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Monday, January 23, 2012

Pushing campus sustainability's buttons

by Dave Newport

What does the University of Colorado at Boulder have that Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Duke, UCLA, Rice, Northwestern, Yale, Dartmouth, Oregon, Washington, UC-San Diego, or CSU don’t have (besides the nation's best ski team)?

Put another way: what does CU have that only ASU has?
Answer: a front page web link to “Sustainability.”

Big deal? Perhaps.

Over the holidays CU rolled out its new web page—with little fanfare. They have been working on it for a year and wanted a soft roll out over the break when nobody was looking so they could fix/tweak the inevitable whoops.

Along with a better overall look, CU installed a front page “Sustainability button” that links to a sustainability portal.

In short, CU has given the same front page prominence to Sustainability as we give to Athletics, International, Academics, Research, Admissions, and so forth.

Wow! But…why?

Why has CU has taken this step—a step that I can only find on one other major university web page? (I am sure I missed somebody).

We have seen this before. A few years ago when sustainability was the next big thing, green claims on campus web pages grew like pond scum in summer. Without naming names, suffice to say that there was ample greenwash and hyperbole on some otherwise respectable campuses’ web pages.

However, in the open source, transparent WikiLeaks world, exaggerated claims are inevitably challenged—sometimes publically. And more objective sustainability evaluations like STARS have made it more difficult for a campus to claim global sustainability supremacy on the strength of installing a couple new recycling cans.

So what are the benefits of a strong sustainability presence on CU’s web page? Why did we do it? There are at least six reasons:

1. Student Recruiting. Studies indicate major benefits for student recruiting if prospective students perceive a candidate campus to be green.
2. Faculty Recruiting/Research awards. CU is ranked very high in “environmentally-related” research awards from NSF (either number 1 or number 3 depending on how it’s computed). Why? Well, among other reasons research faculty with the acumen to win these sorts of awards want to work on a campus that is perceived as a sustainability leader.
3. Reputational standing. CU’s sustainability achievements/awards/rankings serve to enhance campus reputation that, in turn, serves to elevate perceived value and academic standing. We are increasingly recruiting international students; they have high expectations for sustainability. CU’s STARS Gold also helps. In coming years, even US NEWS may begin to use STARS rankings as part of their annual rankings. Princeton Review and Sierra are beginning to now.
4. A culture of sustainability and conservation. The prominence of sustainability on the website and on campus reinforce one another and thus better promote conservation behaviors and initiatives that create value while they continue to reinforce CU’s green reputation. Thus we can engage more campus folks in sustainability behaviors because of this high-level affirmation of its legitimacy. This is the most important benefit, in my book.
5. Town/gown partnerships and cooperation. In sustainability-conscious Boulder and conservation minded Colorado, a green perception of CU pays back in terms of enhanced community relations and outreach, political/regulatory cooperation, and support for CU as the flagship university.
6. Development. Other campuses are generating considerable revenues from focused green development efforts. CU has among the best sustainability stories to tell in the nation. We have a Green Fund story telling page at

That said, this is a risky play. With increased visibility comes increased scrutiny. We better have content and quality to deliver. We do. Is it enough?

As I alluded above, ASU is the only other big research university I found that wears sustainability on its sleeve. Their front page link goes to their Global Institute of Sustainability and related content. It’s impressive. They are doing great things and have great leadership. ASU has a great story to tell—and they are doing so.

Yet CU has a legacy of leadership on sustainability that is unrivaled. We’ve been doing this 40+ years. We are not sitting around either; lots of new stuff coming. The sustainability web portal links to an Academics & Research page that touts CU’s curricular approaches to sustainability. For now, that page needs to be improved—but they are working on it. Campus leaders are contemplating major new academic thrusts too.

Is this for real?

In sustainability-crazed Boulder, the locals are pretty savvy. The first question they ask of new initiatives is: “is this something you are going to keep doing?” Is sustainability sustainable—or disposable? Or Greenwash? They have seen plenty come and go.

I think the button is here for a good long time; it would look really bad to unplug it anytime soon. Higher education has been through the greenwash phase of sustainability. Now there’s too much scrutiny to go for cheap thrills. It’s got to be real. I suspect we will see more schools pushing this button in the future.

As somebody said: There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Now we have to deliver on that idea.

The heightened visibility on our webpage is a confirmation of all sustainability has become in higher education. It affirms sustainability’s potential as a root campus priority as important as any—on any campus.

For CU, it calls us all out to do more because we will be increasingly asked to back up our bravado. Good. It signals that all we have done before is appreciated—but we’re not done yet. It tells the world that CU Boulder is not shrinking from its historic commitment to sustainability; on the contrary, it means we are serious about fulfilling sustainability’s potential as a unifying theme. It sets a high bar, we all need that.

It means we’ve arrived--all of us.

Please push sustainability’s buttons.