Recently Cornell announced that alum David Atkinson ’60 and his wife Patricia are giving $80 million to fund the Center for a Sustainable Future.  It is the largest gift the Ithaca campus has ever received from an individual.

It shows that a strong commitment to education for sustainability — often mis-percieved as necessarily increasing costs — can open up new and significant opportunities for funding.  The Center, which was established with a $3 million gift from Atkinson three years ago, had already attracted over $55 million in funding from other sources.

The Center’s director, Frank DiSalvo, has a tremendous opportunity to help “My view of universities in the last century is that we focused on developing really strong disciplines, and that much of the focus has been disciplinary,” Mr. DiSalvo said. “The problems of this century are going to require that we cut across disciplines to bring together teams with a variety of expertise to address these problems.”higher education lead the way in creating a sustainable society. In his post about the gift, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Scott Carlson quotes DiSalvo as saying:

Researchers need to look at the world in terms of interconnected systems, he said. “We have spent much of the last century trying to intervene here and there, trying to make surgical strikes in energy or environment or somewhere, and most of the time we end up with unintended consequences because we’re not looking at the whole interacting system.”

Cornell has already established an impressive track record in taking a holistic approach to sustainability – working to integrate research, education, operations and community engagement.

Cornell has leading research in energy, water, agriculture and biochar.  In addition to hundreds of courses relevant to sustainability, they offer dozens of sustainability degrees that stretch across disciplines.

With regard to operations, Cornell is aiming to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 by following a comprehensive web-based climate action plan. Cornell is a charter signatory of the ACUPCC and President Skorton has been a consistent and effective leader in making sustainability a priority.  And it’s paying off.

As Carlson goes on to note in his post:

The center’s work may also have some tangible benefits for operations at Cornell, which has signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and has worked on new ways to power its campus.

Meeting the commitment is “going to require interactions with research and development,” Mr. DiSalvo said. Because Cornell has 40 square miles of land, those researchers have lots of room to experiment with deep geothermal projects, biofuels, carbon sequestration, waste composting, and other projects.

In terms of community engagement, the University is a driving force in Ithaca and plays an active role in the Tompkins County Climate Protection Agreement, which helps to coordinate and align the many efforts by local government, business, non-profits, and education institutions like Cornell, and fellow ACUPCC signatories Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College.

Creating a sustainable society will take unprecedented levels of collaboration – across disciplines, across sectors, across cultures – and colleges and universities need to lead the way in creating the spaces for that to happen.  DiSalvo articulates this sentiment speaking about the Center:

“The center provides the means and programs to build new, multidisciplinary collaborations and the external partnerships needed to tackle important and complex problems.  Chemists are meeting economists, biologists are meeting historians, and so on, and the faculty and staff are transforming Cornell into a living and learning laboratory for sustainability.”

This gift is a tremendous validation of Cornell’s great leadership towards sustainability.  It is an example of how taking a holistic approach to education for sustainability that engages people from all disciplines and all parts of the institution, along with a bold public commitment, a comprehensive planning effort, and ardent support and leadership from the senior leadership opens up new opportunities for success. Indeed, these elements are increasingly necessary for institutions of higher education to be effective and relevant in the 21st century.