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A Conversation with Jim Samels and Jim Martin

University Business, April 2013

University Business readers know Jim Samels and Jim Martin as the coauthors of the long running “Future Shock” column in each issue and online. The column covers a broad range of topics from higher education management and leadership issues to community relations and sustainable thinking.

In June, the pair will be featured speakers at the UBTech conference in Orlando, presenting “Myths and Realities of Campus Sustainability: 10 Questions to Ask Before You Pledge Financial Allegiance to Green Energy and Technology Solutions.”

Samels is founder and chief executive officer of both The Education Alliance and The Samels Group, a full-service, higher-education consulting firm specializing in academic planning and program development, enrollment management, campus and systemwide change management, strategic alliances, new academic program development, executive leadership search and organizational development, international education, and distance learning.

Martin has taught courses in higher education management in the graduate program of education at Boston College and is a tenured professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.). With Samels, Martin has coauthored five books for higher education leaders, including their most recent The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins, 2012), which has become recognized as a valuable resource for presidents, provosts, and board members.

Sustainability needs to be more than a buzzword on campuses today, they say. Whether you are running the institution or involved in making decisions about how “green” your campus needs to be, there is a series of questions that must be addressed to stay on top of the game. Although their presentation in Orlando will focus on fiscal sustainability issues, the conversation that follows conveys some of the broader issues of sustainability featured in their book.

When they hear “sustainability,” many people think of recycling, solar panels, and biomass. But in a university setting, it means so much more. What are some of the other areas of which universities, especially, must be aware?

The difference for those on campus when thinking about sustainability goes beyond wind, solar, and biomass—it includes the incentivization of literacy, practice, and behavior of sustainability. This involves such simple campus regulations as hybrid parking spaces, alternative bicycle transportation, closing the circle on recycling and conserving energy usage on campus.

But where some people don’t think of sustainability is in the administration of an institution. We’re not just talking about the standard trayless cafeteria. In the curriculum, for example, we are increasingly seeing institutions adding a one-credit requirement to their curriculum, not in environmental studies, but in sustainability thinking or sustainable decision-making.

Sustainability also extends to faculty. In some schools, we are seeing faculty buck the trend of course reductions to maintain, if not increase, faculty teaching loads. That’s another form of sustainability. It eliminates or reduces the need for adjunct faculty, and has a beneficial effect on the budget. We are also seeing advisor responsibilities assigned to the entire faculty at an institution so the school doesn’t have to hire outside advisors. Sustainability really is an institutional commitment.

Students are increasingly adding sustainability to their college choice criteria. In your book, you talk about finding niches and marketing to them. Give us an example.

Students want to see sustainability in the classroom and beyond. What this means is having courses if not degree programs in sustainability, environmental studies, and natural resource management. At the campus level, it also means offering students recognized activities in fields allied to sustainability, such as environmental science clubs.

As an example, we can point to Northland College (Wis.). They’ve developed a program called Lake Superior Studies, born of their region. In addition to regional history, it explores approaches to sustainable decision-making, planning, and environmental thinking. Another one is at North Country Community College (N.Y.). They’ve developed partnerships with the local community to provide academic programs to educate students and to give back.

Before the recession, sustainability was something many colleges and universities made a priority. Has that changed significantly in the “new” economy?

That’s an easy question. After The Sustainable University came out, we had many presidents come to us for advice because their boards were putting new pressures on them to do more with less. You might think that we are past the toughest times economically. While that’s true, college and university boards are of the mindset that things cannot and will not go back to the way they were before. We are dealing with a new normal. These days, sustainability is a moral imperative. That said, in the wake of the recession, the watchwords are pragmatic sustainability. What this means is investing in projects that will have near-term, demonstrable payoffs for campus stakeholders.

How does a school move beyond paying lip service to the idea of sustainability to making it an institutional way of life?

The best way is by asking your president—or hiring a president—to be the number one advocate for sustainability on campus.

As examples of this, we can point to Jo Ann Gora at Ball State University (Ind.), who wrote a chapter in our book about how presidents can be sustainability cheerleaders, and Charles Middleton, who has spearheaded a number of sustainability initiatives at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

You can also move beyond lip service by chartering a local Center of Sustainability, attracting a confluence of student, faculty, business, and civic interests and participations. You can convene a sustainability speakers series, serving as a high-visibility venue of new ideas. Another way is to hire a dedicated sustainability director.

How important is a sustainability director in the grand picture? Will we see more instances of this title on campuses?

When we were researching our book a couple years ago, we worked with AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), a group that everyone should know. At that time, out of more than 4,000 institutions in the U.S., no more than 600 had a dedicated director or coordinator of sustainability. While the number may not yet have exceeded 1,000, there’s no question the title is one that is on the rise now.

We strongly recommend hiring that title because it provides the campus with a center and focus to the idea of sustainable thinking. The director of sustainability can come in and own the issue on campus, offering workshops and providing faculty assistance in developing curriculum and guidance to budget
managers in saving money.

Now, though it would be ideal to have a full-time dedicated director or coordinator of sustainability on every campus, fiscal reality dictates that there is more than one way to skin a cat on this one. Simply designating a ready, willing, and able staff or faculty member as sustainability coordinator can effectuate significant progress and achieve vertical integration of sustainability initiatives.

You’ve said, “Sustainability is about clear strategic planning, not about which brand of solar panels to use.” Can you elaborate?

Because campuses are driven by both individual and collective action, the key to raising awareness and commitment to sustainability comes from incorporating these outcomes into the long-range goals and near-term objectives contained in the campus strategic plan—and then making it happen on a timely and economic basis. Campus stakeholders must sense that the leadership at the top is committed to environmental stewardship and long-range sustainability.
It has to be incorporated into the plan or it will not succeed to the levels it could. Otherwise it becomes a fad, or a topic to which presidents can say, ‘We don’t have the money for it this year.’ We’ve seen many instances where sustainability initiatives have gotten put off by deferred maintenance. The pressing need for deferred maintenance eats up quite a lot of the budget. Ironically, many sustainability thinkers say a school could actually have saved money while simultaneously addressing maintenance with sustainable planning.

Several years ago, it seemed everyone was trying to attain LEED certification for new construction. Now a number of prominent institutions have chosen not to pursue it. In a time when funds are dwindling, will this become more commonplace?

That’s a good question. It’s a controversial aspect of sustainability. We started our exploration of the LEED process on the cost and the prestige, and as something that people want—and still do. But then we found a cadre of institutions that mimicked LEED ideas in the building and planning process, but they didn’t push the button with certification because the expense was onerous.

LEED certification is laudable yet realistically unattainable for institutions that are financially challenged, particularly when it comes to infrastructure, capital outlay, and deferred maintenance.

Still, we sense that new, alternative environmental certifications differentiating institutions by scale, complexity, and funding could become the Washington Monthly type of alternative to U.S. News & World Report, metaphorically speaking.

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