A Sustainable Approach to Sustainability

Whether driven by a desire for social impact, or the harsh economic realities of unsustainable utilities expenditures, or by political and market demand, more colleges and universities are taking the trend to become more environmentally sustainable seriously. More than 650 institutional presidents have pledged carbon neutrality as signatories to the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (APUCC), and hundreds of institutions now employ sustainability coordinators.

Yet many sustainability initiatives have yet to see meaningful gains. In fact, at the majority of colleges and universities, sustainability efforts remain limited to disparate, one-off programs, from trayless dining to student-directed recycling programs to "green" capital projects and energy efficiency measures.

To move beyond one-off programs, it's critical to identify how efforts toward a sustainable campus add benefits beyond just cost savings and social impact. Defining the value proposition for sustainability at your campus and mapping the impact of sustainability on a wide array of campus priorities (e.g., student recruitment and retention, stakeholder relations and fundraising, etc.) will empower an institution to more effectively target campus-wide or system-wide investment in sustainable initiatives, and to better engage broader campus constituencies and build alliances beyond the "usual choir."

"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

Institutions that have taken significant steps to define the value proposition for sustainability and coordinate efforts across campus have been able to achieve a lot very quickly. Middlebury College now has a sustainability integration office and an environmental council advising the college's president, and has established internal grants and awards for incentivizing and funding further work. The University of Colorado Boulder's Carbon Neutrality Working Group has made progress on an aggressive carbon action plan, and last year the institution received the nation's first STARS Gold sustainability assessment award. The University of California is currently coordinating sustainability initiatives across 10 campuses.

These are institutions that have proven successful in developing the grassroots efforts already in play on their campuses, identifying the highest-return next steps to take and effectively gathering support and momentum for larger-scale initiatives. They have demonstrated that an integrated approach creates a sum that is greater than the whole of its parts.

An institution does not need to be an ACUPCC signatory or have sustainability mentioned in the strategic plan to begin seeing gains; you can undertake smaller-scale efforts that make sense in terms of both mission and finances, and then scale up over time.

A Road Map for Finding the Next Steps

Academic Impressions recently partnered with Dave Newport, director of the Environmental Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and a thought leader in campus sustainability, to develop the new AI Sustainability Road Map program. Based on Academic Impressions' research into current sustainability initiatives and their impact on key institutional objectives, and applying the framework of AASHE's STARS assessment, the AI Sustainability Road Map is designed to offer to an institution's sustainability champions:

  • A tool for defining the whole value proposition of sustainability initiatives to your campus, and then mapping the benefits of specific activities
  • An intentional methodology for moving forward with sustainability and integrating disparate sustainability efforts across campus into a more comprehensive and high-return initiative

The Road Map represents a systematic and incremental approach to sustainability, and therefore a sustainable approach to sustainability. Naomi Nishi, director of program design and customization for Academic Impressions, explains: "This approach focuses on leveraging what you have done to build the justification for a larger commitment, in phases." For example:

  • If your institution has implemented a robust energy conservation initiative but has done relatively little to integrate sustainability into the curriculum, one way to address the gap is to design educational programming that leverages the efficiency work that has already been done (Can your engineering students use an energy-efficient building on campus as a case study? Can a capstone course devote a term to researching how to take your efficiency efforts to the next level?)
  • If you have professors in different courses across campus who are engaging undergraduates in sustainability-related projects, can you hold a charette or a colloquium to bring them together, pool ideas, and proactively identify several interdisciplinary efforts for the next year?

Nishi notes that while ramping up a campus-wide sustainability initiative can appear as daunting as inspiring, most institutions don't have to "start from scratch." You can build on the efforts currently in place by measuring the impact of what's been done, developing a meaningful action plan for prioritizing possible future projects, and identifying untapped internal capacity for moving on those projects.

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 (see Figure 1):

AI Road Map

Figure 1: The AI Sustainability Road Map

Dave Newport stresses that this is "a digital, not an analog model"; in other words, many of these components can be addressed in tandem, and different institutions will enter the Road Map at different points. For some, the president's public commitment to climate action will be the galvanizing factor; others may simply have an energy efficiency initiative under way and are looking for the next step.

To assist you in applying the Road Map approach to your institution, this issue of Higher Ed Impact: Monthly Diagnostic draws on the practical advice of several contributors to the Road Map program as well as other leaders of comprehensive sustainability initiatives at post-secondary institutions as diverse as the University of California, Middlebury College, Northern Arizona University, the University of Colorado Boulder, Furman University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They have contributed their expertise and lessons learned to help you scale up:

  • Coordination of current efforts across your campus
  • Integration of sustainability into curricular and co-curricular programming
  • Energy efficiency and cost control
  • Leveraging early successes to increase involvement and funding