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Professional Opinion

What’s the best formula for a sustainable campus?

How to make a year-round commitment to sustainability
University Business, December 2013

Colleges and universities nationwide marked the 10th annual Campus Sustainability Day in October with events and discussions that reflect on the success of the sustainability movement in higher education.

When it comes to getting a practice and culture of campus sustainability to thrive, what works? What examples of successful sustainable change exist in higher education, and how can campus leaders learn from them? Just as importantly, why do some efforts fall flat, and what pitfalls can we learn to avoid?

From the perspective of a sustainability coordinator and environmental educator, I face these questions daily—not only on my own campus but with my peers and mentors who are working for the vision of a socially just, economically sound, and ecologically healthy world. It’s what we call the “triple bottom line.”

In some cases, colleges are leading the sustainability movement, spurring innovation and practicing stewardship of the land, sea, and sky. But even the most forward-thinking institutions find some sustainability initiatives are more successful than others, often for reasons that mystify even seasoned faculty or staff.

Drawing from lessons shared through first-hand experiences, I offer two main stumbling blocks for higher education leaders to avoid when planning and implementing sustainability initiatives on campus:

Failure to engage the widest possible variety of stakeholders

Sustainability has often been boxed as a niche interest, marketing tactic, or budget item. But sustainability goes beyond “greening” our buildings or “shrinking” our carbon footprint; it is a complex human undertaking that involves climate justice, food justice, cultural competency, and inclusive and stable economic development. It’s all part of what Tufts University Professor Julian Agyeman calls “just sustainabilities.”

Sustainability efforts that stick are community-generated and community-supported. They recognize the unique perspectives and gifts—as well as the needs and challenges—that members bring to the table.

People who want change should continually be looking for allies—especially in unexpected places. Chances are, the IT department has already done the research on energy tracking software. Retired and elder faculty have likely witnessed floods, droughts, and other disasters—which are on the rise due to climate change. These colleagues of ours can teach us about preparedness and resilience.

And students in creative professions know that the emotional impact of art can rouse people to action in a way scientific field measurements cannot.

Do not wait for a time of crisis to seek out these allies. Nourish the soil of relationships every day, so that when the right opportunity comes along—a new funding source, event, or change in leadership—the ground is prepared for the movement to take hold. Not only is collaborative capacity an invaluable asset, it’s also the way nature works. Biomimicry in organizations is a good thing.

Overlooking the campus itself as a teaching tool

Instead of thinking of sustainability as an end goal—a numerical measurement to be attained by 2050—think of the campus as a living laboratory. If the purpose of higher education is to endow students with the requisite knowledge, experiences, and skills to make a positive impact in the world, then why limit their learning environment to the textbook (or touch screen)? Isn’t the entire campus, from buildings and boilers to trails and trucks, the ultimate teaching resource?

True, the collective buying power and energy footprint of colleges and universities is substantial, and institutional policies supporting energy efficiency, land conservation, and local food purchasing can have a significant effect on markets. But the real impact of higher education is our institutions’ unique capacity to shape young minds and shift the culture.

These two frame shifts—embracing the strength of diversity among campus stakeholders and recognizing the value of the campus itself as a living laboratory—can make sustainability efforts soar.

Jess Gerrior is sustainability coordinator at Franklin Pierce University, and a member of the Education & Professional Development Steering Committee, Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education(AASHE).