How College Leaders Can Bring Sustainability to Campuses

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle

July 23, 2012

We spent much of the past four years asking well over 100 presidents, provosts, and trustees about environmental-sustainability programs on their campuses. Far too many responses were along the lines of, "Gee, I haven't had enough time to think about that," or, "I don't know who handles that; I think it's someone in Facilities," or, summarily, "That's why we hired a director of sustainability."

Anthony D. Cortese, president of Second Nature, a nonprofit organization that works to make sustainability a part of higher education, adds that perhaps the most difficult challenge for sustainability programs, even beyond weak presidential leadership, is simply finding enough money to stay alive through one more budget year as chief financial officers give in to pressures and spend scarce resources on perceived priorities like deferred maintenance and faculty salaries.

Cortese has seen many thoughtful, well-documented financing requests travel down dead-end streets as decision-makers "do not experience higher education as a critical leverage point in the transformation to a healthy, just, secure, and sustainable world." Even enlightened foundations "do not believe higher-education institutions will change, or, if they do, that they will change too slowly to be worth future investment."

So, what can campus leaders do to overcome that perception and effect real change?

1. As president, openly advocate and promote sustainability efforts. An institution's progress can be significantly shaped by the public and personal capital that its chief executive is willing to spend to make sustainability an institutional priority.

For example, Jo Ann M. Gora, president of Ball State University, in Indiana, has played a vital role in her institution's embrace of sustainability. In 2006, Gora was one of the 12 charter signatories of the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, a pact to make collegewide efforts to improve the earth's climate. And she and her leadership team broke ground in 2009 on the largest geothermal district energy system in the country. Once completed, it will heat and cool more than 40 buildings on the Muncie campus, reducing the institution's carbon footprint by almost 50 percent and saving $2-million annually.

Gora offers this view of the president's role as both advocate and promoter: "Sustainability is the perfect example of the important issue that demands our attention in a quiet, persistent way. As presidents, if we do not attend to the important issues, we never have the chance to make an impact and set the stage for transformational change. It is not enough for us simply to put out fires ... ; focusing on sustainability forces us all to think long term and to effect real change on our campuses and in our students' minds." 

2. Challenge athletic departments to participate. While one can point to some notable achievements, like the LEED platinum certification for the University of Florida's Heavener Football Complex in 2009, making it the nation's first athletics facility to reach platinum status, and a few other LEED-certified sports venues, like those at the University of Nevada at Reno and at the College of William & Mary, there is still no national comprehensive movement to link sustainability with university athletics programs and infrastructure.

One model that has worked well was put in place by the vice president for administration at the University of Rhode Island, Robert A. Weygand. As he explains: "Reassign energy expenses to the individual departments. ... In our experience, athletics becomes more energy conscious as they see it is in their best financial interest."

Finally, consider asking athletes themselves. The authors of an article, "The Green Athlete," offer this perspective: "We athletes make use of the earth in a way that no one else does, and so it's all the more important for us to take a realistic look around at how our ... pursuits impact our environments."

3. Find niches and market them. Sustainability niches can distinguish a college among a glut of competitors. The University of Maine at Fort Kent achieved its newsworthy moment in 2008 when the trustees of the University of Maine system approved the establishment of a Center for Rural Sustainable Development on its campus. The center is a collaborative effort among the Fort Kent, Machias, and Presque Isle campuses, and it creates partnerships with local communities and economic-development organizations to advance sustainable causes.

Across the country, 50 miles outside of Las Vegas, another program of distinction was created by several University of Nevada at Reno faculty members. Sensing a growing need for "boutique" herbs in the kitchens of casinos that attract more than 40 million visitors annually from almost every country in the world, the professors teamed up with a group of Nevada farmers to help the farmers begin producing exotic blends on 24 hours' notice.

Campus leaders are facing some very difficult infrastructure decisions, and many of these leaders don't have strong student-enrollment numbers and budgets to help them. Combine that kind of tension with a few not-so-quietly-voiced suspicions from board members that "green" thinking remains a fad that will fade away, and it becomes clear how important it is for college presidents to provide active and informed leadership in the promotion of campus sustainability.

James Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College. James E. Samels is president and chief executive of the Education Alliance, a national higher-education consulting firm. They are the authors of The Sustainable University: Green Goals and New Challenges for Higher Education Leaders, on which this essay is based.