Sustainability in the Walls

By Georges Dyer, Vice President of Programs, Second Nature

(This article appears in the March, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

After the initial excitement and enthusiasm of a commitment to sustainability starts to fade, organizations often
find themselves facing a long, steady climb to integrate sustainability into all of their activities, so it is simply second nature.

Doing so requires engaging employees and other stakeholders so everyone is on the same page about what sustainability means, understands how everyday decisions contribute to achieving the end goals, and is empowered to work across departments and traditional boundaries to overcome barriers.

To really embed sustainability in the walls of an organization, leaders at all levels must work tirelessly to create and hold a clear vision; establish tangible goals; communicate objectives and progress; build capacity throughout the organization; establish metrics; and celebrate successes.In 2009, a group of ACUPCC presidents developed a resource called Leading Profound Change, which explores the president’s role in ensuring the institution maximizes its contribution to creating a sustainable society.  They laid out three tenets to accelerate progress:

1.         Treat sustainability as a major transformative initiative employing all the leadership skills of a major institutional change;

2.         Invoke the power of communication and campus?wide involvement; and

3.         Empower a dedicated group to establish tangible metrics, milestones, and concrete results

Leading Profound Change also provides specific examples of how presidents are putting these tenets into action.  For example, it discusses the leadership of Cornell’s administration, faculty and staff in founding the Center for a Sustainable Future, which after a successful pilot period received an $80 million follow-up gift last year.  It lays out ways for presidents to continually communicate a vision for sustainability in speeches, campus-wide emails, videos and articles in alumni magazines.  And it highlights a few examples of how sustainability committees, task forces or offices can be structured to ensure effectiveness.

It has become clear that for these structures to be successful, responsibility for implementation needs to be accompanied by the authority to make decisions, allocate resources and move the process forward.  Success typically happens when the president is actively involved or has direct oversight of the structure.

Over time, circumstances will change — key people come and go, budgets shrink and swell and new technologies, laws and cultural norms emerge.  In order to remain effective the process should follow some version of the Deming Cycle of planning, doing, checking and acting in an iterative manner.

The ACUPCC is designed to provide a framework for putting these transformational change strategies into practice.  Still, implementing these strategies requires a herculean effort.  The process is almost certain to be rife with setbacks, but these open the way for achievements.

Over the past four years, ACUPCC institutions have shown how a strategic approach can yield impressive results – including hundreds of energy efficiency projects, renewable energy systems, educational programs, research initiatives and community engagement projects that reduce emissions and save money – even in the worst economic climate in decades.

This success has not gone unnoticed and has demonstrated that the ACUPCC framework for individual and collective action is an effective model for accelerating progress towards climate neutrality and sustainability.  International initiatives modeled after the ACUPCC have begun to take off.  The Universities and College Climate Commitment for Scotland has been signed by 92% of the universities in Scotland and twenty-seven of them have published climate action plans.  In Peru, 13 institutions have signed the recently launched Commitment to Climate Neutrality.  We have been in touch with higher education representatives in Australia and Southeast Asia who are also interested in launching similar initiatives.

The 676 ACUPCC institutions have made tremendous strides, not only in institutionalizing a sustainability perspective at their own institutions, but also accelerating similar progress at other institutions, in other sectors, and around the world.

In addition to the resources developed by and for the ACUPCC, there is a rich literature on these topics that provide valuable lessons and ideas for continuing this process — from seminal business theory books like Built to LastGood to Great and The Fifth Discipline to sustainability-focused books like Mid-Course CorrectionDancing with the TigerThe ISIS Agreement, and Boldly Sustainable, which focuses on higher education.  Organizations like the Society for Organizational Learning provide workshops and resources for putting these concepts into practice.

Perhaps the most effective resources for leading change are your colleagues at other ACUPCC institutions.  An exciting new series of short videos from presidents, Implementation Liaisons, and other sustainability champions on ACUPCC campuses provides a wealth of valuable information and strategies for fulfilling the Commitment. The Implementation Liaison Support Committeemembers have agreed to help their peers to the extent possible on specific issues.

Finally, Second Nature is coordinating the formation of four committees this year, made up of presidents and subject-matter experts, to explore the issues of financing, academics, international efforts and climate change adaptation as they relate to the ACUPCC.  These groups will lead discussions on these topics at the ACUPCC Annual Climate Leadership Summit for presidents and senior administrators at George Washington University, June 23-24, 2011; and at regional ACUPCC Symposiums for presidents and their sustainability teams in Boston in November 2011, and at Arizona State University in March, 2012.