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Future Shock

Q&A With the Authors of The Sustainable University

University Business, June 2012

Having worked closely with college and university presidents, provosts, and trustees, James Martin, a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and James E. Samels, president and CEO of The Education Alliance, recognize just how complex sustainability leadership in higher education has become. Their new book, The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), identifies four formidable challenges facing campus leaders, as well as promising solutions. Martin and Samels write the first and last two chapters, with the remaining 16 chapters contributed by sustainability authorities and campus executives. University Business asked Martin and Samels to share their thoughts on some topics covered in the book.

Q: Could sustainability initiatives be the “push” needed to break down traditional campus siloes, which, as you point out, hinder the institutionalizing of sustainability?

A: This ‘push’ is greatly needed, and necessary—but not sufficient. There are currently almost 4,500 U.S. colleges and universities, and even with the successful advocacy of Tony Cortese (author of the book’s second chapter) and his team at Second Nature, as well as the continuing leadership of those at AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, fewer than 700 presidents have signed the Presidents’ Climate Commitment document to date. Tearing down silos will require more than goodwill; it will take tough, single-minded executive and academic leadership to form a culture of collaboration in support of sustainable strategies and programs. Put more simply, it will take presidents, provosts, and trustees to approve irrevocable resource commitments to sustainability now and going forward.

Q: Campus CFOs may understand the need for a flexible budget model to support sustainability goals, but feel stuck in the desire to move toward them. How might they do so?

A: In listening to numerous university and college CFOs talk about the need for more flexible and sophisticated budget systems to support sustainability, we came to believe that this was an instance in which the academic resourcing process could take a successful page from the business world and its history of hard budget decisions. CFOs, deans, and department chairs will gain by integrating operating and capital resource allocations toward unified performance milestones in the achievement of sustainability objectives. At the same time, trustees left out of the loop can be hesitant, even recalcitrant, and the path forward on some campuses will require the identification of infrastructure investments that further sustainability goals while simultaneously making sharp fiscal sense. Brown roof horticulture labs in place of tar and asphalt were a popular place to begin.

Q: How much do top campus officials seem to grasp and welcome the shift from treating sustainability achievements as components to approaching them as whole systems?

A: In assessing how effectively campus leaders are moving beyond earlier “to do” check lists in sustainability to a more durable “whole systems” approach to leadership, we found good news at many institutions. AASHE’s dynamic STARS, Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, not to be confused with more dated ranking systems, is now on the radar screen of many accreditation officers, foundation executives, and legislators. As the accreditation community has come to place much more weight on learning outcomes, the sustainability community has similarly identified a growing set of leadership practices for faculty and administrators. In both cases, students are the winners, as they arrive on campuses gradually being shaped by more inclusive curricula and programs and led by teams less driven by win-lose ranking models.

Q: What advice can you give higher education leaders on better preparing themselves to recognize and engage in the best new sustainability-related opportunities?

A: First, do not simply attend an AASHE conference. Get engaged at a deeper level and present a paper or lead a panel. This advice is specifically for new deans and faculty members who think, “Gee, I should probably wait a year or two before I try something like that.” Our answer is, no you should not. Try it this year, and then next year, do it again. Second, write a grant proposal. In our experience, even unsuccessful grant applications can be excellent teachers. Study the grants that succeeded if yours did not. Finally, constantly stay in contact with your competitors. Scrutinize these leaders and institutions, and learn from them, and as they attempt to learn from you, be generous.