What's The Best Formula For a Sustainable Campus?

Colleges and universities across the country will mark the tenth annual Campus Sustainability Day this year on Wednesday, October 23, by hosting programs, 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, what precipitates those efforts that fall flat, and what pitfalls can we learn to avoid?

From the perspective of a sustainability coordinator and environmental educator, I grapple with 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, what many of us refer to as the "triple bottom line". In some respects, campus sustainability has followed the overall trend in business, government, and NGOs: becoming more mainstream, more practicable, and slightly more diverse. 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-moving 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, conversations, conferences and forums, I offer two main stumbling blocks for higher education leaders to consider when planning and implementing sustainability initiatives on campus:

Hazard #1: Failing to engage the widest possible variety of stakeholders and embrace the diversity of experience, culture, and thought among them. 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, inclusive and stable economic development, 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 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 disasters like floods and droughts, which are on the rise due to climate change, and can teach us about preparedness and resilience. And students in creative professions know 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.

Hazard #2: Overlooking the campus itself as a teaching tool. Ten years ago, Anthony Cortese, Second Nature's Senior Fellow and founder of the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment stated: "Taking the educational experience from a theoretical to a practical level will have an impact on the way the academy will interact with the external community." 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 -- its promise -- 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.