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Teaching Green

Sustainability programs are growing on campuses large and small.
University Business, Jun 2007

Near the breathtaking northern tip of the Appalachian Trail is one of six schools that represent a growing trend in higher education. This IHE and its peers form The Eco League--a band of colleges and universities devoted to the environment. In a region of rocky crags that ascend beyond the limit where most flora can grow, and of the sudden, freakish windstorms that seem to emanate from the mountains themselves, thoughts of nature and our fragile environment seem to come most naturally to mind.

"If you're on top of Mt. Katahdin and look east, you see Cadillac Mountain, which hovers over our campus," says David Hales, president of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, a 36-year-old graduate and undergraduate institution that offers a single type of degree. "Each of our 320 undergraduate and 20 graduate students receives one degree, in human ecology," Hales says.

While sustainability is big business these days, The Eco League ( has humble origins. "The idea for a college in Bar Harbor came out of a study funded by the Rockefeller family in 1949, immediately after a fire swept the island. There was interest in having an institution contribute to the economy of the island," Hales explains. Bar Harbor, located on the glacially formed Mount Desert Island, depends on tourism for revenue.

'Seventy percent of our students chose Green Mountain because of the options associated with The Eco League.' --Bill Throop, Green Mountain College

The community has about 9,000 year-round residents, yet visitors to the area--which also features Acadia National Park--can swell to more than 2 million, Hales says.

"When the first president started advertising for faculty members, we had over 1,000 applications for the first four positions. Our first graduating class was composed of two people. We started in an old monastery on the shores of Princeton Bay, which we rented for one dollar per year," he says.

While it can hardly be said that the College of the Atlantic is contributing to urban sprawl (the college now has 35 faculty members), interest in sustainability has mushroomed. "Our endowment is in the range of $25 million, and the proceeds usually cover about a third of our $18 to $20 million in operating costs per year," Hale says.

Sustainability is also a new focus at Arizona State University, which has attracted the help of a wealthy philanthropist.

ASU's Global Institute was founded two years ago, and the School of Sustainability is even more recent, says Chuck Redman, director of the Global Institute of Sustainability, who owes his title, the Julie Ann Wrigley Director of the Global Institute of Sustainability (, to a generous $15 million endowment from the chewing gum magnate.

"The time is right for sustainability curricula, because people are interested, and it's a new way of thinking, and I think there are a lot of people who want to think that way," says Redman.

The idea for an institute came about several years ago when President Michael Crow organized a small meeting of eight international scholars and leaders in sustainability in Yucatan, Mexico. Julie Wrigley was in attendance.

While the pilot program so far has admitted only half a dozen students, materials about environmental studies at Arizona State appear to represent something like the annual report of a Fortune 500 company. The institute is building a board of trustees, with Julie Wrigley co-chairing. She will be joined by Rob Walton of Wal-Mart and James Donald, CEO of Starbucks, among others.

Arizona State has had other successful experiences at fundraising in relation to environmental issues, Redman adds. The school previously received a large grant related to water management from the National Science Foundation for $6.9 million, as well as a grant for $5 million to fund its long-term ecological research program, and a $2 million grant to study biocomplexity in the environment.

"Now it's a matter of getting some experience under our belts," Redman says. "Eventually we'll grow to several thousand undergraduates. We're a college of 60,000 students, so we can do it."

Meanwhile, small colleges and universities with a focus on sustainability have grown too. The aforementioned Eco League got its start five years ago when a half a dozen smaller schools were awarded a $50,000 grant from the Educational Foundation of America to set up a consortium of colleges devoted to sustainability. The League includes Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Antioch College (Ohio), the College of the Atlantic, Green Mountain College (Vt.), Northland College (Wis.), and Prescott College (Ariz.).

Students who attend Eco League schools can freely transfer from one to the other, receiving an education in the unique ecosystem in which each school is located without having to pay various tuition rates.

'Many of our students go on to work for natural resources or regulatory agencies.' --Dorothy Lagerroos, Northland College

"Seventy percent of our students tell us the reason they chose Green Mountain was because of the options associated with The Eco League," says Bill Throop, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Green Mountain College.

The road to a sustainability focus has been an evolving one for 174-year-old Green Mountain. "Eleven years ago we were looking at what problems were going to deeply drive higher education in the 21st century, and we could see that environmental issues, broadly understood, were going to become tremendously important," says Throop, who was hired 11 years ago as a result of the strategic change.

To date, sustainability and The Eco League have been good to Green Mountain. "Of our 43 full-time faculty, about half are engaged in research which is clearly focused on sustainability," says Throop, noting that the school offers 25 different majors. The student population, at 750 students, has grown 25 percent over the past 10 years.

Northland College, on the southern shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin, is also a founding member school of The Eco League. Northland has not attracted any students from the other schools in the consortium to date, although Northland students have left to attend other schools in The Eco League.

"We have about 10 students a year attending some other institution, although we haven't been hyping it very strenuously," says Dorothy Lagerroos, a professor of environmental studies at Northland and coordinator of the school's environmental studies program.

While the school has had a sustainability curriculum for about five years and now offers both a bachelor of science degree in environmental studies and a minor in sustainable systems, Northland hasn't changed the 10 to 15 courses that make up its sustainability program since joining The Eco League, Lagerroos says. Northland, which has 700 alumni, was founded in the late 1800s, but like other schools in the league, it adopted an environmental focus in the early 1970s.

Northland has not been heavily promoting The Eco League, Lagerroos says. "We're trying to figure out systems issues like who sends to whom the notice that students are coming, who should contact the host school, and how do they get registered," she adds.

Nonetheless, Northland has found that its focus on sustainability, as well as its commitment to its locale, have paid off in the form of local prestige and loyalty.

"Northland College is very special, because it is exotic in the sense of its location, for example, and our relationship to the Sigrid Olson Institute," says Judy Hanne, vice president for Institutional Advancement. "Olson was a Northland alumnus, as well as an author who is well-known for establishing the Apostle Island National Lake Shore, a national park."

In February of this year, Northland received a $1.25 million gift from another corporate leader, John H. Chapple, former CEO of Nextel Partners, to hire a Chapple Family Professor and to develop and implement a curriculum with strong business components, while drawing on the college's environmental expertise.

While the donor presently resides in the state of Washington, Chapple is in a line of three generations to whom the region surrounding Northland was home. In fact, Chapple's first home was married student housing on the campus shortly after his birth. (Chapple himself did not attend Northland.)

Northland's focus on sustainability has sometimes produced gifts that can be quite unpredictable, such as when a Texas company called the Heritage Bag Company contributed 500 of its compostable garbage bags, Hanne says. The school also recently received a $40,000 scholarship from a woman in Washington state for students studying sustainability and environmental issues, Hanne says.

For institutional leaders considering pursuing the road less traveled and adopting a complete sustainability curriculum, the small colleges of The Eco League and larger ones such as Arizona State may offer lessons in how to get the job done.

The first thing leaders might want to know is that having a high-quality sustainability program seems to attract students as well as faculty, because the marketplace has an appetite for graduates with sustainability skills. "About two-thirds of our students go on to graduate school, where they're very much in demand," says Hales of the College of the Atlantic.

Other sources indicate that sustainability graduates don't have difficulty finding graduate programs or jobs in the field. "Many of our students go on to work for natural resources or regulatory agencies," says Lagerroos of Northland.

Institutions that choose to emphasize sustainability might want to set aside significant resources or departments such as technology transfer offices for turning student work into applied efforts in the world at large. "A number of our students create their own jobs in alternative energy or community organizing," Lagerroos explains.

In planning out sustainability programs, administrators and faculty ought to be encouraged by the 90 percent of incoming students who say they are interested in sustainability, Lagerroos says.

With talk about sustainability growing in the outside world, there should be no shortage of students interested in such programs. "We have done some joint recruiting events with The Eco League for students and guidance counselors," says Green Mountain's Throop. "We are targeting a growing number of high schools that focus on environmental social responsibility; they create natural funnels for The Eco League-type colleges."

Schools interested either in mapping out new sustainability curricula or expanding existing ones might look to the field for surveys that reflect an abundance of new students interested in the field. "About half of our students are going directly into PhD programs, a quarter for MAs, and another quarter for MS programs," says Arizona State's Redman. He explains the originating fields of incoming students: "One-third are coming from engineering, and one-sixth come from architecture. About half of them are from the social and natural sciences."

"Because the college is focused on this mission, we get faculty better than a small college has any right to have," admits Green Mountain's Throop. Take Professor Karen Fleming, for example. She had been senior vice president for marketing at Seventh Generation, a maker of nontoxic and environmentally safe household products, and before that vice president for marketing at Stonyfield Yogurt and an instructor at Green Mountain.

"The presidents of The Eco League schools meet by phone and sometimes in person," says Northland's Lagerroos. "And then many of the faculty get together at the annual Human Ecology Conference [in October]. This year it's going to be in Rio de Janeiro."

Arizona State has also hosted events, including a first national meeting for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (, which drew 700 people to ASU's campus. That kind of visibility never hurts.

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