A Strategic Road Map for Campus
Sustainability Efforts

illustration of online learning with computers and a spaceship taking off on the screen

Recent stats from The Princeton Review indicate that 69 percent of college applicants now cite as a factor in their college choice an institution's level of commitment to environmental sustainability.

Higher education institutions in the US and globally are recognizing the importance of sustainability, but many struggle with knowing where to begin or how to develop the grassroots initiatives already in play. The media is filled with stories of institutions adopting various one-off programs, from trayless dining to student-directed recycling programs to "green" capital projects and energy efficiency measures. However, few institutions have established an institution-wide strategy for directing investments in sustainability in ways that have positive and measurable impact on key measures of institutional health (such as cost savings, student recruitment and retention, and alumni/donor engagement) and that differentiate the institution from competing schools.

"The campus sustainability movement has been gaining momentum for more than a decade, and yet it still adds up to little more than an itemized list of ad hoc actions taken in the areas of curriculum, research, facilities, campus operations, and community outreach. These actions are many times implemented without an overarching strategic model that guides and informs appropriate sequencing or rationale. It's time for a more sophisticated framework that views sustainability as a core strategic imperative that drives broad campus outcomes."
Dave Newport, U of Colorado at Boulder

"The question to address now is: How do you get from everybody doing their own thing to an integrated community of practice? What kind of activities can institutions engage in to get there?"
Paul Rowland, Executive Director, AASHE

What has been lacking is a model or road map that will assist institutional leaders in:

  • Assessing where their campus is with regard to achieving total sustainability
  • Devising a meaningful and actionable plan for effectively prioritizing sustainability projects

In partnership with Dave Newport, director of the Environmental Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a thought leader in campus sustainability, and after consultation with sustainability experts across the US, Academic Impressions has developed the new AI Sustainability Road Map program. The AI Sustainability Road Map is designed to offer institutional leaders an intentional methodology for moving forward with sustainability, and to assist them in integrating disparate sustainability efforts across their institution into a more comprehensive and high-return initiative.
AI Sustainability Road Map
The Sustainability Road Map program is informed by Academic Impressions' ongoing research on factors and benchmarks that influence the health and competitiveness of higher ed institutions, by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education's STARS assessment tool, and by consultation with sustainability experts across North America.

This comprehensive approach identifies six core components that any institution needs to address (but not necessarily in sequence) in order to move toward a comprehensive sustainability initiative:

  • Curricular and co-curricular education
  • Efficiency and cost control
  • Full cost and benefit evaluation
  • Marketing and branding
  • Inclusive goal-setting and public commitment
  • Strategic mapping and planning

Here are some of the key takeaways from this approach.

Curricular and Co-curricular Education

Whether or not your president has made an institutional commitment to sustainability, it is likely that a number of discrete efforts are already underway across your campus -- such as student recycling programs, or trayless dining, or a faculty member who has designed courses around a sustainability theme or issue.

What most colleges and universities have yet to do is create an inventory of all sustainability-related educational programming that already exists on campus. To move from a series of ad hoc efforts toward a more integrated initiative, it's important to find out:

  • What programs you currently have (look across student and auxiliary services and across your curriculum)
  • Who your sustainability "champions" are
  • What research related to sustainability is occurring already on campus

Whether you are starting from scratch or starting with a presidential climate action commitment, the critical early step is to audit what is already happening on campus and what resources are already available to you. Then you will be better-equipped to coordinate across departments and scale up.

Efficiency and Cost Control

It's important to identify what energy, water, and resource savings projects have already been undertaken at your institution, and then to prioritize your key projects -- "low-hanging fruit" that will show rapid returns in the form of cost savings. The key is to begin a cycle of cost savings and reinvestment of savings in further sustainability efforts. While doing so, make sure to:

  • Connect efficiency programs with faculty and student efforts (for example, invite students to take part in a lighting efficiency project, or involve an architecture or engineering course in the process of designing your next LEED facility)
  • Prioritize tangible projects that you can show to current and prospective students as a real example of your work in sustainability

Full Cost and Benefit Evaluation

Cost savings highlight the early return on sustainability efforts and allow you to build reinvestment and political commitment, but as you scale your efforts up, it will be necessary for sustainability champions to coordinate closely with the business office to develop and pilot a full cost accounting tool that takes non-financial ROI into account, such as increased recruitment of green-conscious students, lower carbon emissions, donor-affinity/increased giving to green projects, town-gown relations, etc.

Marketing and Branding

It will be critical to establish a system for publicizing sustainability successes out to all stakeholders. Some key steps include:

  • Without "greenwashing," develop a story about how your various efforts are integrated
  • Brand your initiative -- this can help you communicate the campus-wide nature of the effort and can aid you in building buy-in from the campus community (for an example, see the University of Wisconsin-Madison's "We Conserve" initiative)
  • Discuss your efforts with your institution's development office, ask about your institution's top fundraising priorities, and work together to identify donor opportunities (if your development office is looking to fund a facility, would donors be interested in a green building)?

Inclusive Goal-Setting and Public Commitment

If your institution's leadership has already made a public commitment to sustainability, then it is important to educate the president, provost, and chief financial officer about the whole picture of the sustainability efforts already underway on campus, and what opportunities there may be for building further. It will be important to define, as quickly as possible, what sustainability means at your institution. Is it limited to energy efficiency? Is it broader in scope? What does your college or university want to achieve? This definition should be arrived at collaboratively, with input from students, institutional leaders, and sustainability champions at your institution.

If sustainability efforts at your institution are operating at a grassroots level, then auditing and building coordination between current efforts, developing a full cost accounting tool, and marketing your successes can be key efforts in cultivating investment by both institutional leadership and the campus community.

Strategic Mapping and Planning

Once your institution has leadership support for sustainability, the crucial step is to map your current sustainability efforts to assess where your gaps are and how to plan for sustainability going forward. Newport points to two discrete methodologies for external and internal mapping.

External mapping

Newport suggests that the traditional SWOT analysis is not enough to identify where an organization stands related to sustainability. The new AI Sustainability Road Map gives institutions the tools needed in charting:

  • The influence of the availabilities and costs of external, natural resources
  • Whether your institution is currently "in step" with the expectations of your constituents (are you perceived as a leader? Or is your institution not living up to the expectations of your students, prospective students, alumni, donors, and local community?)

Internal mapping

Dave Newport and Academic Impressions have developed a unique mapping framework that identifies all the support activities on campus that see positive benefits from specific sustainability efforts. This assessment tool allows campuses to perform a gap analysis to identify missed opportunities as well as where the institution most needs to build capacity for advancing sustainability efforts. The assessment encourages an understanding of the return on specific efforts in measures that go beyond dollars and cents.

"Once you understand the value proposition of sustainability," Newport remarks, "and can identify where sustainability can contribute measurable value to your institution, it becomes easier to locate the highest-impact opportunities for growing your sustainability efforts."

Learn More About the Road Map

Academic Impressions can work with you to map where you are in each of the core components of sustainability. We will work with your sustainability team to create a unique institutional road map or action plan that gives you clear priorities and an intentional pathway to integrated sustainability on campus. To find out more or to get started, contact Naomi Nishi at 720.988.1216.

"The purpose of the Road Map is to offer a coherent system for thinking about how to move forward -- it's a road map out of randomness, a more thoughtful, deliberative, and quantitative way to move forward in sustainability."
Dave Newport, U of Colorado at Boulder