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Monday, March 26, 2012

Resuscitating campus sustainability, Part One: Where to put the paddles?

By Dave Newport

The first of several shorter posts about preventing 
Humpty Dumpty from having that Great Fall…

In “Death of Campus Sustainability,” I hypothesized that campus sustainability was in critical condition—and that focusing on people before bunnies was a potential lifesaver.

Mostly, folks agreed with that premise, some didn't—and others complained it was too long. So, in this promised followup to the "Death" blog, I begin the first of several shorter posts about preventing Humpty Dumpty from having that Great Fall…

Step one: before applying CPR, triage the patient. What shape is a given campus in, what stage of development, muscle tone, diet, etc? And will campus fathers approve of life support?

So, with full apologies to Maslow, here is a simplistic hierarchy of campus sustainability growth & development drawn from other experts, observations (read: lots of mistakes), and research. From this model, perhaps it will be easier to assess the state of a given campus—and how to nurture a strong and mature campus sustainability body.


In the beginning, there were students, faculty and staff that planted grassroots sustainability efforts. From our recent piece in IJSHE:

In Phase One, “grassroots efforts are king. Grassroots campus champions advocate for various sustainability-related services and policies—and campus leadership either resists the requests or is only minimally responsive. In response, advocates then organize and launch their own ad hoc efforts. Such activities as single department recycling programs, bicycle campaigns, faculty creating new coursework, campaigns to limit pesticides, campaigns to limit sweatshop athletic apparel sold by the university or bearing its logo, campaigns to boycott plastic water bottle sales, etc, evolve from myriad different constituencies across campus.”

Campus-community partnerships are also spawned from these grassroots efforts—and these have great social upsides. When we partner with community organizations to grow local food for the under-resourced, weatherize low-income housing, work in schools in the ‘hood, recycle/upgrade computers for needy families, fix kids’ bikes, etc—we are putting people first. 

In short, grassroots are campus sustainability’s base—and the place for relationship building, community partnerships, student service efforts, advocacy for justice, and other ways to connect sustainability to people.

I suspect all campuses have more or less grassroots capacity. Even at seemingly traditional, conventional, intractable schools, there will be some folks that are dialed in and looking for a way to be effective.

Either way, grassroots efforts are baseline—and generally rewarding places to work.

Indeed, compared to changing cultures or governance paradigms, opportunities for a people-first brand of sustainability through community partnerships are relatively easy, plentiful, and appreciated.

If we cherry-pick all the low-hanging fruit while it’s still green, 
sustainability will never ripen. 

Phase Two of campus sustainability development offers more challenging opportunities. In phase two, sustainability’s business case is in the spotlight.

“In this phase, campus leadership accepts some – but not all—aspects of the business case for sustainability. Leadership easily sees the value of efficiency programs that inspire cost savings and improve campus reputation. Accordingly, energy efficiency, water conservation, and green branding/public relations programs are supported by campus leadership…”

“In general, campus leaders…are less supportive of sustainability initiatives that require broad-based stakeholder inclusion and transparency practices, or require broader life cycle and/or full cost evaluation perspectives. Costs still trump many other considerations and economic terms guide most decisions.”

In other words, sustainability is used by campus leaders to inspire conservation efforts—and that works pretty well. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with motivating resource conservation with a sustainability agenda. It works.

But if we cherry-pick all the low-hanging fruit while it’s still green, sustainability will never ripen. Sustainability may then be seen only as recycling and energy conservation—green stuff. We get tagged as eco-centric. We’re back to The Death of Campus Sustainability.

To broaden sustainability’s appeal, we have to better connect the dots from a first-cost business case to a full-cost value proposition. We need to speak not just about the simple payback of, say, a lighting project, but the value created by volunteer/service programs, multi-cultural outreach/inclusive engagement efforts, promoting and sourcing local organic food, community health/wellness, affordable housing initiatives, and energy/climate justice, etc.

Making this full-cost value proposition case is more difficult than simply penciling out that lighting project. In the book, “Making Sustainability Work,” author Marc Epstein points out why:

“The costs and benefits of a sustainability strategy are cross-dimensional throughout the organization, not firmly lodged in any one functional area. Furthermore, many economic benefits are seen as intangible and therefore difficult to measure.”

Epstein differentiates between “market” and “non-market” impacts. The former go right to an organization’s bottom line like, say, sales. The non-market impacts are more difficult to assay:

“To measure these impacts, we need to understand how stakeholders place value on social and environmental assets.”

This is difficult for campus sustainability professionals to do unilaterally because one particularly important stakeholder group may not be taking calls from low level staff: campus leadership.

But there is hope.

To broaden sustainability’s appeal, we have to better connect the dots
 from a first-cost business case to a full-cost value proposition.

With respect to campus leadership, Phase Three describes some circumstances that have happily begun to emerge on a few campuses:

“Third Phase: The Visionary Campus Leader. In this phase, campus leaders—including the highest-level executives—openly promote a sustainability vision and rally behind it as a central element of their platform. These leaders embrace the concept as a central value of the administration’s goals and strategic plan and are supported or at least tolerated by their Trustees. As part of this phase there is full executive leadership on sustainability, a keen understanding of its tenets, and an articulated vision for the future.”

“The visionary campus leader reprioritizes sustainability efforts and is supportive of stakeholder engagement/inclusion, robust transparency/goal setting, and prospective full-cost evaluation practices.”

Higher education examples include Arizona State’s president Michael Crow, Furman’s president David Shi, Unity College president Mitch Thomashow, Spelman College president Beverly Tatum, RIT president William Destler, Georgia Tech president Bud Peterson, to name a few. I am certain there are others—and more have begun to emerge recently. 

These and other visionary campus leaders have realized sustainability is good for student recruitment/engagement/retention, operational efficiency/cost savings, town-gown relations/partnerships, stakeholder-relevant strategic planning, risk abatement, fundraising and donor relations, reputation/communications/PR, student and staff diversity, community economic development, and, almost forgot, the organization's ethical license to operate. These ready attributes inform a leadership vision for the future that inspires the campus.

However, the hard part may be changing higher education’s inflexible paradigm and siloed organizational architecture. No matter how tuned in those leaders are, they face centuries of institutional inertia that informs the reductionist educational approach that typifies the academe. We know that even among our model campus leaders mentioned above, some have their share of scars from trying to tear down traditional campus walls that have lots of sharp edges.

So, as successful as our Phase Three leaders may be, they may not even live long enough to witness organizational maturity analogous to Maslow’s “full self-actualization.”

And you thought there was no Santa Claus...

Phase Four campuses put it all together; full integration. Building on a robust, vital, and supported grassroots base, a Phase Four campus has identified campus sustainability’s value drivers and articulates a robust value proposition that is routinely aligned with all stakeholders’ values; has open, accessible leaders and a governance model that embraces transparency; and has integrated campus organizational elements into inter-disciplinary sustainability-literate highly coordinated units—all of which is harmoniously interwoven with local and global communities.

And you thought there was no Santa Claus.

“In this ‘nirvana’ phase, systems-thinking and interdisciplinary cooperation would be the central mission of all campus departments. Sustainability operations, student activities, and community partnerships are coordinated, coherent, and high quality. Sustainability futures may be visioned collectively across all stakeholders after the deliberative analysis and mapping of internal and external forces and data iterates appropriate and effective new pathways that converge and synergize the sympathetic but necessarily discrete foci of various stakeholders. Innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity is empowered across the operation and then channeled into tangible and focused evolutions. Sustainability becomes integral to the university.”

I haven’t seen this campus yet—but hope there are some in the US. If so, I suspect they will be smaller, private, liberal arts colleges that have less inertia and bureaucracy than, say, a big public research university. In Europe, a couple campuses are said to be there:

“For example, Leuphana University, Germany (the first zero-emission campus), Birkenfeld from University of Applied Sciences Trier, Germany, and the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, are useful case studies to consider as fully self-actualized and integrated campus communities around sustainability”

Peter Bardaglio has written and spoken of the great work being done in Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York, that may be aspiring to the campus-community integration envisioned in Phase Four. I hope Peter is right. I hope to learn of others too.

As noted organizational/leadership expert 
Steven Covey instructs: “diagnose, then prescribe.”

So where is your campus? As noted organizational/leadership expert Steven Covey instructs: “diagnose, then prescribe.”

Is your campus grassroots strong or underdeveloped? Are you implementing only cost-saving sustainability actions? Is your leadership team on the team? Or has your campus achieved true enlightenment and full integration? Are you “some of the above?” Your campus assessment will hopefully help you decide where to put the paddles; that is, where to apply treatment to boost growth of campus sustainability.

In “Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability,” the authors point out:

“Social sustainability is the only bedrock upon which meaningful environmental sustainability can be grounded. It is within the social sphere that people design institutions that not only facilitate relationally-based needs, but also construct their understanding of the natural world.”

Despite the inherent logic and intuitive appeal of that rational analysis, my experience is that it is very difficult to ground into that bedrock. By definition, we are trying to work with human beings in all their complexity and diverse needs and wants. Nobody said this was supposed to be easy. I will easily cop to having more failures than victories in this arena. But big struggles are the only ones worth having. As noted sustainability guru John Elkington observes:

“The path to relative economic, social and ecological sustainability is guaranteed to be littered with failures of every nature and scale. If we recognize them and learn from them, the transition will proceed faster and in more resource-efficient ways. If, on the other hand, we prefer the short-term comfort of burying our failures, or of blaming scapegoats, the transition will be significantly slowed, or could even be derailed completely.” 

Next time I will talk about some techniques we've tried. Some work, some don't. But we keep going.

Next time:
Resuscitating campus sustainability
Part 2: Restoring respiration



  1. OK Dave - I get your point, but what if we feel more "successful and engaged" at the grassroots level? Sometimes it is easier to get stuff accomplished "under the radar". If the movement elevates into the Admin building - do we lose control? Gil Scott Heron had some great lyrics about the men in suits that co-opted the civil rights movement because they had the power.....

    P.S. Praying for rain in CO

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Indeed, there are lots of perils when Admin decides sustainability is a good thing--and a few SCs that have been shown the door because Admin took over. This is a tough business--and change agents live on a razor's edge.

    In the meantime, I am praying for rain too...

    Thanks Carol