Integrating Sustainability & Climate Action into Every Student’s Learning Experience

Richard Torgerson, President, Luther CollegeBy Richard L. Torgerson, President, Luther College And Co-Chair, ACUPCC Academic Committee 

(This article appears in the June, 2012 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)


Since its founding in 1861, Luther College has remained true to its mission by preparing graduates to respond to a changing world. As we look ahead we see global environmental problems, resource scarcity, and climate change threatening the health of the planet. In response to these threats Luther College’s 2007 Sesquicentennial Strategic Plan pushes the college to seek sustainability through greater operational efficiencies while preparing graduates with the skills, knowledge, and experience to lead society toward a more sustainable future. In order to “make sustainability a part of every student’s learning experience,” a clearly articulated conceptual framework for sustainability education is necessary so that faculty from disciplines across the campus can discover how sustainability connects to their work and can enrich their teaching.

In March 2009 a campus faculty survey revealed 25 courses are sustainability-focused, which means 20-100% of the class time in these courses deals with sustainability.  Another 16 courses were sustainability-related, which means less than 20% of class time dealt with sustainability. In summer 2012 nine Luther faculty have submitted proposals to participate in a summer workshop to prepare a fully designed new or modified, ready-to-teach course focusing on sustainability. Participating faculty are also asked to engage in ongoing discussion through the fall of 2012 with faculty peers to share ideas and plans for dissemination of work and to share their experiences through presentations and brown-bag lunches. Participating faculty receive a $1200 stipend jointly funded by the Margaret Cargill Foundation and the Luther President’s Fund. The use of presidential discretionary funds for high priority initiatives signals to the campus a level of importance and affirms good work being done. To stimulate faculty thinking about sustainability in the curriculum two Luther faculty have written a Frequently Asked Questions about Sustainability Education to answer questions and stimulate thinking.

Sustainability education is a major initiative of the ACUPCC. Since chief academic officers (CAOs) play a central role in curricular change, a group of 10 provosts, 4 vice presidents of academic affairs and 5 directors of sustainability representing a diversity of higher education institutions met at Arizona State University on March 1, 2012.  The Summit was a collaborative event planned and facilitated by Second Nature and AASHE.  The goal of the Summit was to engage CAOs in articulating their role leading the advancement of sustainability and climate action in higher education. The Summit focused on how to engage, enlist, support and guide CAOs as leaders of academic planning and programming preparing every student to meet the sustainability challenges of the future.  The process included setting a vision and defining the current reality and challenges.  Two important questions were raised: What high leverage activities, support, actions or projects are most critical for achieving the vision of sustainability across the curriculum? And, what do chief academic officers need now to more aggressively advance sustainability on campus? The framework for sustainability education that emerged from discussion about these questions is outlined in the table below.

The Role of Leadership Advancing Sustainability in Higher Education

Students today are demanding sustainability-related content, skills and pedagogical processes that include complex problem-solving, critical dialogue, interdisciplinary collaboration and wider-world application with multiple (and global) perspectives.  Students also associate quality of life on campus with sustainability initiatives and metrics. During the past academic year more than 80 per cent of Luther students were engaged in out-of-class experiences such as campus recycling, bike share, energy conservation, green room certification, campus garden workers, car share members, and sustainability project managers. Community engagement in sustainability increases and deepens the quality of campus life, student retention, and alumni pride and engagement.   Co-curricular activities provide bridges from classroom study to practical applications and innovative platforms for new sustainability ideas.

Campus sustainability curriculum efforts need campus champions, but presidents play a critical role supporting and enabling the success of this vision and empowering the role that academic leadership plays in its accomplishment.  It will be important for presidents to identify ways to recognize and reward the role of academic leadership and faculty in advancing sustainability.  Continued sustainable and strategic enhancements of the plant and facilities, with a focus on student learning, energy payback, campus needs, and economic return are required for Luther College to achieve its goal to be a model for rather than a mirror of the rest of society.