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Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Joy of Campus Sustainability: 2.0

Part One: From Margin to Mission

"Now we are speaking the campus’ language. 
Not highfalutin end of the world privileged guilt trip. Campus-speak."

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

You're thinking, “Really?”

“The same hack who threatened me with The Death of Campus Sustainability three years ago now finds joy in it? Stop writing this crap before you hurt somebody.”

Fair enough. Step One of 12: I am a hack.

So I asked a medical team of over 50 sustainabilistas to feel sustainability’s pulse and chart their findings to help me write this blog.  Get a second opinion or three. Some of those opinions are below. Some were absorbed by my 'borg.

I asked them if campus sustainability has made it through its troubled childhood well prepared to blossom into a 2.0 lifestyle? And, if so, what would that lifestyle looks like?

It’s been three years to the day since the Death blog and a year since my NDE started me scribbling Book Two of my life. Definitely time for a sustainability stethoscope.

Properly, that sustainabilista medical team (SMT) diagnosed before they prescribed.

Doctor doctor, give me the news…

It’s worth remembering that campus sustainability itself is only about 20 years old. I don’t have an Obama-proof birth certificate, but the first baby picture I remember came from Penn State University’s Prof. Chris Uhl’s Campus Sustainability Indicators Report that emerged around 1996. A couple years earlier, Tony Cortese, Senator John Kerry, and Teresa Heinz established Second Nature Education for Sustainability

So, we’re twenty-something now. Just getting to the age where we are supposed to grow and mature; maybe even blossom. But for now, the telemetry suggests a somewhat sluggish maturity. The SMT doctors note:

“Sustainability has become fairly institutionalized at only ~800 of the ~4K [higher education] institutions (this is a rough estimate based on AASHE membership, ACUPCC signatories, sustainability officer positions etc.). These institutions have created sustainability staff positions and/or have adopted sustainability commitments or plans and seem likely to continue their sustainability efforts. At the same, relatively few new institutions seem to joining the campus sustainability movement. Some do of course, but these are likely roughly matched by institutions that drift away from sustainability due to personnel changes and funding challenges.” 

My sense is that the above assay is pretty good in terms of size but maybe not scope. For instance we see sustainability embedding in non-traditional campus silos such as athletics, student affairs, research labs, and fundraising, among others. Maybe in terms of breadth of impact across those ~800 campuses, maybe, maybe we are moving into a more mature phase.


More troubling are the places on campus where critical sustainability life signs may be fibrillating.

“Of the “700 or so college presidents” who signed ACUPCC [carbon neutrality commitment], how many of their campuses are trending to meet their commitment? Well, if you take a look at the first page of the reporting site for ACUPCC, 18 out of 50 names displayed is in some type of default. A brief click-through of the 13 other pages of signatories shows that default is not an alphabetical anomaly – it is endemic to “the commitment.” Campus sustainability folks have in large over promised and under delivered which has led to a waning confidence in our mission. We need to rethink our goals and commitments and aim for aggressive, but achievable, targets.”

And campus sustainability’s heart, general education, may yet need a pacemaker.

“The knowledge of the students it graduates is by far higher education's biggest opportunity to contribute to sustainability; indeed the catalytic potential of higher education as a sector is largely premised on the fact that the vast majority of professionals (policy makers, business leaders, scientists, etc) graduate from institutions of higher education. [Yet] despite our efforts over the past decade, most students still graduate without even an elementary understanding of sustainability.”

Last, while glimmers of a rainbow coalition are appearing on some campuses, campus sustainability’s stakeholders are still pretty much white-only although we preach inclusion and justice for all.  In frustration, my somewhat desperate 2013 blog laid out brash new rules that I am going to lump in with the SMT’s diagnosis because this is my blog after all…

“It took all the upheaval of 1963 to advance the civil rights movement to new rules: Congressional approval of the Civil Rights Act that guaranteed, at least in law, full equality for all our nation’s citizens. Fifty years later, the sustainability movement is in similar upheaval; one that is no less pivotal. People are dying from unsustainable practices, business integration of sustainability is waning, enviros are losing steam, some say sustainability itself risks becoming extinct. So, just as the civil rights movement won breakthrough legal equality through its struggle, the time has come for sustainability to craft new rules to hopefully father breakthrough accomplishment.”

So what does Campus Sustainability 2.0 look like?

It starts out looking like dirty feet.

Sustainability and the Scandal of Normality

If you are a sustainabilista, you are probably catholic. No, not that kind. Think small “c,” the adjective: Wide-ranging, broad, all embracing, and extensive. These are all operating principles of an effective sustainabilista.

But while we’re thinking about a catholic approach to sustainability 2.0, I can’t help but notice how the current Pontiff (derived from the Latin “Pontifex” for “bridge builder”), Pope Francis, is seeking to morph the Roman Catholic Church to Catholicism 2.0. He’s being very catholic (adjective) as he propagates a “Scandal of Normality” on the Church. Maybe there's a lesson here.

That is, he is transforming the Papacy and hence the Church from a perceived lofty and elite institution into an everyday normalcy.  He spurned the furs and jewelry Popes have worn for an everyman look, and everyman actions. Washing the feet of women, criminals, Muslims; unheard of by a Pope. Gays? “Who am I to judge,” he says. The list of Francis’ populist reforms go on.

His humility and joyous personal countenance has, in organizational terms, “operationalized” piety at an individual level, rendered the Gospel joyful instead of judgmental, created hope where there was cynicism, and cast a personal vision of “Heaven on Earth” attainable by those least among us.

Wow, can we do that for campus sustainability?

Yes, Francis’s got some work to do and major challenges all around him. And no, I am not Catholic. But I respect and admire Francis’ brand of it.

And his people-facing, mission-centric approach parallels the Campus Sustainability 2.0 lifestyle envisioned in the SMT prescriptions:

“Let’s start thinking about the other people in the room. Let’s listen rather than preach. Let’s make them part of our team by adding value to their missions, not ours.”

Indeed, we have always been taught that the mission of higher education is education, research and service.  Then recently, my Chancellor set down three campus goals for us all to focus on, we call them the Three R’s: Retention, Revenues, and Reputation. We have ALL been asked to align our programs to further these goals and measure our effectiveness doing it.

I am sincerely grateful that my Chancellor laid out those goals. Seriously. Now I am looking at quantifying how sustainability drives reputation instead of just telling stories. How do we measure our effect on revenues and fiscal strength? And how much do we drive retention and graduation? Want to guess how much literature there is out there about sustainability’s effect on retention and grad rates? Yeah, you got it: not much. We don’t think like that. But campus leaders do.

Likewise, when we are focusing on their goals, we talk like Pope Francis talks of Catholicism; we must "stop wagging our fingers at people.” We must get off our judgmental high horse and align with campus goals by speaking a campus-lexicon that people at the heart of campus mission understand.

“[Sustainabilistas must] operate with the language of today’s higher ed leadership and within its structure—this model is more engaged reform than campus activism.  Don’t get me wrong—both are needed, but I’m seeing more feeding of the latter than the former.”

One noted enviro-communications expert admonishes us to even lose the word “sustainability” if we want to make it happen. Make it about people. People are higher education’s customers—and product line.

“Don’t use the word ‘planet,’ and don’t use the word ‘earth.’ One of the problems we have is that too much of the public thinks that environmentalists are people who care about the environment and not about people. So the environment has become a thing apart.” 

Campus Sustainability 2.0 must speak in a people-facing language that’s understood across multiple campus dimensions, silos, cultures, and colors.

“This won't be easy because it will require the largely white sustainability crowd to engage more in complicated and uncomfortable conversations about race, inequality, reflect upon their privilege, etc. It will require students and employees of color to engage in issues that they feel are privileged-people problems and to challenge their assumptions.”

Yup, campus sustainability 2.0 must resolve some simmering tensions. And here we could use some help from our professional organizations, themselves a little tense.

“AASHE's growing pains will decrease when we effectively bridge the tensions between being a professional organization for sustainability professionals and an organization that serves all constituencies in higher education sustainability and the tension between being a social movement and a major higher education organization.”  

Well that complicates things. And we love that. As noted enviro communicator David Fenton puts it:
  • “Our side likes complexity. And in communications, only simplicity works. Our side doesn't like simplicity because they view it as manipulative or not capturing the truth. [But] without simplicity, people don’t remember anything.” 

Now we are speaking the campus’ language. Not highfalutin end of the world privileged guilt trip. Campus-speak.

Campus sustainability 2.0: From margin to mission
In the World According to Dave, campus accession to sustainability nirvana is a four-step process.

Yes, from simple minds come simple steps. But you knew that and you're still reading.

Anyway, in the beginning sustainability starts in the wilds of residence halls where students foment insurrection and those winds blows through a few courses where like-minded faculty help fan the flames. Viral. Organic. Heats up the primordial broth of sustainability we are all born of. 

Eventually, even some administrators imbibe the soup.

But the like, dude, it’s cool Bruh vibe of student activism and even the corporate Return-On-Investment-speak used in making sustainability’s business case are insufficient to articulate a vision of sustainability that will draw a spotlight in the Board Room. And that room already has a hard time seeing:

“Frankly, there isn't enough big-picture thinking. Even among the "elite" institutions.”

And then there’s the Board Room. Full of well intended and largely smart people who together are stuck in an ages-old feudal governance structure that blunts innovation and dilutes vision. Sustainability is sitting right in front of them but they are structurally gridlocked from seizing its potential. One SMT member, a noted sustainability leader of an Ivy League school, nails it:

“The integration of campus sustainability into academic and cultural visioning is less defined than the operational, yet far more central to the core mission of higher education. I think the transformational potential in this arena is in realizing sustainability as one of the foundations of a modern liberal arts education. There are few topics that so deeply integrate disciplines and interlink the drivers of our time - from injustice and poverty to cutting edge technology - and that can prepare our students for the challenges of the modern world.”

Amen.  Without that integration, you can’t get there from here.

  • “I’ve observed a trend of effective campus sustainability approaches gravitating to the Provost’s Office or Chancellor’s Office on campuses. Only with support and access at that level, where campus sustainability is clearly part of the core mission and not a distraction from or a “nice to have” element on campus, will the necessarily transformative change have a chance to succeed. For the “emergent operating system” that Penn State et al are currently championing to have a chance to innovate at the scale and pace of change that is needed, sustainability needs high-level leadership in addition to the ubiquitous grassroots students support, faculty advocacy, and staff diligence.

A few small, private liberal arts schools have reorganized themselves around sustainability and are leaders in this space. Green Mountain College comes to mind along with a handful of other well-led schools. Thank you all for your leadership

But only a few big publics and privates are dabbling with a mission-centric sustainability vision and strategy.  Indeed, change comes harder when paddling against the broader river of institutional inertia the big schools float in. Yet a few bigger schools are harnessing the breadth of their organization as strength to be leveraged, not an inertial barrier, by looping functions together in happy and inspiring contexts.

“We need collaborative, non-hierarchical modes of institutional governance to solve complex problems.  Here's a good website.  Some institutions are already practicing it, including Portland State, Lane CC, and Penn State.”

Indeed, Penn State’s model is showing great signs of life as it recognizes sustainability’s unique ability to converge organizational mission by linking common values in a non-threatening space.

Higher education’s traditional top down, command and control hierarchy means every new idea needs some higher-ups approval. That’s slow, risky, and uninspiring. Collaboration systems mean rapid brainstorming, implementation and coordination.

And that collaborative structure must be grounded in a vision that brings people together. The University of British Columbia—who was already a leader in this space when I started working in campus sustainability in the 1990s—pioneered the concept and implementation of the campus as a living lab where academic, research, and service synergies enable a sustainable campus:

“The idea underpinning [of UBC’s] living laboratory theme is that the entire campus is an experiment in sustainability.”

Couldn’t have said it better.

So how do the rest of us create a 2.0 world without getting whacked by the vertical command and control minders that have been haunted higher education for literally centuries? Where’s our Klingon cloaking device?

Back to the four phases of campus sustainability evolution pictured above. First, it’s not a discrete succession of phases. Campuses will have more or less capacity in at least the first three phases simultaneously. Student hunger for sustainability (just don't call it that) is growing, business case is getting easier to make, and visionary leaders crop up here and there.

So we are accustomed to somewhat patchwork approach to campus sustainability where we press the buttons that work on a case-by-case basis depending on the buttons we have. If we have a good leader in some silo, we make things happen there. If we have a strong business case for something else, we sell it. And where student interests can be harnessed to make things happen, say, in Residence Life, we go there.

What have we been doing? Catalyzing the elements we have to work with.

So what if we enable catalysis in a more systematic way? Can that get us to the Full Integration phase? Nirvana? Don’t know. But we can enable catalysis easier than we can fully restructure from command & control to a fully interdisciplinary, collaborative organizational hierarchy; that’s not going to happen soon.

We experimented with this a few years ago. We threw together with our Provost to jointly fund a tenured faculty member to become the liaison between faculty, student affairs, and operations. He reported to the Provost but student affairs helped pay him (0.10FTE). His job was to cross-link people and projects in all silos—and enhance the training and knowledge of sustainability among the faculty. Tall order but it worked.

So as we plan our next strategic realignment towards a 2.0 position on our campus, we are looking at leveraging the strides being made in collaborative organizational structures by overlaying a organized catalytic function.

We envision a team of campus sustainability catalysts who are tasked with creating hookups across academics, operations, and research. The catalysts must be charged with synergizing sustainability as part of their ongoing work. They must come from all over the campus. They must be trained (e.g. entrepreneur workshops) and held accountable/incentivized. And they must multiply. Think mitosis. They are coordinated by a “catalyst/coordinator” who is more facilitator than supervisor. Think coach. They create a ‘catalyst cloud’ where cross-linking is normal, rewarded, and basic to campus mission. We align and measure around the 3Rs etc. We speak campus first.

Honestly, we haven’t sold this yet. But a large group of campus sustainability interests from all silos think this is the future and are pushing for it. Will this create a fully integrated campus sustainability structure and empower a leadership vision that gets us to Nirvana? That’s a lot to ask. But it looks like a step in that direction. Is it 2.0? Maybe for me--but maybe not for you. Or vice versa.

To answer a question such as what is the future of campus sustainability is quite difficult, because – to hijack Tip O’Neill – all sustainability is local.”

And what about this “joy” thing? Will this approach help connect people to the universal aspiration to live a meaningful and happy life? It’s a start. Catalysis breeds empowerment, by definition. Empowerment fosters meaning. You get the trend. And catalysis creates community on a human scale where people do things they are proud of that are aligned with their tribe be it the campus, the community, or both. A sense of place evolves. These are fundamental human yearnings.

So our transition to a joyful new campus sustainability operating system (call it 2.0 or whatever) may be marked by:

  • A focus and language that describes and quantifies how sustainability-related activities align with campus mission and advance specific goals (e.g. 3Rs) BEFORE we focus and talk about climate change, etc. 
  • And no finger-wagging ever. EVER. Not explicitly or implicitly. Don't box people in. This is really hard for some of the more devout sustainabilistas. They might decline a banana offered to them with "no thanks, I try not to eat bananas because they have a huge carbon footprint." That's a guilt zinger. A simple "no thanks" is all that's necessary.
  • Recruiting and developing catalytic personnel that move between units and even silos to cross link activities that synergize sustainability outcomes while advancing campus mission. For instance, we recently won a research contract to study student emotional triggers that motivate recycling behaviors by cross linking our sports sustainability effort with researchers in traditional disciplines cooperating with Housing and Recycling staff. Wouldn't have happened without a couple catalysts who moved across those units with relative ease.
  • While a viral network of catalysts or a formalized catalytic array blessed by management will boost institutional integration of sustainability, there's no substitute for having a seat and a real voice in campus leadership discussions. A CSO-like function, well designed, supported and integrated into C-level decision making is probably a prerequisite to full campus integration. More on that next time.
  • Likewise, to win your campus leaders’ hearts and minds in support of a formal 2.0 upgrade may require we all learn new skills. The SMT has some Rx for that. Next time too.
  • Finally, the SMT prescribes some treatments we sustainabilistas may need to apply to ourselves so we embody and model joy and happiness in all we do. This work is not worth doing if we all get depressed. There are emerging techniques that can help us stay in the happiness zone. 
Next time.

For now, this blog was the product of lots of conversations and input from a small but loveable group of folks. Thank you all for bailing me out.

In the coming weeks, we go more catholic. Broad inclusion. What do you think we need in 2.0? What’s it look like? And how do we fulfill the challenge of my blog’s title, “The Department of Changed: Happy campus sustainabilistas.”  

As always, your questions, comments or cheap shots are all welcome. Email me here or post below.

Next time. Part Two of the Joy of Campus Sustainability: 2.0. 

Meantime, wash some feet.


PS: To the members of the SMT, you know who you are, hopefully I synthesized and/or restated your input fairly and didn't bastardize it too much. I sincerely appreciate the help. And if I screwed something up I am confident you will tell me. Thanks!

PPS: I am reminded that my blogs generally have a big-campus bias and I apologize for that. It is no way a narrative on the relative contribution of small schools vs biggies. It is only because that's where I live and where my perspective is forged. I deeply appreciate the dedication, innovation, and impacts made by sustainabilistas in small campus contexts. Indeed, many days I just envy you. Thank you for your leadership.

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