Volume 7, No. 1: Summer 2004
CURRICULUM: Pursuing Sustainability from the Middle: The Experience
at the University of Rhode Island
By Robert Thompson and William Green
Many of us have felt a bit envious when reading about a president
at another university who has committed his or her institution
to being a leader in such things as greenhouse gas reduction or
sustainable food systems. While all of us would love to have strong
presidential leadership, such leadership may not be forthcoming
for a number of reasons. First, sustainability is a long-term
endeavor and American public university presidents typically serve
fewer than six years (Padilla & Gosh, 2000). Twenty to forty-year
plans to create a sustainable campus do not fit well into such
short tenures. Second, university presidents have extremely full
plates. Sustainability must compete for a place on the action
agenda against more traditional items such as upgrading athletic
facilities, dealing with budget cuts, and pursuing various high
tech research initiatives. Moreover, these are all issues with
well-organized constituencies. Consequently, on a continuum that
runs from strong administrative leadership down to administrative
hostility, few proponents of sustainability will enjoy a place
at the very top and most will instead find themselves somewhere
in the middle. In this article, we report some of our recent experiences
at the University of Rhode Island (URI) and make suggestions about
how to build support for campus sustainability when working from
somewhere in the middle.1
The Sustainability Movement at URI
URI's President and top administrators definitely fall well onto
the supportive side of the continuum. They have appeared at events
and spoken publicly in support of many of our sustainability projects
and events. They have given us financial support on a many occasions.
This fall, the President led a bicycle ride that inaugurated the
URIde Community Bike Share Program. However, getting to a point
where the President was leading the bicycle charge was a high
point in a continuous effort to keep the sustainability movement
going on campus. Generally speaking, we have kept the movement
going forward by looking for opportunities to interject sustainability
into discussions and decisions and by deliberately considering
barriers to participation in the movement and developing strategies
for overcoming those barriers.
While many people have worked over the years to make URI a more
environmentally and socially responsible campus, we will primarily
focus on the last few years. In 1999, a group composed of faculty,
staff, and administrators from the College of Environmental and
Life Sciences (CELS) applied for and received a grant from the
U.S. Department of Education to work on a Sustainable Communities
Initiative (SCI).2 The grant was for public education, curriculum
development, and planning for a sustainable neighborhood and a
new green building. The grant did not include adequate funds to
actually implement the neighborhood plan or to prepare construction
plans and build the building, but it did provide funds to purchase
faculty time and hire consultants. The SCI was initially a CELS,
not a URI, initiative.
The Honors Colloquium
During the fall of 2000, a core group from CELS, the URI Coastal
Resources Center, the USEPA, and the Department of Communication
Studies began meeting to discuss developing and implementing the
SCI.3 Early on, the idea emerged to put forward a proposal about
sustainability for the 2001 URI Honors Colloquium. Many universities
have some sort of campus-wide lecture series. These lecture series
provide excellent opportunities for involving people from across
campus into a discussion on sustainability. Members of the SCI
submitted a proposal for the Fall 2001 colloquium. An interdisciplinary
committee from the honors faculty reviewed all of the proposals,
interviewed the finalists, and selected the SCI proposal.
Simply preparing the proposal created opportunities for increasing
participation. Too often members of the campus community see sustainability
as an issue for those people over in the environmental sciences
or engineering. In other words, people in the humanities, arts,
professional schools, and the social sciences may not see sustainability
as their issue. When we began writing the proposal, we sought
out collaborators from across campus, explained to them why we
thought their discipline was an essential part of the discussion
on sustainability, and asked for as little or as much assistance
as they could give. Frequently, the core group received valuable
input from faculty members from outside of CELS concerning topics,
readings, and speakers. We also recruited new core faculty from
outside CELS who helped to ensure that SCI always kept a multidisciplinary
prospective. In some cases, faculty members simply gave their
name in support of the proposal. By approaching the Honors Colloquium
Committee with a multidisciplinary team and colloquium, we were
able to overcome a good deal of skepticism and make it very difficult
to dismiss sustainability as a topic that did not have appeal
Furthermore, by creating opportunities for interdisciplinary
and low investment participation, we were able to achieve broader
participation and thereby created political capital in two ways.
First, we created goodwill with numerous people and departments
by acknowledging their expertise and the significance of their
areas of concern to an intelligent exploration of sustainability-a
significance that many of them did not initially recognize. Second,
decision makers often equate apparently broad-based involvement
with an issue with strong support, because the relative "thinness"
or "thickness" of the support is not given as much consideration.
In other words, a large number of diverse and quality people providing
some support for sustainability on campus can send a stronger
message to the administration and outside community than a smaller
and less diverse group providing a larger amount of person hours.
While the latter core group must of course exist, the former must
not be neglected.
Winning the colloquium provided immediate benefits. Suddenly
sustainability was not just a matter of interest to some faculty,
staff, and students, it was the focus of one of URI's most cherished
events, which gave the topic an important infusion of legitimacy.
Although the SCI received some money from the Honors Program,
the history and significance of the colloquium enabled the SCI
to raise money to put on a lecture series that included 15 high
quality speakers as well as a film series, two art exhibits, a
day-long symposium, a poetry slam, and a cabaret show. In other
words, we were able to inundate the campus and larger community
with topics in sustainability for an entire semester.4 Not only
was the overall Honors Colloquium a large opportunity window that
provided a chance to propel sustainability to the forefront of
university discussion, the fund raising process itself created
numerous occasions for participation and overcoming barriers.
SCI approached the Office of the Provost, the dean of every college,
many department chairs, and the heads of research institutes for
financial support for the colloquium. We also received support
from numerous outside organizations. The amount of the contribution
was in many ways less important than the opportunity to discuss
how sustainability was an important campus-wide issue directly
linked to the way we operated our campus and teach our students.
Another important aspect of getting some support from many colleges,
departments, and institutes was that it allowed us to include
them as sponsors on all of our publicity, sending a message to
the campus community and the state that sustainability was widely
supported at URI. Creating this broad based support for sustainability
was critical for building political capital.
In an important sense, every event in the colloquium provided
members of the URI community a potentially high payoff for relatively
little effort. In a sense, free riding-where individuals take
advantage of the collective effort without contributing (Olson,
1965)-was impossible. If one partook in the fruits of the colloquium
(the lectures, poetry slam, the cabaret, symposium, movies, art
exhibits, etc.), they were showing support for sustainability
and aiding the collective effort. Head counts mattered because
each seat filled was a vote for the importance of the topic. Many
departments also took the opportunity to have the speakers come
to classes and meet with faculty.
Because we had a wide variety of speakers, they were able to
help the audiences to "see" social justice and environmental
problems across scales, from global warming to dumping our environmental
problems on poor communities in the region to environmental problems
right on campus. Moreover, the campus community was able to hear
different perspectives on these problems because the speakers
came from a wide array of disciplines. Clearly, the speakers won
us converts. Many of them were simply more eloquent than we were.
At other times, though, we believe that faculty members were more
open to listening to someone from their own discipline who spoke
their own language.
The events were also seen by many attendees from the campus and
outside community as a public commitment to take sustainability
seriously. This message was repeated the next day because the
events resulted in at least 64 newspaper articles. Even though
it was not a public statement from the very top of the university,
the readers repeatedly saw URI and sustainability closely linked
in newspaper articles over the course of the semester. Members
of the sustainability coalition began to talk about ways to show
a commitment to sustainability on campus. Similarly, students
who were taking the course or just attending events started to
look for reasonably sized projects that they could take on to
improve the environmental performance on campus.
An important part of the SCI involved the development of a sustainable
campus neighborhood for the north side of campus. A committee
of faculty and staff was charged with creating a definition of
a sustainable neighborhood and also developing criteria for selecting
a consulting team to plan and design the project. A design team
was selected in January 2002 that consisted of McDonough and Associates,
Adam St Gross, BioHabitats, and BETA Engineering.
The decision to focus the planning effort on the northeast quadrant
of campus made sense for a number of reasons. First, discussions
were in the early stages for a new building demonstrating green
technologies and it would be located in this part of campus. Second,
many of the departments in CELS are located in this part of campus
and students in these departments would be among the greatest
beneficiaries of this new learning landscape. Third, taking on
the entire campus was financially infeasible and more politically
risky. Instead, we hoped to lead by example. Fourth, the North
Campus District was large enough to start looking at campus management
more holistically than is possible with individual projects. In
fact, the inventory, analysis, and proposed actions extended beyond
the official planning area because we needed to look at such issues
as hydrology, forest cover, and intermodal transportation.
The planning process included numerous meetings with user groups
and the planning team. There were informal information gathering
sessions and public meetings with the planning team. There was
also a daylong charrette and several public presentations by the
consultants. This process created another round of opportunities
for the campus community to participate at various levels of commitment.
Quite importantly, it created a public process for debating how
sustainability might be pursued and achieved at URI.
This process of exploring sustainable management of our everyday
landscape required the consultants and the participants to deal
with what Kahn (1999) calls generational ecological amnesia. Most
people seemed never to have given much, if any, thought to how
our local ecological processes and our human interactions with
them had changed over time. The consultants provided an ecological
history of the campus, starting around 15,000 years ago when the
glaciers receded and left the ridge of glacial till and the glacial
outwash plain upon which the URI campus now rests. Using historic
maps and aerial photographs, the consultants showed how the original
land grant college with its fields, orchards, forest cover, and
streams had evolved into a rather suburban campus with little
closed tree canopy, no remaining orchards, piped streams and large
expanses of buildings and parking lots. Through the presentation,
participants could see in a few minutes the dramatic changes that
had happened over so many years that had gone largely unnoticed.
Many participants also began to replace incomplete mental models
with ones that more accurately explained ecological processes.
For example, even though URI sits largely within the recharge
area for a sole source aquifer, most people seemed to have given
very little thought to the fate of storm water. As the consultants
discussed topics such as non-point source water pollution, URI's
conventional stormwater sewer system, and stormwater infiltration,
a number of people began to discuss a small pond in the project
area. Water flowed into the pond from a large underground pipe
and then over a dam and back into another pipe. Some people had
walked past the pond for years without thinking about it. Others
admitted to never having noticed it. Now they were trying to figure
out where the water was coming from, where it was going, and whether
the former creek could be day-lighted and restored. Soon the restoration
of parts of the creek, the design for stormwater management, and
infiltration were major organizing principles for the various
plans. The initial designs were intended to be aesthetically pleasing,
sustainable and educational.
Another important site in the neighborhood was the Learning Landscape,
which was designed and built as a demonstration in conjunction
with an effort to develop a Sustainable Plant List for Southern
New England. Demonstration sites provide an opportunity to highlight
the shortcomings of the conventional ways we build our campuses.
Quite importantly, smaller demonstration sites are more readily
achievable than campus-wide efforts. The project was funded through
a USDA Grant for Low Impact Sustainable Agriculture. It was a
collaborative effort between the URI, University of Massachusetts
Cooperative Extension, and the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape
Association. Its purpose was to develop a list of sustainable
trees and shrubs suitable for southern New England that reflected
a heightened environmental concern about the use of pesticides
and herbicides as well as the problem of invasive exotic species
and those requiring excessive care. The list was distributed by
the Cooperative Extension (RI and MA) and is available on the
Internet.5 Many of the plants included on the list were used in
a demonstration garden that was designed and installed at URI
as part of its Learning Landscape.
The Learning Landscape that was created in 1994 and has grown
to include a children's garden, outdoor classroom, a small fish
pond, an ericacae garden, and perennial gardens, has done much
to educate the community while also being an example of an alternative
to traditional garden forms. The garden has served many functions
well. 1) It has helped displace a faulty cultural model of good
landscapes and helped make people aware of environmental problems.
2) By having a functional and aesthetically appealing demonstration
garden, it has helped to show that problems associated with landscaping
are surmountable and that attractive alternatives are achievable.
3) It is evidence of the value of collaboration between disciplines
on campus and with organizations off campus. 4) It makes a public
statement and creates the possibility of public inconsistency
within the university, while at the same time being a physical
example of what more of the campus could become. 5) It shows the
practicality of implementation and avoids strident positions (like
"natives" only) which would make it easier to dismiss.
One of the failings of the sustainable plant list is that it
has not become official university policy. Indeed, apparently
no concerted effort has been made to turn it into a requirement
for campus landscaping. One of the failings of the Learning Landscape
itself was that it lacked signage and, thus, transparency in that
many visitors were not aware of its purpose or how it functioned.
Instead, they simply saw a beautiful garden.
Nonetheless, when the sustainable neighborhood planning process
began, the gardens played an important role in the discussions.
As a successful model of unconventional design, people started
to advocate expanding the gardens and creating corridors of sustainable
landscaping that would link the gardens and the entire neighborhood
while teaching the values of sustainability and ecology.
When the plans were prepared for the sustainable neighborhood,
the designers accounted for new buildings and those in need of
repair. They proposed new pedestrian paths, transit nodes, and
relocated "green" parking areas, thereby creating a
pedestrian core. They made recommendations for photovoltaic roof
systems, groundwater collections systems, and roof gardens as
well as other sustainable practices. Last fall, the sustainable
neighborhood plan was used at a photo opportunities for another
project. When the Governor came to campus to announce the launching
of a $60 million dollar initiative for a new biotech building,
the drawings of the sustainable neighborhood, which was the neighborhood
into which the new building would be sited, formed the backdrop
for the news conference, presumably because the plans looked good
and we had included a footprint for the proposed building. Quite
importantly, the new Governor and the media got a glimpse of the
vision for the sustainable future.
Momentum and Continuing Endeavors
Pursuing sustainability at a university is a continuous and perhaps
never-ending process. In our case, we are optimistic about the
future. One of the most exciting and gratifying outcomes of the
SCI thus far is that many students have been energized by the
process and have undertaken numerous initiatives. For example,
a new student group formed: Down to Earth, Up to Us. This group
organizes and participates in concrete activities focused on sustainability.
Among other things, members are active in developing a demonstration
of green energy alternatives on campus and in encouraging green
purchasing. One of its members organized the URIde Community Bike
Share Program, which has provided a fleet of recycled bikes, free
of charge, for use on campus by students, staff, and faculty.
Another student group, Students for a Sustainable Peace, formed
during the days preceding the war with Iraq. They held a number
of public events that explicitly made the connection between our
economic dependence on oil, a fundamentalist approach to global
trade, global disparities in wealth, and the looming prospect
The SCI will soon launch its sustainability curriculum, which
will start with a minor and then later add a major. The curriculum
development has had many similarities to the development of the
Honors Colloquium. We sought out participation from every college
on campus. While we asked professors to include existing courses,
we also asked professors to modify existing courses and to develop
new ones. We asked for proposals and offered some summer funding
to provide incentives for course development and modification.
Thus far, we have faculty from 14 different departments participating
in the development of new or modified curriculum. At least five
other departments are interested in participating in the minor.
With the new curriculum the message that sustainability is an
important issue at URI that transcends traditional academic boundaries
will continue to be sent out. We have also asked faculty to include
the examination of on-campus behaviors in their courses, thereby
making the curriculum an ongoing vehicle to push the campus to
continue to pursue more sustainable practices.
The SCI has begun an ongoing series of Sustainability Learning
Circles. These learning circles have enabled students, faculty,
and staff to come together over lunch to discuss connections between
the values of sustainability and their daily lives. A sustainable
lending library has been created as a resource for the learning
circles and as a resource for the entire campus community.
Perhaps most the most exciting and promising development has
been that URI staff and administrators who are involved in planning,
construction, and facilities management have taken the lead on
several projects. The Director of Facilities has been working
to install low-energy lighting. The Continuing Education Center
is installing solar shingles. A coalition of staff, faculty and
students are close to installing wind power on campus. When the
University decided to use impervious paving materials on two parking
lots, it allowed over 10 million gallons of rainwater annually
to recharge the aquifer instead of being rushed into storm drains.
The people in charge of facilities at URI recently formed a waste
minimization committee to implement the Peer Center's Environmental
Management System.6 They are first implementing EMS at the library
and then expand it to all of the campus.
Quite importantly, sustainability is becoming a design criterion
for URI building ential learning on campus. The campus architects
have stated that they want the new student apartments to be green
and to also further the educational mission of the campus. Committee
members for the renovation of one of our most historic buildings
are now starting to say that the renovation must be green. The
professionals involved in planning, building and operations on
campus are going to hold an all day sustainable design workshop
that will allow everyone on campus.
So where is the push for sustainability coming from at URI now?
Is it coming from the top or somewhere in the middle? It seems
to be emerging from different places all over campus, and this
is the way it should be. Administrators come and go, but campus
culture endures. Thus, a sustainability movement will fully succeed
only when sustainability is an integral part of that culture.
Kahn, P. (1999), The Human Relationship with Nature: Development
and Culture, The MIT Press, Cambridge.
Olsen, M. (1965), The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods
and the Theory of Groups, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Padilla, A. and Ghosh, S. (2000) "Turnover at the Top: The
Revolving Door of the Academic Presidency", The Presidency,
Vol 3 No 1, 30-37
1 The authors have a paper forthcoming in the International
Journal of Sustainability of Higher Education that provides
a more detailed argument concerning the institutional structure
of American universities and strategies for pushing sustainability
onto the university's "action agenda" and working to
implement sustainability incrementally through discrete projects.
2 For more about the URI SCI, see www.uri.edu/sustainability.
3 For the remainder of this article, the pronoun "we"
is used to refer to this entire core working group and not just
4 The speakers included Lester Brown, the Founder and Chairman
of the Board for Worldwatch Institute and the President of the
Earth Policy Institute; Penn Loh, Executive Director of Alternatives
for Community and Environment (ACE), based in Roxbury, Massachusetts;
Eileen Claussen, the President of the Pew Center on Climate Change;
William McDonough, Principal in McDonough and Associates and Professor
of Business Administration; Geoffrey Heal, Paul Garrett Professor
of Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility, Columbia University
School of Business; Amory Lovins, Co-founder and CEO, The Rocky
Mountain Institute; Timothy Beatley, Professor of Urban and Environmental
Planning, University of Virginia; David Orr, Chair of the Environmental
Studies Program, Oberlin College; Laura Westra, Professor Emeritus,
Department of Philosophy, University of Windsor; Deborah DuNann
Winter, Professor of Psychology, Whitman College; Larry Rasmussen,
Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological
Seminary; Magnus Ngoile, Director General for the National Environment
Management Council, Tanzania; Fatima Gailani, former ambassador
for the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan; Richard McIntyre,
Professor of Economics, University of Rhode Island; and George
DeMartino, Professor of International Economics, University of
5 The list can be found at http://www.uri.edu/research/sustland/.
The list is now in its third edition and the website has had nearly
6 See http://www.peercenter.net/whatisems/.
Robert Thompson is an assistant professor of Marine Affairs
at the University of Rhode Island. His research includes the local
government responses to global climate change, coastal management,
and the methods for improving the environmental behavior of individuals.
William Green is an associate professor of Landscape Architecture
at the University of Rhode Island with more than 25 years of professional
experience. His focus at URI is on sustainable community design
and on participatory design studios.
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