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Making Choices

Sustainability in a world of conflicting values
University Business, Jun 2010

Mark Edlen, a Portland developer and businessman with Gerding Edlen, sees the commitment to sustainability as both a political movement and a business strategy, as noted in an April 14, 2010 article in The Oregonian. In explaining his new business approach, Edlen said, "The big thing for my generation was Vietnam and civil rights. For the young people of today, it's their environmental footprint." He is convinced the green economy is one of the country's primary economic engines. In his case, this means sustainable building has arrived as a viable business strategy.

The commitment to sustainability--defined in 1987 by the Bruntland Commission of the United Nations as the ability to endure and develop by meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs--is becoming a theme of every sector of society. Education is prepared to expand a key leadership role in helping society understand what a sustainable future entails and to help each of us make that future possible.

Environmental education and research has had a long tradition within higher ed, but the commitment to the broader reach of sustainability, embodied in economic and social sustainability agendas, is having far-reaching campus impact. As a 2008 Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education report documents, within the last few years:

  • One quarter of all U.S. colleges and universities participated in a nationwide teach-in on global warming solutions.
  • Sixty-six sustainable academic programs were created, and 13 new sustainability-themed research centers were opened (with 33 more announced).
  • More than 130 campus green buildings were planned, started, opened, or awarded LEED certification.
  • The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 created a sustainability grants program to help develop, implement, and evaluate curricula, practices, and academic programs.

At Portland State University (Ore.), sustainability has become the major theme. In 2008, the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation made a 10-year, $25 million matching grant to support our sustainability vision and strategies. Some highlights showing this effort's breadth:

  • Sustainability, now one of the undergraduate learning outcomes, infuses the curriculum of general education and disciplinary majors across the campus.
  • Students are completing their own "climate action plans" with strategies for carbon reduction, focusing on materials use/reuse, building construction/usage, and travel and commuting practices.
  • The Provost's Office is hiring up to 10 new academic sustainability positions.
  • A new university-wide research center promotes sustainability-related research from all disciplines across the university.
  • The PSU School of Business Administration now has a sustainability focus for its MBA program.

The growing consensus on the need for sustainability is not a passing fad. Indeed, it is at the heart of the values we must hold individually and as a society for the long-term maintenance and well-being of our human and natural worlds.

The Society for Values in Higher Education (SVHE) will hold its 2010 annual meeting at Portland State University this July 21 to 25.

Students are now completing their own "climate action plans."

With 87 years of study, dialogue, and action focused on a broad range of values related to key questions in American society, the Society hears the compelling call for knowledge and commitment to this core agenda about our common global future. The meeting's theme is "Making Choices: Sustainability in a World of Conflicting Values." We invite you to join us in this challenge to understand and then act on the values that will guide us across all sectors of education, social services, business, and government, to create a future that not only endures, but flourishes.

Marvin A. Kaiser is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of sociology at Portland State University (Ore.) and executive director of the Society for Values in Higher Education. Learn more about the upcoming Society for Values in Higher Education meeting at

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