A Strategy to Accelerate the Shift to Sustainability through Higher Education

The Declaration, Volume 2, Number 2 : June 1998  [Feature]

While there are many hopeful signs that academic disciplines and institutions are responding to the environmental challenge, a commitment to sustainability- in academic programs, operations and outreach- is not present in most academic settings. ULSF has established a set of strategic goals to help accelerate the transition to sustainability through higher education. In the present climate, we believe these are the critical leverage points for greening the university. Unless we- and many others- move forward on these fronts, higher education will change too little and too late.

These goals have emerged out of extensive discussions with David Orr, Anthony Cortese, Julian Keniry, Richard Bunch and other leaders in the education for sustainability movement. These goals have also been informed by ULSF programmatic work with the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation.

A. Develop Sustainability Indicators for Higher Education. Many academic institutions have focused on greening their campus operations. A few have positioned themselves as the leading “green universities.” Yet, when a critical champion leaves, when major external funding dries up, or when staff seek to move from rhetoric to reality, these initiatives often reveal their lack of real support in the institution. ULSF has received funding from the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation for an 18 month initiative to identify appropriate indicators for sustainability in higher education and develop an assessment instrument.

B. Identify and Support Lead Institutions. These are institutions of higher education (colleges, universities, seminaries, schools of theology) in which a “critical mass” of stakeholders (faculty, administrators, staff, students, community, trustees) take the “environmental challenge” seriously and are changing academic programs and institutional operations to foster a humane and sustainable future. These colleges and universities are committed to the actions spelled out in the Talloires Declaration.

David Orr suggests that these institutions would:

  • Set standards for ecological literacy for students, faculty, trustees etc.;
  • Power campus by current sunlight + efficiency;
  • Eliminate waste in all forms – zero discharge campuses;
  • Adopt green standards for architecture and landscaping
  • Conduct research to support sustainable livelihoods, sustainable communities and ecological economics.
  • Link research and service to wider community efforts to establish just and sustainable cities, bioregions and global economies.

Thus far, we have identified and worked intensively with a small set of lead institutions.

Through recent ULSF activities we have identified a larger set engaged in campus and community greening. Over the next two years we shall expand the network of “lead institutions” that ULSF works with to fully teach and embody humaneness and sustainability. We shall also draw from the network of lead institutions critical case studies on how these institutions have pursued the transformation of academic programs and research, institutional operations, and outreach. From these case studies we shall develop educational and faculty development materials to assist other institutions.

C. Increase demand for sustainability in higher education from key opinion leaders, employers, funding sources (foundations and federal grants). As Anthony Cortese observes:

“Higher education is not likely to change its direction far enough or fast enough without strong outside influence. Strong, rapid and largely unprecedented efforts by all of higher education’s stakeholders are necessary to motivate the system on a path to sustainability. Students, parents, prospective employers, organizations funding research and education (government, industry and foundations) and the public are all consumers of higher education’s services. If we are to encourage the educational system to produce the environmentally aware professionals and specialists needed to lead us on a sustainable path, the stakeholders must work with the higher education system in creative ways to encourage environmental education and research.”

We propose to:

    1. Create national and regional fora to convene leaders from Academia and external higher education stakeholders to explore ways to motivate higher education to make EFS a priority. In 1998-99, a primary focus will be the megaconference that the President’s Council on Sustainable Development is planning for implementation of the PCSD recommendations.
    2. Develop and implement a national media strategy.
    3. Strategize to influence Federal and key states’ education and research funding to encourage EFS.
    4. Work with 5 or 6 universities that are located in communities with a strong sustainable communities movement.
    5. Hold National Awards Ceremonies: ULSF and Renew America to celebrate lead institutions and projects.
    6. Work with the major national higher education professional organizations.

D. Establish Regional Centers for faculty development to accelerate this transition. We are working with various lead institutions to establish locations which embody sustainability most fully, and can provide education, demonstration and research services to higher education. In addition, we are helping to develop specialized centers to address critical dimensions of the transition to a sustainable future.

The functions of these regional centers are to provide:

  1. Models of ecologically sound living, emphasizing
  2. Renewable energy
  3. Sustainable agriculture and forestry, etc.
  4. Sustainable community analysis and work
  5. Faculty and Administration development
  6. Research on ecological design and on learning experience
  7. Sabbatic leave centers
  8. Regional analysis centers
  9. Integration of learning, living and operation
  10. Training grounds for university change specialists
  11. Networking and educational resource dissemination

E. Sponsor conferences, seminars, consultations and retreats that bring these networks together to accelerate this transition. ULSF will continue to provide and develop a range of resources and opportunities for professional development. Since its founding, ULSF has held the annual Environmental Literacy Institute (ELI), a twelve-day interdisciplinary faculty development course that brings together educators from around the world. Utilizing an experiential, case-based format, the ELI links environmental literacy concepts with the theory and practice of teaching, learning and institutional reform.

ULSF and the Center for Respect of Life and Environment (CRLE) will be co-sponsoring a conference in October 1998 entitled “Sustainability and the Liberal Arts.” The workshop will provide a forum for Associated Colleges of the South participants to further the process of basic institutional transformation by considering ways in which liberal arts colleges can continue to rethink their mission in light of the need to educate our students for a sustainable future.

F. Continue to develop support services to assist faculty, students and others, in identifying critical resources, networks, curriculum materials, exemplary projects, employment and educational opportunities. We will continue to disseminate critical publications such as The Declaration and Earth Ethics as well as periodic papers and other materials. Many of these materials will be available on the ULSF/CRLE websites. We will also inform members of upcoming events and resources in our bi-monthly listserv.

As the Secretariat for signatories to the Talloires Declaration, ULSF will continue to encourage all members to endorse this historic document and commit to institutional transformation for sustainability.

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