by Richard J. Cook, President Emeritus of Allegheny College and Second Nature Education for Sustainability Fellow

In slightly over two years the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) has grown from a compelling idea into a nationwide phenomenon. Almost 700 institutions of higher learning are now ACUPCC signatories. And many others are eager to learn more about the effort. Interest in the ACUPCC was widespread at the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) annual Presidents’ Institute in early January 2010 on Marco Island, Florida.

Presidents representing four ACUPCC signatory colleges participated in a panel discussion entitled “Presidential Leadership in Climate Change and Sustainability.” President Marvalene Hughes described an inspirational commitment made by Dillard University to rebuild its campus on the principle of carbon neutrality in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Rosalind Reichard, president of Emory & Henry College, described the challenges of pursuing climate neutrality on a campus situated amid a coal-based economy and culture. Paul Fonteyn, president of Green Mountain College, told of his small college’s rapid journey to carbon-neutrality, and the way in which such an audacious commitment has helped galvanize the entire campus community behind a unifying ideal. For my part, I discussed my efforts to generate institution-wide engagement with the climate commitment and described the financial and branding benefits of the effort.

“The ACUPCC has become the most ambitious collective effort by higher education since the Second World War.”

Later in the week, David Shi, president of Furman University, led a breakfast roundtable discussion centered on the question: “Why Sign the Presidents’ Climate Commitment?” That afternoon, Anthony Cortese, the president of Second Nature and the leading champion of the ACUPCC, led a session for presidential spouses entitled “Green Practices on Campus and in the Community.” He helped spouses better understand the strategic and systemic implications of the ACUPCC and the role that first spouses can play in setting an example of sustainable practices on campus and in the community.

The climactic activity at the CIC Institute related to the ACUPCC was a post-conference afternoon workshop titled “Practical Approaches to Implementing the Presidents’ Climate Commitment.” Presidents representing both signatory and non-signatory colleges and universities participated in a comprehensive dialogue orchestrated by Tony Cortese, David Shi, and Richard Cook. In a lively, freewheeling discussion, the presidents wrestled with philosophical, ecological, financial, and political aspects of climate disruption and carbon neutrality.  The conversations were candid, stimulating, and informative, and they were punctuated by spontaneous presidential testimonials about the positive impact of the ACUPCC on their campuses.

The ACUPCC has become the most ambitious collective effort by higher education since the Second World War. Yes, the journey toward climate neutrality is not easy; there remains much work to be done. But the tone and tenor of the meeting at the CIC Institute revealed that the momentum behind the effort is growing and that the misperceptions about it are diminishing. That the CIC Presidents’ Institute devoted so many sessions to the ACUPCC demonstrates the significance of the initiative. That so many presidents participated in the sessions suggests how important the subject is to them and their campuses. Sustainability is no longer a fad or something peripheral to the mission of higher education. It has become an animating example of the ways in which a campus community can embrace a compelling global issue in holistic and fulfilling ways. And have fun in the process.