Why and How Higher Education is Embracing Sustainability

February 22nd, 2012 by John Dinesh Mascarenhas Leave a reply »

It’s exciting to see Colleges and Universities in all regions of the United States pursuing sustainability.  They are doing this to become more future-relevant and desirable, in addition to being more operationally efficient. They are funding projects and making progress in several areas, especially in energy/buildings, waste/recycling, academics, purchasing and community engagement.

We have learned that schools that tie together multiple areas of sustainability into a comprehensive, holistic plan or roadmap tend to be more successful — at getting buy-in, funding initiatives, and achieving results.  They also tend to enjoy more of the full benefits of “going green.”

What are these benefits?

-  Stronger recruitment and retention

-  Enhanced reputational value

-  Leveraged academics to solve important societal issues

-  Enhanced curriculum providing students with required knowledge/skills for future jobs

-  Operating cost savings

-  Healthier work environment that attracts/retains faculty and staff

-  Stronger, win-win school-community relationships

It’s easy to see why there is interest in sustainability, even with all the other priorities and challenges higher education is facing.  It can also be daunting, because sustainability is complex and rapidly evolving.  It helps to have organizations like AASHE and Sustainametrics to connect the dots and provide support.  

AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) is an organization that “provides administrators, faculty, staff and students…with: thought leadership and essential knowledge resources; outstanding opportunities for professional development; and a unique framework for demonstrating the value and competitive edge created by sustainability initiatives.”  AASHE’s framework is called STARS, for Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System.

Columbia College Chicago leveraged Sustainametrics’ expertise and AASHE guidance to develop their first Sustainability Roadmap.  Our engagement began with facilitating visioning sessions and conducting an assessment of sustainable practices and opportunities for the College using STARS as a guide.  The STARS-based assessment led to forming eight Green Teams around the areas of greenhouse gas, energy/buildings and water, academics, transportation, waste/recycling, procurement, information technology, and communications/engagement. Sustainametrics worked with and across each team through goal setting sessions. The resulting goals provided the basis for implementable action plans with corresponding metrics, many of which are in the published Sustainability Roadmap.

For more on Sustainametrics work on that project, click here.

At the AASHE conference last fall, we drank from the fire hose of three days of packed content, and found several major trends emerging, such as:

-  Innovative financing for a wide variety energy conservation measures, because these projects have financial returns that far exceed traditional investments.

-  Student funded and run Green Revolving Loan Funds that often take on creative visible sustainability projects.

-  The use of workshops, retreats and case studies to raise sustainability literacy among faculty so those interested can incorporate sustainable principles into their curriculum and learning outcomes.

-  The development of cross disciplinary co-majors, and cross team teaching that brings an interdisciplinary, systems approach to sustainability challenges and solutions.

-  “Town-gown” collaborations that view the school and it’s surrounding community as a system, and in fact, an eco-system.

-  Increasing number of schools measuring, making commitments, and reporting on their Greenhouse Gas emissions, often as part of the ACUPCC


Each of these could be a separate topic; but for now, I’ll end with kudos to the many, many colleges and universities that are leading the way to a more sustainable and truly prosperous future.



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