Harold Glasser and Andrew Nixon
century will likely be confronted with unprecedented environmental,
political, and security challenges. While the global economy has
generally become more materials and energy efficient, both global
population and per-capita consumption continue to rise-and generate
with them increasingly destructive impacts. Those of us in the
United States represent 4.5% of the world's population, yet we
consume roughly 25% of its resources. The necessity for consumption
increases in the least well-off nations is obvious, but where
to stop and how to reduce and manage the impacts associated
with consumption are anything but obvious.
you read this, the consumption habits and lifestyles of more than
14 million college students are being shaped in our nation's academic
institutions and most of them, in David Orr's words, are being
taught to be "more effective vandals of the earth" (Orr,
1994: 5). The United States' almost 4,000 universities and colleges-as
generators of ideas, products, and expectations-serve as trendsetters
and beacons for the future. They also act as microcosms of society-housing
and feeding people, performing research, maintaining facilities,
purchasing, administering projects, investing, balancing budgets,
and, hopefully, adhering to environmental laws. In performing
these activities, they consume tremendous amounts of water, energy,
toxic chemicals, natural resources, consumer products, labor,
and capital and thus generate a huge ecocultural wake. At this
point you might be inclined to ask, "How well are our academic
institutions preparing the nation's college students to make wise
personal, political, and economic decisions for the change-filled
and potentially volatile century before them?"
recent study by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) represents
the first attempt to comprehensively assess the state of environmental
and sustainability initiatives at institutions of higher learning
in the United States (McIntosh, et. al., 2001). The NWF's goal
was to assess the extent to which awareness of sustainability
issues and environmental concern have actually spawned new initiatives
in institutional mission, curriculum, and operations. While some
significant strides have been made in particular areas and at
particular institutions, the general trend is rather dismal (Glasser,
2001). Only 8% of the responding institutions report requiring
all students to take a course on environmental issues and only
3% of the other institutions stated that they have plans to institute
such a requirement. While 64% of the responding presidents cited
fitting in with the culture and values of the campus as the key
reason for developing environmental programs, they cited government
regulations (60%) as the primary factor that shapes environmental
programs-over student, faculty, staff, or alumni interest. Yet
it is interesting to note that in recent years, Brown, Yale, Columbia,
Princeton, Long Island University, and New Jersey University have
all been cited by the EPA for alleged mishandling of hazardous
wastes (Brainard, 2002). In general, the vast majority of presidents
stated that they have no plans to strengthen or refine existing
policies or standards. The NWF study clearly demonstrates that
academia has a long way to go.
society is to initiate a midcourse correction, a deep rethinking
of the role and responsibilities of higher education will be in
order. We will need to take a fresh (and honest) look at where
we are, how we got here, and where we want to go. We will need
an ecoculturally literate citizenry that recognizes how science,
technology, language, lifestyles, economic incentives, policies,
and values all join together to engender patterns of unsustainablity.
Ecological economics, industrial ecology, and green architecture
will likely be integral parts of a solution, but they alone cannot
constitute the solution. We will need more materials and
energy efficient economies to diminish our dependence on fossil
fuels and toxic substances and facilitate the transition to economies
based on renewable energy and cyclic use of materials. We will
need to learn from natural systems to create more ecoculturally
sensitive design, engineering, agriculture, waste treatment, forestry,
and fisheries management. But we must also scrutinize the deep
cultural assumptions that promote and perpetuate patterns of unsustainability-our
commitment to unlimited progress, the ease with which we privilege
new knowledge over ancient wisdom, our naive embracing of technological
optimism. Probing these assumptions should improve our ability
to recognize the connections between our actions and their effects
on the world. This may free us to eliminate the perverse incentives
and social traps that make it unpopular to confront consumption,
stabilize population, rethink land-use and transportation, and
grapple with environmental justice, biopiracy, and equity concerns-issues
that are driven more by social norms and values than technology.
Bowers has cogently observed, "The world has problems and
the universities have departments." Another paradox is that
when academics do study critical social problems, we rarely invest
time and effort to invent creative solutions to these problems.
The intellectual, institutional, operational, and lifestyle changes
that are necessary to bring about an ecoculturally sustainable
society are complex and they will necessarily involve difficult
tradeoffs and conflicts-but they are not insurmountable. Institutions
of higher learning are uniquely positioned to help usher in this
transition to a more sustainable world. They must, however, learn
how to balance developing disciplinary expertise and acquiring
basic knowledge with cultivating ecocultural literacy and solving
real-world problems. At the same time, they must equip students
to transcend disciplinary shackles-to think "out-of-the-box."
Finally, institutions of higher learning must demonstrate their
commitment to make society more sustainable by incorporating sustainability
considerations directly into teaching, research, operations, facilities
management, purchasing, and their interactions with local and
One bright star on the horizon is the "campus sustainability
assessment" (CSA) movement. The idea of sustainability assessment
is a logical extension of the concept of "environmental impact
assessment," which dates back to 1970 and the National Environmental
Policy Act. We define a CSA as any structured attempt to assess
quantitatively or qualitatively one or more aspects of an academic
institution's ecocultural wake or the institutional characteristics
that shape its ecocultural wake. We use the term "ecocultural
wake" to refer to the collection of direct and indirect effects
on both society and the environment (both positive and negative)
that are associated with one or more aspects of an institution's
activities. CSAs come in two primary forms. A focused CSA
examines either one aspect of an institution's policies or practices
(e.g., water or energy or education) or multiple
aspects of an institutional subsystem (e.g., a building or a department/college).
A comprehensive CSA examines multiple aspects of the entire
institution's policies and practices (e.g., solid waste, air,
purchasing, and research).
first comprehensive CSA attempts were in Germany, the Netherlands,
Sweden, and the United Kingdom in the 1980s. The first significant
comprehensive CSA in the U.S., the "In Our Backyard"
study by a group of six Environmental Planning graduate students
from the University of California at Los Angeles, dates back to
1989. As of 2001, there have been more than 500 projects in the
United States and hundreds internationally that use the campus
as a living laboratory to study resource flows and other aspects
of an academic institution's ecocultural wake. By creating opportunities
to gather a broad array of baseline data on the functioning of
a campus, successful CSAs represent the first step in wise planning
for any academic institution that aspires to become more sustainable.
Assessing "where you are" and "where you want to
go" are logical preconditions for setting achievable goals
and targets-signposts that help map the way to a sustainable future.
CSAs can give meaning to the phrase, "Think globally, act
locally." Their beauty lies in the open, transparent manner
in which they take the "sustainability pulse" of an
academic institution. Their authority comes from an ability to
blend pedagogy and problem-solving in a manner that stimulates
and encourages continuous improvement in environmental performance.
By bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders to engage
in a collaborative assessment of an institution's strengths and
weaknesses and a hopeful conversation about its future, they can
help create a safer, healthier, more vital campus, and a culture
committed to sustainability.
CSAs have focused on energy, solid waste, hazardous substances,
recycling, or landscaping, while others have concentrated on dimensions
such as procurement policies, campus design and growth, environmental
health and safety, and environmental literacy. By identifying
issues and opportunities, a CSA can help an institution to promote
regulatory compliance, decrease liability risk, and reduce operation
and maintenance costs. In several cases, CSA reports have identified
more environmentally or socially sound practices and policies
that have enabled institutions to both reduce their ecocultural
wake and save money. Many of these reports, however, are piecemeal
and theoretically deficient. In all cases the full potential of
these projects has been diminished by poor intra- and inter-institutional
coordination and by inadequate assessment resources.
Campus Sustainability Assessment Review Project
We created the "Campus Sustainability Assessment Review Project"
in 2000 to address these voids and answer a variety of unresolved
questions. How has the CSA movement, primarily in the U.S., changed
over time? What is its current status? What qualifies as "best
practice"? Can the progress and pitfalls of the CSA movement
be described succinctly? A disclaimer may be in order. Our goals
were rather narrow and limited to assessing the characteristics,
depth, breadth, and quality of the CSA corpus. We have made no
formal effort to evaluate the success of particular CSAs from
the standpoint of their ability to generate changes on their respective
campuses (this is more in the realm of the NWF study). Our ultimate
goal has been to use this research to promote the CSA movement
by advancing the process of performing high-quality, contextually
appropriate CSAs and thereby also facilitate the "greening"
of higher education, in general.
outline of our approach may be helpful. First, we created an annotated
bibliography of CSA and related literature. Second, we amassed
the world's largest "hard copy" library of extant CSAs
(U.S. and select international). Third, we constructed a searchable
CSA database, which contains an overview of each assessment project,
detailed information on the categories and indicators it considered,
and up-to-date contact information. Fourth, we used this database
to help us evaluate the assessment corpus and identify current
"best practices" in each assessment dimension. Fifth,
we interviewed a small set of key leaders in the CSA arena to
learn first-hand about their "successes and messes."
Finally, because each academic institution has a unique set of
resources and faces a unique set of challenges, we are currently
in the process of using the information we have gleaned to develop
a set of guidelines, indicators, metrics, and templates to help
individuals and institutions perform their own contextually appropriate,
"exemplary" CSAs. This research will become available
on the web in late 2003.
database incorporates sixteen major categories-Institutional characteristics,
CSA Project and Team characteristics, and fourteen sustainability
characteristics, including Air, Built Environment, Business and
Management, Culture and Community, Education, Energy, Food, Hazardous
Substances, Land, Purchasing, Research, Solid Waste, Transportation,
and Water-which represent 127 indicators. While we currently have
950 CSAs in our database, we limit our reporting here to those
CSAs available to us up through 2001-778 in total. This data is
drawn from nine countries and 272 academic institutions worldwide,
although 94% are from the U.S. and Canada. We therefore make no
attempt to make any claims about the status of CSAs worldwide.
What follows is a brief overview of what we have learned.
correcting for unusual events, such as the Earth Day 1990 Campus
Environmental Audit Campaign, the total number of CSAs conducted
each year has risen gradually. More institutions, however, are
jumping on the CSA bandwagon-four times as many in 1999 as a decade
earlier. Conducting CSAs appears to be significantly more popular
at public institutions (64%) than private (36%). Focused CSAs
represent the bulk of the corpus (77%), while comprehensive CSAs
make up the other 23%. The most plausible explanations for this
phenomenon are the relative difficulty and complexity of performing
a comprehensive CSA and the time and resource commitments that
they demand. Of the 179 comprehensive CSAs for which we have data,
130 are at unique institutions. This suggests that at least 49
institutions (38%) are performing follow-up CSAs and thus have
the ability to use this data on how their ecocultural wake is
changing over time to improve planning.
have detailed information on the categories considered for 679
CSAs. The sustainability categories most commonly addressed include
Energy (45%), Solid Waste (42%), Land (31%) and Water (28%). In
contrast, less than ten percent of this group considered Business
and Management (8%), Culture and Community (5%), Education (9%),
or Research (4%). When these categories were addressed, they were
almost always part of a comprehensive CSA (80% or greater likelihood).
This phenomenon is readily explainable. Reports tend to favor
easily quantifiable, direct impacts over indirect impacts (e.g.,
Purchasing), qualitative, social impacts (e.g., Culture and Community
and Education), and difficult to quantify impacts and processes
(e.g., Business and Management). Furthermore, categories such
as Energy, Water, and Solid Waste offer the greatest potential
for near-term financial savings. Nevertheless, there has been
a growing tendency to broaden the scope of the comprehensive CSA
process by addressing these previously under-represented categories.
It is important to note that there has been no corresponding trend
to expand the total number of categories considered in the typical
CSA. We do, however, see a trend, especially with comprehensive
CSAs over the past few years, to follow pre-existing, structured
have detailed data on CSA team composition for 606 CSAs. The majority
(67%) were conducted as student course projects. Student course
projects make up 73% of all focused CSAs and 30% of all comprehensive
CSAs. Other team types for comprehensive CSAs include: task forces
(18%), environmental management systems (17%), operations staff
(16%), student organizations (16%), student theses (10%), and
independent parties (2%). In contrast, the other team types for
focused CSAs include: operations staff (20%), task force (2%),
independent parties (1.3%), student organizations (1.2%), environmental
management systems (1%), and student theses (1%). Analysis of
CSA team trends reveals that the task force and environmental
management system (EMS) are growing in popularity for comprehensive
CSAs. They are the only team types whose share of comprehensive
CSAs increased over time; most others, in fact, declined. Trend
data also reveal that student course projects are an increasingly
popular approach for performing focused CSAs.
summary, the typical CSA does involve students throughout
its process and results in a public report that discusses guiding
principles and makes specific recommendations for improvement.
The typical CSA does not receive administrative support,
result in a report with a sophisticated action plan, significantly
involve staff throughout its process, or receive substantial publicity
throughout its process.
"best practice" evaluation was based on a thorough review
and multi-criteria assessment of fifty-five CSAs. This subset
of the corpus was chosen by a screening process that evaluated
each CSA according to the following four selection criteria: assessment
scope (focus on comprehensive CSAs), report quality, representation
(reflect corpus diversity-annual and national distributions and
categories addressed), and non-redundancy (limit reports from
the same institution and those that use the same assessment framework).
The CSAs chosen for detailed evaluation represented 38 public
and 17 private institutions. Seven were from Canada and 7 others
were from Europe. Forty-two were comprehensive and 13 were focused.
Forty-one represented baseline studies and 14 were follow-up studies.
Sixteen were conducted by task forces, 6 were conducted by operations
staff, 8 were conducted as student theses, 7 were conducted by
student organizations, 16 were conducted as student course projects,
and 3 were conducted as part of a formal, university-wide environmental
treat focused CSAs and comprehensive CSAs in an unbiased manner
we used a simple additive weighting scheme that gave equal weight
to three assessment dimensions: assessment depth, report content,
and report presentation, which were represented by thirteen assessment
criteria. The total scores were normalized to a value of ten.
A fourth, independent dimension, assessment scope, was used to
reflect the number of assessment categories that were addressed.
The top twenty-five reports are represented in Figure 1, "Best
Practice" Landmarks. Figure 2 identifies the reports that
best satisfied our criteria for each of the fourteen individual
sustainability assessment categories.
1. "Best Practice" Landmarks
2. "Best Practice" - Individual Assessment Categories
scores for the fifty-five reviewed CSAs ranged from 2.0 to 9.9;
the average score was 5.6. Fourteen of the fifty-five reviewed
CSAs received a score of 7.0 or higher-we consider these to truly
represent "best practice." We learned three primary
lessons from the best practice evaluation. First, "best practice"
CSAs are at least a North American and Western European phenomenon.
Six of the fourteen top CSAs were non-U.S., which represents nearly
50% of the non-U.S. CSAs reviewed. In addition, three of the four
non-U.S. countries represented in this evaluation are in this
top group of fourteen. Second, "best practice" CSAs
share at least four common report characteristics. They all clearly
stated their goals and objectives; they all provided information
to facilitate decision-making; they all recommended specific actions;
and they all provided rationale for their recommended actions.
Third, although this sample size is very small, it shows a demonstrable
improvement in CSA scores over time. Average scores increased
over the past decade from 4.7 to 7.1.
While being "less bad" is clearly not good enough as
a guiding principle for the future-it does represent a start.
If you are on a collision course with an iceberg, avoiding it
(if only for the time being) is a most promising turn of events.
CSAs, if performed and publicized effectively, can help us to
confront our institutions' sustainability pulse. By helping us
to see the aggregated effects of our collective decisions over
time, they help to turn the focus toward the future. They help
us to see that while you can import wood or plant a tree farm,
you can't simply import the climate stabilizing, habitat, recreation,
and flood control benefits that an intact ancient forest provides.
Such information frequently leads to overload and paralysis, but
by sharing our successes, we can foster the courage and inspiration
to do something about it.
search of anecdotal information on the success of CSAs, we sent
out a questionnaire to 23 key leaders in the CSA movement. We
received 13 responses. Albeit a small sample size, it did convince
us that high-quality CSAs can yield some very promising results.
All respondents generally concurred that CSAs helped to stimulate
awareness of sustainability issues on their campuses. In 5 cases,
a campus sustain-ability/environmental coordinator was hired after
the CSA; in 3 cases a campus-wide sustainability committee was
created; and in 2 cases a campus environmental/sus-tainability
mission statement was created. Such heartening information may
embolden us to chart a new course for a more sustainable and desirable
we make no claims to the effect that "more information will
definitely lead to more intelligent behavior toward the environment
or, ultimately, improved decision making," we are claiming
that acquiring a landscape view of our ecocultural wake and drawing
attention to the downstream consequences of our actions are necessary
prerequisites for wise decision-making. As with the famous adage
about voting, we believe that CSAs should be conducted regularly
and often (but generally not more than every few years-as they
require a considerable investment in time, effort, and cost).
We hope that our work, by improving the information on CSAs, by
outlining their many benefits, and by creating resources for conducting
them, will help to spark a host of new, high-quality CSA initiatives.
It is possible to create a sustainable and desirable world, one
college and university at a time.
Brainard, Jeffrey, "EPA Office Files Hazardous-Waste Complaints
Against Three More Universities," The Chronicle of Higher
Education (11/12 2002). Online version: http://chronicle.com/daily/2002/11/20021111203n.htm
Harold. "Murky Grades on Campus Sustainability: A Survey
Reveals a Widespread Unwillingness to Make the Environment a High
Priority." AGB Trusteeship 10 (2 2002): 34-35.
Mary with Kathleen Cacciola, Stephen Clermont, and Julian Keniry;
Survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates. State
of the Campus Environment: A Natonal Report Card on Environmental
Performance and Sustainability in Higher Education. National
Wildlife Federation, 2001. www.nwf.org/campusecology/stateofthe
Andrew. "Improving the Campus Sustainability Assessment Process."
Undergraduate Honors Thesis, Western Michigan University, 2002.
David W. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human
Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1994.
Glasser is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies
Program at Western Michigan University and Director of the Campus
Sustainability Assessment Project. Andrew Nixon is a Postgraduate
Researcher in the same program. Their research on campus sustainability
assessment, which most recently has been very generously supported
by the Wege Foundation, will become available on the web in late
2003. They can be reached at: Environmental Studies Program, Western
Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008; tel: 269-387-2713; fax:
269-387-2272; e-mail: email@example.com
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