The Leadership Factor: Implementing Sustainability in Higher Education

By Glenn Cummings, Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education

(This article appears in the July, 2010 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

“Education is not widely regarded as a problem, although the lack of it is.  The conventional wisdom holds that all education is good, and the more of it one has, the better…. The truth is that without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the Earth.” – David Orr (1994)

If, in fact, the survival of the earth hinges on a race between disaster and education, then certainly American higher education holds a key to that outcome. As the Union of Concerned Scientists underscores, few issues signal potential disaster more pointedly than rapidly accumulating carbon emissions (and its multiple impacts).

As colleges and universities throughout the country accept their collective responsibility for educating the next generation in an idea loosely called “sustainability,” the mission of becoming better stewards of the earth has expanded on American college campuses. In recent years, top-level officials at these institutions have called for institution-wide commitments to a more “sustainable” relationship with our natural environment.

Nevertheless, the implementation methods used within institutions remain complicated, strewn with obstacles and weighted with risks. Leadership faces complex political, structural and personal barriers to significant change in the pursuit of sustainability.

A renewed call to action in the ACUPCC’s  Steering Committee’s 2009 white paper “Leading Profound Change” underscores leadership’s vital role in achieving climate neutrality in American higher education. “Active leadership on an ongoing basis from the president and the chancellor is critical for ensuring the success of individual campuses – and, consequently, of initiative as a whole,” the report states. It urges top collegiate leaders to “treat sustainability as a major transformative initiative,” invoke the broad-based support of emotional and participative change” and “empower a dedicated group to establish tangible…..results.”

Simultaneous to the Steering Committee’s report last year, I found myself developing a closely related thesis for my doctoral dissertation on sustainability in higher education. The research question sought to answer ‘what common characteristics and actions were taken by successful university and college leaders in pursuit of sustainability?’ Four institutions of higher education were chosen: two four-year public research universities and two two-year public community colleges. Arizona State University, University of New Hampshire, Cape Cod Community College and Foothill D’Anza Community College District provided the sites for analysis. Senior leadership in these institutions revealed several common traits and strategies that made their schools national leaders in sustainability. Five common themes cut across the study.

First, this research indicates, not surprisingly, that leadership plays a crucial role in the success of sustainability implementation. In terms of leadership’s ability to develop a coherent “sustainability commitment,” the study finds that the personal rewards of the movement are significant. Most leaders told childhood stories and early “initiation narratives” regarding their commitment to sustainability. These deeply felt personal experiences provide an internal “fuel” for the change process. This sense of satisfaction deepened as progress grew. Most leaders considered themselves part of a larger movement and knew implicitly why sustainability mattered. Many felt that higher education, in particular, synchronized well with the themes of sustainability and saw the movement as an opportunity to re-shape their institution to meet its highest ideals. To the extent that the college and university leaders could articulate such a vision and shepherd its implementation, their institutions themselves become national leaders.

Secondly, the use of administrative policies, particularly human resource management, provided for significant long-term impacts in the effort to build sustainability. For example, to varying degrees, all four institutions attempted to influence hiring—and in some cases, tenure—decisions to support the movement towards sustainability. The institutions leveraged personnel resources in order to select staff and faculty who could promote the sustainability agenda. They also created purchasing practices and on-campus rules and expectations to reinforce sustainability.

Influencing the hiring and tenure process was particularly effective, but only cautiously applied in all sites (with the possible exception of ASU). Union contracts at the community college level and a concern for faculty autonomy at UNH prohibited the full application of this administrative prerogative. However, administrators first restructured whole departments into more integrated, and less narrow “schools” with implicit or explicit reference to sustainability. This tactic used administrative power to facilitate cross-disciplinary approaches with sustainability as a “connector” among the disciplines. It should be noted, however, that at both types of schools, administrators felt that the reward structure was still not fully aligned with the expectation of a sustainability curriculum or with the movement in general. Rather, the reward structure still reinforced a disciplinary pathway to tenure and professional recognition.

Third, effective leaders used the power of symbolism and “milestones” to underscore the institutional significance of sustainability. Consistent with a “transformational” or “symbolic” framework for leadership these sets of actions strengthened institutional pride and embedded sustainability into the school “brand.” At UNH, for example, the entire 2008 commencement ceremony revolved around the theme of sustainability. The event included the first “turning of the switch” of the new methane pipeline that would provide over 80% of the campus’ energy needs. Such events and public occasions offered critical opportunities for college leaders to underscore the connection of sustainability to the institution’s core identity. They also engendered considerable pride in the work of the college and reinforced the benefits of sustainability to the campus. The achievement of a major donation, the award of a grant or any annual occurrence at the school, for example, offered a chance to celebrate success as well as set goals for the future. Effective leaders used these opportunities with great skill to promote sustainability.

Fourth, all four institutions applied both the symbolic and political framework to engage faculty and students. Senior leaders who successfully implemented sustainability, for example, understood the implicit connection of the subject to applied research and the contribution the movement made to local and regional society. President Michael Crow at ASU placed the movement within the context of a larger development of the American university itself, in fact. His New American University model emphasized sustainability as the intellectual underpinning for institutional and societal progress. It required the university to find meaningful ways for faculty and students to contribute to the sustainability of the local culture and environment. At UNH, the CORE conceptual framework shaped the overall movement. Effective leadership inspired faculty and members of the campus community to see themselves in the larger context of social change. For the four-year institutions, this was seen as a manifestation of the best of the liberal arts tradition. Both Crow and President Mark Huddleston of UNH, for example, connected the moral leadership and the responsibilities of the liberal arts graduate to the sustainability initiative.

Fifth, leaders used their ability to “tell the story” of sustainability to engage funders. Philanthropic commitment to the movement enhanced and reinforced the institution’s progress. Three of the four schools were propelled to national leadership in sustainability partly or wholly as a result of private philanthropy or government grants. The centrality of finding a consistent funding stream to “resource” the objectives of sustainability cannot be overemphasized. In the cases of ASU and UNH private endowments played a key role in thrusting the schools to the top of the achievement list nationally in sustainability.

In conclusion, the effective leader builds coalitions and maximizes the use of personal and administrative power. In all four case studies, to varying degrees, the integration of sustainability into the curriculum required leadership to encourage and support sustainability-minded faculty. Skilled leaders found ways to celebrate success throughout the institution and underscore the importance of the work to generating a sense of pride in the reputation of the school. Using milestones, events, awards and celebrations, they applied a symbolic framework to the organizational change process. Senior leadership understood that publicly recognizing progress reinforced the sustainability concept, particularly as external accolades and positive narratives of the school’s efforts emerged. Of particular note, the ability to raise external funds (private or governmental) offered a poignant opportunity for public celebration and frequently led to a sustained financial foundation for the movement on campus. This engendered faculty appreciation in most cases and strongly increased the progress and credibility of the effort.