Extending the University’s Influence–AASHE 2008

Sustainability is rarely defined as a single-entity problem, especially when considering recent economic and political traumas. Gordon Rands of Western Illinois University and Mark Starik of George Washington University argued in one of this morning’s sessions that a university’s plan for sustainability should be taken far beyond the campus border.

Rands says, "An entity can become sustainable on its own, but it can’t
remain that way." He went on to stress that without a larger context and a fully sustainable climate (environmental or cultural), even the most exciting higher education projects will be unsuccessful.

For example, a green business is unlikely to survive without competitors’ willingness to make similar efforts, as their lower costs will cause the eco-minded company to fail. A college, even one running on renewable energy and stable supply systems, could find itself an island without the involvement of the surrounding town. Unless the local channels for food, telecommunications, energy, transportation, medical care, housing, and other provisions are as able to weather a crisis as the university itself, a few wind turbines and even carbon-neutrality will be ultimately meaningless.

Rands and Starik propose, instead, that a holistic view of higher education would work on five levels:

–Ecological: Ensure the viability and environmental-friendliness of the waste systems, products, and energy that support the university.

–Individual: Members of the institution must be invested and participating, whether that’s through following a recycling policy, making sustainability knowledge an integral part of the curriculum. or inventing new storage technology for a solar array.

–Organizational: Make sure that your partners support your work, eg. forming strong industrial ecology arrangements or working with your local town for commuting programs.

–Political: Engage in political mechanisms, such as lobbying, trade associations, and media organizations to affect policy and public information.

–Socio-cultural: Use the university’s stature in its community to increase the involvement of off-campus citizens and create a broad culture of sustainability.

The idea that a university has an obligation to the wider community is not new, but is usually considered in terms of thought leadership — research and innovation will eventually trickle down to the populace, even if no direct conversation takes place. However, Rands and Starik suggest that the university itself do more to collaborate with its neighbors, making everyone greener in the process.

Rands says, "This is still on a conceptual basis. At WIU, we’ve made some operations changes, but that’s pretty much it so far. The model, however, started with business and could easily be aimed at government as well. It’s just a way to think about all of this."

We are recapping AASHE:
Sustainability on Campus and Beyond
as it happens. If you were at the
sessions we’re covering, weigh in with your comments below. Or see others’
blogs, photos and Twitter updates on the AASHE live page.

Published: November 10, 2008