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Sustainable Success Sharing

Higher ed institutions with strong sustainability stories to tell are getting the word out.
University Business, Jun 2007

When you're known for being green, the number of inquiries from those looking to replicate your efforts can quickly jump to a level that's overwhelming.

Take the University of British Columbia, for instance. The institution has reached near-celebrity status in sustainability circles, thanks to a number of firsts, including:

Becoming Canada's first university to adopt a sustainable development policy (in 1997) and the first to open a campus sustainability office (a year later).

Being the first and only Canadian university to receive Green Campus Recognition from the U.S.-based National Wildlife Federation.

Receiving one of the first Campus Sustainability Leadership Awards ( by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

'People need to understand what we're doing, why it's cutting edge, and then we'll invite them to consider donating.'--David Ervin, coordinator of academic sustainability programs and a professor of environmental studies at PSU

Not surprisingly, interest in UBC's sustainability efforts has grown in recent years. "We've jumped from answering about 250 questions annually from the public on and off campus, to answering 1,825 this academic school year," says Ruth Abramson, manager of marketing and communications in the UBC Sustainability Office. "It's really been quite a challenge. We're constantly being asked for things," she explains, adding that responding to inquiries is part of her role.

Before Abramson was hired about five years ago, there was no formal communications person in the Sustainability Office. "They were doing a lot of great work, but not a lot of people knew what was going on," she says. Promotional efforts got underway, and as media attention grew, interest snowballed.

How does Abramson's department handle the questions that go hand in hand with sustainability stardom? Besides being available to respond, the Sustainability Office has created a detailed website ( full descriptions of various campus efforts, copies of reports, a video on leadership in sustainability (also available on DVD), a search box for sustainability efforts on campus, and more--so that interested parties can find information on their own.

It's not always easy being in the spotlight, but leaders at colleges and universities with strong sustainability initiatives understand that being recognized can only be beneficial to the institution. Here's how they get the word out about their efforts to three key audiences: prospective students, prospective donors, and other IHEs.

Get support from the Marketing department. "Our marketing communications folks have retooled a number of our Admissions marketing pieces to be more 'front and center' about our campus commitment to sustainability," reports Marian M. Brown, special assistant to the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Ithaca College (N.Y.). For instance, the 2006-2007 college admissions viewbook contains profiles of students such as Anna Day, an environmental studies major and founder of the college's Students for Sustainability organization.

Ithaca administrators don't yet have data to indicate that students are choosing the college because of its sustainability focus, although Brown says, "We do have anecdotal evidence that students and their families coming through our doors on tours and looking at our marketing materials are intrigued and attracted." In addition, student selection of environmental studies and environmental sciences programs is steadily climbing--as is enrollment in sustainability-themed courses across various disciplines.

Give student groups a web presence. At Ithaca, the website for the group Students for Sustainability ( shares information and success stories related to the organization's campus initiatives, promotes events, offers resources to learn more about sustainability, and invites others to join the organization. Links to the site are provided from related academic program homepages, so prospective students on the hunt for details about those programs can find out about Students for Sustainability.

Make it easy to find the sustainability office's website. A number of institutions--including California State University, Chico; Ithaca College; Portland State University (Ore.); and Williams College (Mass.)--provide a prominent link right on their homepages.

Partner with the greater community. This works particularly well for Portland State, since "Portland is this hotbed of sustainable development activities," notes David Ervin, coordinator of academic sustainability programs and a professor of environmental studies at PSU. With the local government and both nonprofit and for-profit companies in the area taking actions to make the community a leader in sustainability, it's no wonder that those with similar interests want to study on a campus there.

PSU officials involve the greater community in its efforts in meaningful ways. For example, after the local media announced the institution's interest in green roofs, someone got in touch to ask some questions about how to build a green roof atop a local bank; if the project moves forward, the green roof will be donated to PSU for study. It's this kind of collaboration that may well attract students to PSU all the more.

Host sustainability events. The Oregon Bioneers Conference, hosted by Lane Community College in 2005 and 2006, influenced prospective students considering enrolling at the institution, says Sustainability Coordinator Jennifer Hayward. "It was a community event with an attendance of about 330 people each year." And Lane's national presence can only help with future events; in 2006 the school was honored with a Campus Sustainability Leadership Award from AASHE.

Provide ways for students to be sustainability ambassadors. The University of California, Berkeley, runs three green demonstration areas ( dorm room, an apartment, and a suite--where the hosts are live-in students. During tours, guests (about half of whom are current students) can see what environmentally friendly products are being used by those students and learn general facts about sustainability, explains Desirae Early, the university's Green Campus Program coordinator and an environmental economics and policy major. In addition, during an annual open house day, prospective students can tour the green demo areas as well.

Host events to acquaint potential donors with sustainability efforts. Portland State leaders, who are currently working out a development strategy with a sustainability focus, will likely share what's going on with donors through formal meetings. "It's all about developing relationships with them first," Ervin says. "People need to understand what we're doing, why it's cutting edge, and then we'll invite them to consider donating." One wish for PSU is obtaining funds to support campuswide sustainability research assistantship positions for incoming graduate students.

Add messages about sustainability to existing communications. For the University of Idaho, this has meant that the weekly "Friday Letter" from the president--sent to friends, donors, and alumni--include sustainability news mentions, explains Joni Kirk, media relations officer for the institution.

"Sustainability is one of the larger campaigns we're publicizing internally and externally. Every action we take in support of building a sustainable future is something we're sure to tout to our respective audiences so they're aware of all the actions we're taking that back up our words," Kirk says.

Be sure the institution's strategic plan supports sustainable goals. At U of Idaho, the plan calls for environmentally sustainable programs across all levels of the university, and that plan is discussed in meetings with donors and friends, notes Kirk.

Tie green building projects to fundraising campaigns. Ithaca has done this with its new School of Business building, currently under construction. Fundraising for the building is one of six Campaign for Ithaca College priorities, and the project "has attracted some focused philanthropic interest because of its intentional high-performance sustainable design," Brown says. Officials will seek Platinum-level LEED certification status for the building when it's completed in early 2008.

A major donor for the building had "specifically tied her funds to a green, sustainable project," Brown explains, adding that other donors have responded "to the 'business case' for this type of intelligent design."

Project descriptions and news--including a "Construction Cam" that shows a fresh image of construction progress every 10 minutes--are posted online ( Lest anyone wonder how they might help realize the vision for the building, a special giving page ( provides a next step for donors.

Be willing to share project documents. Portland State, which has developed sustainability-related requests for proposals to ensure that contract bidders are green-minded, has gotten a lot of inquiries about those contracts from other institutions. "We also get asked to do presentations about our contracts at meetings and conferences about five to 10 times a year," reports Sustainability Coordinator Dresden Skees-Gregory. "Many universities around the country are modeling what we do."

One contract that's gotten a lot of recent attention is for campus food service. To make sharing what the university has done as efficient as possible, PSU's sustainability website contains the Request for Proposal and contract with Sodexho ( in a downloadable format.

Invite institutional peers to visit campus. For Lane Community College, this has meant hosting conferences, including a May 2007 sustainability conference for community colleges in Oregon, an October 2007 sustainability conference for League of Innovation ( member schools, and an April 2008 national conference for sustainability in community colleges.

Officials at the University of British Columbia, in response to the large number of inquiries from around the world about its comprehensive sustainability program, have come up with a more formal way to show others what the campus has done and help them incorporate similar efforts. The Sustainability Coordinator Program Workshop (, launched this spring, is geared toward institutions looking to improve the sustainability of their operations and achieve cost savings through resource waste reduction, Abramson says.

The participation goal for the two-day event was 10 people, enough to cover costs. The final enrollment? Thirty. And it might have been more, had registration not been capped at that. Nearly half of the participants came from other colleges and universities, and the rest were from corporations, the government sector, and nonprofit organizations.

Be prepared for inquiries from students at other institutions. UC Berkeley's Early, who is designated as the contact for students, points out that students at several institutions have inquired about and toured Berkeley's green rooms. "A lot of them have started similar demonstration areas," she says, including UBC; CSU, Chico; San Francisco State University; UC, Merced; UC, Santa Barbara; and CSU, San Bernadino.

Whether it's attention from prospective students, donors, or other institutions, Abramson notes that UBC is all the better for it. "When we get outside recognition, it really helps people inside the university get on board and get excited," she says. "They want to get involved, and they get inspired by that recognition."

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