An historic attempt to define and promote sustainability in higher education was made in October 1990 with the creation of the Talloires Declaration. Jean Mayer, the President of Tufts University, convened twenty-two university presidents and chancellors in Talloires, France, to voice their concerns about the state of the world and create a document that spelled out key actions institutions of higher education must take to create a sustainable future.
Recognizing the shortage of specialists in environmental management and related fields, as well as the lack of comprehension by professionals in all fields of their effect on the environment and public health, this gathering defined the role of the university in the following way: “Universities educate most of the people who develop and manage society’s institutions. For this reason, universities bear profound responsibilities to increase the awareness, knowledge, technologies, and tools to create an environmentally sustainable future” (Report and Declaration of The Presidents Conference, 1990.
Conference participants discussed the importance of increasing environmental literacy among specialists in engineering, science, economics, social sciences, health and management. “Practicing professionals, decision-makers at major institutions, and the general public must be given the training, expertise, and tools to encourage environmentally sustainable actions” (Report, 1990). Participants spoke of the need for expanded research on the complex interaction of human activities and the environment, including strategies, technologies, policies, and institutional behavior. Recognizing that the university or college is a microcosm of the larger community, the group called for higher education institutions to model environmentally responsible behavior in their daily activities. “By practicing what it preaches, the university can both engage students in understanding the institutional metabolism of materials and activities, and have them actively participate to minimize pollution and waste” (Report, 1990).
Finally, participants acknowledged that, as university leaders, they were uniquely positioned to bring together all the academic disciplines and professional schools on large, complex issues. It was therefore incumbent upon them to “focus their schools’ attention on the critical issues by speaking out, acquiring new and mobilizing existing resources, creating incentives and programs for faculty development, and fostering interest in these issues” (Report, 1990).
The conference concluded with the creation of the Talloires Declaration, a ten-point action plan for colleges and universities committed to promoting education for sustainability and environmental literacy. The Declaration is a consensus statement authored by 31 university leaders and international environmental experts representing 15 nations from the global North and South. Those present signed the Declaration and proposed to disseminate the document for widespread endorsement.
The Talloires Declaration is looked to as an international model and has inspired other such official declarations from university consortia and organizations throughout the world, as follows:
1. Talloires Declaration of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, October 1990
2. Halifax Action Plan for Universities of the conference on “Creating a Common Future,” December 1991
3. Swansea Declaration of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, August 1993
4. Copernicus University Charter for Sustainable Development of the Conference of European Rectors, Autumn 1993
5. Kyoto Declaration of the International Association of Universities, November 1993
6. American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (PCC), 2007 (Note: The PCC was replaced by three separate higher education commitments in 2015: the Climate Commitment, the Carbon Commitment, and the Resilience Commitment. Read more about them here.)
As of February 2012, the Talloires Declaration has been signed by more than 430 university presidents and chancellors at institutions in over 40 countries across five continents. Signatories are divided equally among low/middle income countries and high-income counties and represent both large and small public and private colleges and universities, community and technical colleges, and research centers. This suggests a growing recognition that academic research, teaching, and service must address the sustainability challenge. Undoubtedly, signing the Talloires Declaration for some institutions constituted a symbolic act in the moment. For others, however, the document continues to be an impetus and framework for steady progress toward sustainability.