establishing university curricula, sustainability is more present as an organizing principle.
(158) NCSE published recommendations in 2000 urging NSF to support (a) development and evaluation of interdisciplinary curricula and their dissemination (b) campus community partnerships in order to encourage service-learning for sustainability, recruit minority students into environmental fields, and support culturally-sensitive transfer of knowledge among societal groups; and (c) training for graduate students in areas relating to sustainability and its integration into different aspects of university life. See NCSE, Recommendations for Improving the Scientific Basis for Environmental Decision Making, A Report From the First National Conference on Science, Policy, and the Environment (2000).
(159) The Essex Report, supra note 33, at 23, presents an articulate wish list for actions by parents, alumni, and future employers.
(160) Subgroup of the Environmental Grantmakers Association that promotes funding for environmental and sustainability education. See http://www.ega.org/index.cfm (last visited Mar. 30, 2002).

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