Over the course of approximately 200 conversations and interviews for our book, The Sustainable University: Green Goals and New Challenges for Higher Education Leaders (Johns Hopkins, 2012), it became apparent that while many believe the period for orientations to sustainability has passed and the movement has transitioned from one of general citizen awareness to the need for tangible solutions, many higher education administrators, especially those who came to the sustainability agenda late in their careers, still satisfy themselves with stereotypical answers even to major problems.
Additionally, the copycat qualities among many leadership teams and the ‘right thing to do’ qualities of sustainable policies and practices have combined to constrain risk-taking and innovation where it is now seriously needed on many campuses. Thus, only gradually are higher education leaders realizing that they do not need to search for only one ‘best way’ to achieve sustainability goals at their institutions.
Still, as one reporter plaintively asked in the Financial Times a few years ago, “Is there any developer these days who does not tag ‘sustainable’ onto the description of ‘executive homes’ or a condominium development?”
In response to this, Laura Matson, the original technical developer of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s new program, STARS—the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System—encouraged presidents and provosts in 2009 not to seek standard or familiar solutions but rather to build on the natural diversity of opinions among their faculty and students in designing programs to fulfill specific, sometimes unique, institutional needs.
In Matson’s view, “At some institutions, students are the major drivers of sustainability while others struggle to engage their student bodies. Likewise, institutions’ abilities to source local food, generate clean, renewable energy on site, or get employees to commute using alternative methods are influenced significantly by their local contexts. That said, institutions are also working collaboratively to overcome those local constraints by advocating for sustainability policies locally and nationally.”
As an increasing number of higher education institutions adopt mission statements that incorporate a general sustainability commitment and goals, there is a continuing belief among leaders of Second Nature and AASHE, for example, that new models to achieve these objectives still must be developed—and can succeed.
The chief architect at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency summarizes one point of view with a simple phrase: “We’re just stealth green. We don’t show it—we have no solar panels, no collectors, no whiz-bang things. We’re taking old buildings and putting them back in use and making them more green.”
We have found that there is no common path to sustainability success, and pragmatic presidents, provosts, even trustees, help their colleges and universities address this ambiguity by challenging their communities to use the time and resources necessary to define paths forward that may be unlike any competitor’s—but right for that institution.