Sustainability as the Goal of Higher Education

By Anthony Cortese, President, Second Nature
(This article appears in the March, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)
With this issue of The ACUPCC Implementer we will begin a more focused effort to help all higher education institutions institutionalize sustainability as a core goal through the lens of the ACUPCC, and to help signatory schools meet the Commitment as comprehensively as possible. In the accompanying articles you can see how a president of a major research university views his role in helping higher education lead this effort, what strategies and resources are available for presidents and other senior leaders to lead these institutional efforts and an important framework, the Natural Step, for understanding and taking action on societal sustainability.

Each month we will address both challenges and opportunities for institutionalizing sustainability with a special emphasis on the leading practices in higher education and what the ACUPCC network is doing to advance the initiative. Topics will include financing operational and educational sustainability initiatives, expanding the academic and other educational experience of students, institutional structures for sustainability, assessment, measurement and reporting strategies, getting broad buy-in by all campus members, communication and marketing, and adaptation to unavoidable climate disruption. We will accompany key topical issues with a briefing paper that will frame the issues and point to some of the best resources that are easily accessible as part of our “Viewpoints on Sustainability” series.

Last October I was invited to Taiwan to address 100 college and university presidents from South and Southeast Asia at meeting of the SATU Presidents Forum. These presidents meet biennially to discuss issues of common concern and how they can collaborate to address them. This year’s theme was on sustainability and Innovation in the next decade. It was an honor for two reasons – one to see that higher education institutions worldwide are focusing on sustainability, and two because they reached out to us as a result of the ACUPCC.

In my remarks I tried to emphasize a few important themes.

First, sustainability is not primarily about the environment; rather it is about how we sustain a complex human civilization in which everyone has their basic needs met, will live in thriving, secure communities, will have economic opportunity in a world that will have nine billion people and that plans to increase economic output 4-5 times by 2050 on a planet whose capacity to support life is more precarious every day. It is not about saving the planet; it is about finding smarter and better ways of meeting human needs. This view resonated with the Asian university leaders because it places the heart of their concerns – poverty, public health, economic opportunity and overcoming severe pollution issues – as the goal of sustainability.

Secondly, the ability to have a sustainable society requires a fundamental change in mindset and action. We must confront the uncomfortable understanding that the very structure of society (including higher education) over the last 300 years that has offered spectacular increases in the quality of life for a significant portion (though still a minority) of the world’s population will not work for the future from an economic, social, political or ecological standpoint.

Thirdly, higher education, in its role is to provide the knowledge and graduates that will lead to a thriving and civil society, is the only institution in society that can provide the broad knowledge and skills for all professionals to create and sustain the necessary change in mindset. Society looks to higher education to solve current problems, anticipate future challenges, develop innovative solutions and model the action and behavior that society must take to continue to evolve in a positive direction.

Fourthly, the explosion of interest and action (like the ACUPCC) on college campuses around the US and, increasingly, the world, to deal with climate disruption and other unsustainable practices is one of the most exciting and hopeful trends in society in the last two decades. However, these efforts will not alone be sufficient unless they lead to systemic change in education, research, institutional practice and collaboration with local and regional communities. It is not just about more environmental and sustainability specialists; it is about educating all students, no matter their discipline, and connecting their learning to practice on and by the campus and in surrounding communities.

In describing the ACUPCC, I indicated that it has the potential for this systemic change in some important ways. It is a concrete commitment by the presidents of more than 675 colleges and universities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia representing 35% of the college student population to model what is scientifically necessary to support a sustainable society and to ensure that all the graduates can help society do the same. By focusing on stabilizing the earth’s climate it will help focus on all environmentally-related concerns including water, air, food and biodiversity as well as the opportunity for lasting economic opportunity for the greatest number of people.

To fulfill the Commitment all parts of the institution – presidents, trustees, administration and operations staff, faculty and students – must understand how they contribute to negative climate and other impacts and how they can contribute to solutions. The institutions that have been most successful to date in fulfilling the Commitment have presidents and other senior leadership that understand that it is an excellent vehicle for uniting all parts of the institution in a common purpose in very exciting ways and have means of involving and tapping the creative abilities of the entire campus. These institutions see major opportunities to reduce costs, attract top faculty and students, attract new donors, enhance institutional prestige, improve town/gown relationships, and educate students for the jobs of the future. In essence, the ACUPCC is a key vehicle for transformation of higher education to fulfill its role in this century and beyond.

Moreover, the ACUPCC represents a form of unprecedented collaborative leadership in American society; higher education is the first and only major sector with a significant number of its members to commit to becoming climate neutral. The ACUPCC members understand both the necessity for and opportunity of collaboration. They believe that the scope, scale and speed of the challenge cannot be met by individual actions by individual institutions alone. By learning and working together as a group they can help create the knowledge and resources that will help all of higher education fulfill its mission.

This is among the greatest directional challenges that society and higher education have ever faced. It is uncharted territory and there is no template, framework, or technological fix that will work for any single institution. In a sense it is institutional “experiential education” for each school and for the entire higher education sector. Our belief at Second Nature is that if we work together and learn from each other, higher education can lead society on a healthy, just and sustainable path.