Master Planning for Sustainability


September 29, 2009

Call it a sign of the times. For decades, sustainability initiatives in higher education were conceived and executed through grassroots, bottom-up efforts, from sustainable investments to campus recycling programs. But as stakes and publicity rise, and sustainability initiatives like the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment take center stage, higher education is witnessing the growth of a top-down institutionalized approach to sustainability.

One of the clearest signs of this paradigm shift is the prominence that sustainability initiatives are receiving in university-wide strategic master plans. Green initiatives are now taking their place alongside more established campus issues in the long-term vision process.

“Generally, we’re seeing that more and more institutions are adopting sustainability in their master plans,” says Paul Rowland, executive director for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. “One of the things we have noticed more and more is that students are choosing what schools to attend based on their greening practices. Part of [master planning] is being driven by that, part of it is economic factors. Sustainability is not just environmental; some of it is connected to economic, social, and organizational sustainability.”

Other organizations are taking note of this development and spreading the idea. The Society of College and University Planning has taken on sustainability as an issue it believes universities should integrate into strategic planning.

“Without connection and integration with a master plan or the strategic plan, any efforts will have a hard time holding their own, especially when budget time comes along,” says Terry Calhoun, media relations and publications director for SCUP. “This is true of any efforts and any programs: If you aren’t integral to the strategic plan, you could be eliminated. If a physical facilities initiative does not fit comfortably within the master plan or is not integrated with it – it will have a very rough time.”

But sustainability may be an oddball in the traditional set of topics that fall under the category of strategic master planning. Unlike, say, physical plant building or academic programming, successful implementation of sustainability initiatives requires a dedicated commitment from everyone in the university to be successful.

“The long range development plan sets the tone for campus. A lot of sustainability is taking that vision and translating it into daily actions. The sustainability plan is one part of that,” says Lisa McNeilly, director of sustainability at the University of California-Berkeley. “There are a lot of other steps that we then take to go from the climate reduction goal to the changes in daily actions to help us reach that target — reporting annually towards the progress on those goals, monitoring and tracking those goals. I see all of this as an ongoing process. It’s the journey, not the destination — you just kind of look at what the next step needs to be.”

Growing Initiatives

The phenomenon of outlining the future of an institution in one overarching document may seem more attuned to the corporate world than the educational world, which, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is where the process is rooted. University-wide strategic planning developed more recently, becoming especially popular in the past 10 to 12 years.

SCUP was founded in 1966 with the mission of spreading the use of integrated and collaborated planning processes. According to Calhoun, the 1960s first required strategic planning in higher education because the large amount of baby boomers going to college necessitated expansion of the nation’s colleges and universities.

In the 1990s, the movement for integrated master planning began to incorporate environmental ideas. “If you did good integrated planning, you would end up with sustainability,” says Calhoun. “Why would you build a building that uses six times as much energy as it has to?”

Many of the plans that have come to fruition over the past few years have been commissioned by top administrators with an integrative approach in mind, seeking to connect disparate parts of the university and foster collaboration. Thus, for some universities, integrating sustainability into the strategic plan represents an opportunity for issues of climate change to become intermingled with more established university entities.

The University of Nevada-Reno, for example, explained in its 2006 strategic planning document that it hopes to make sustainability more of a focus in its academic curriculum. One of the suggestions was to create an interdisciplinary environmental studies program.

“Our positive impact could be a lot stronger by sending people out into the world who are at least aware of these issues,” says John Sagebiel, Nevada-Reno’s environmental affairs manager. “It’s absolutely mission-driven.”

Sagebiel adds that inclusion of sustainability-centered academics in the master plan allows the discipline to build on the university’s current strengths by coordinating a sustainability focused curriculum in fields like engineering, business, marketing and interior design. Without the strategic plan, it would have been more difficult to get all constituencies interested and focused on the same outcomes.

At Berkeley, the inclusion of sustainability clauses in the master plan was less about specific planning and more about getting a commitment from top administrators that sustainability would be a priority. Additionally, because the goal was to get other units on campus working on climate change issues, the master plan helped extend the focus outward and give individual groups the chance to start their own initiatives while still maintaining some sort of cohesion, according to McNeilly.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on, but I want to make sure it’s in the same general direction,” she says.

One new long-term focus of the strategic plan specified the need for the university to align itself with the recently passed California Environmental Quality Act — a new law asking anyone planning to construct a building to look at the environmental impacts of the construction. “That was an opportunity we felt was very timely for us,” McNeilly says. The university is also actively working to increase the energy efficiency of its current buildings.

While Western Michigan University currently has no formalized approved master plan, the University has taken it unto itself to “advance responsible environmental stewardship” as one part of its multi-pronged mission.

According to Harold Glasser, associate professor in environmental studies and chair of the president’s university-wide sustainability committee, this mission similarly places sustainability within the context of the rest of the university’s units. Mentioning one initiative in which the university gave all undergraduates their own coffee mugs in order to avoid using plastic cups, he noted that the office of sustainability worked with many other departments to implement and promote the scheme.

One of the main issues with campus sustainability, Glasser says, is that most people care about mitigating harmful environmental affects, but the effort put into accomplishing such a task does not always match up. Thus, he said that an overarching strategy can be effective in helping catalyze ground-up sustainability initiatives into a culture shift. And this process starts at the beginning — identifying where the university currently stands in terms of sustainability before moving forward.

“Strategic planning is about the process, about structures, modeling behavior we can see, and doing all of these things that support a culture shift,” Glasser said.

A Focused Plan

The College of the Atlantic — whose academics focus specifically on human interaction with the natural world — may be an anomaly when it comes to sustainability. The college is founded on principals of sustainability and environmental stewardship, with much of the curriculum emphasizing these goals, so it comes as no surprise that its master plan is one of the most ambitious.

One objective includes being 100 percent renewably powered by 2013, according to Craig Ten Brooeck, Atlantic’s director of sustainability. The campus currently purchases offsets for all of its carbon production, but hopes to soon be 100 percent carbon-neutral in its operations. Other initiatives include issues relating to landscaping, energy efficiency, design of student housing and composting.

The master plan, Brooeck says, has allowed many of the campus sustainability efforts to be standardized across different units of the college, so all departments are purchasing the most environmentally friendly products.

But even though these initiatives fall mostly into the realm of operations, Brooeck emphasized that the campus master plan has been an impetus for getting all campus constituencies involved.

“Not only is the president of the college and hopefully the financial officer involved, but they have to empower everyone. It’s a holistic thing. You can’t say the president of the college gives marching orders. It needs to get done on a day-to-day basis,” Ten Brooeck said.

The Budget Dilemma

Strategic planning, if realistically implemented, is closely aligned with the university budget, so linking sustainability into a bigger plan may present issues in this economic crisis.

“As our members like to say: ‘A budget IS a plan,'” Says SCUP’s Calhoun. “So in that sense, any sustainability work that occurs on a campus that is funded is connected in some way to a budget. Members of both SCUP and [the National Association of College and University Budget Officers] have been hearing from their professional associations now for a decade about the importance of sustainability. But the big issue is whether or not the budget(s) is/are integrated with any of the planning on campus or not. Very often a budget (which is a plan) is not well integrated with more traditional plans like the strategic plan, academic plan, or master plan.”

College officials said that the current state of economy is affecting their sustainability master planning differently. For Nevada-Reno, the economic crisis did not so much eliminate large-scale sustainable infrastructure projects as put them on hold. For Atlantic, all of the projects that were on the table before — such as a biomass fuel heating system — are still there, but many will not move forward until funding becomes available.

Berkeley, as part of the University of California system, may be one of the schools hardest hit by budget woes, but McNeilly emphasizes that sustainability is far from first on the chopping block. “There’s a budget crisis that’s causing some units to restructure, but the fundamentals are not being changed.”

Glasser says that even if funds dry up, the implementation of long term sustainability goals can continue regardless. “The budget crisis makes people stop, but the forward momentum is inspiring people to think more creatively and collaboratively to solve the budget crisis issues.”

The Other Master Plan

But if one takes the climate action plan as an indication of the long term success of sustainable master planning, it may be an ominous sign. Of the 392 signatories to the ACUPCC in 2007 (for which their climate action plans were due September 15) only 88 had submitted them as of September 17, according to an article in Inside Higher Ed.

“It remains to be seen how well all this burst of sustainability planning gets integrated in other campus planning,” Calhoun says. “One of the things we have been worried about, and I think we’re seeing, is that the folks doing the heavy lifting on sustainability on campus may assemble a sustainability or climate action plan, but when they try to move it into the upper levels of decision making, they may find that a lot of important stakeholders have not been paying attention.”

“Some people have felt that ACUPCC is not going to inspire people to think collaboratively enough – in terms of how the institution runs, in terms of research and education,” Glasser says. “The climate neutrality commitment is very bold and increasingly non-trivial. Unfortunately many higher ed institutions might not be up to the task in the short term.”

However, Glasser adds that even without fitting into the specific guidelines of the climate commitment, it is possible for universities to blaze paths on the road to long-term sustainability. He reiterated that cultivating a culture shift in the way people act towards sustainability is the real goal.

With a host of plans in place – from strategic master plans to climate action plans – all that’s left is action. Calhoun says, “You need to know that strategic plans and master plans don’t just happen every year, and that the process is often considered to be more important than the final document.”

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Published: September 29, 2009