From the State of the World to the State of the Academy: Campus Sustainability Assessment – A Bright Star on the Horizon

The Declaration, Volume 6, Number 1: December 2002  [Operations]

By Harold Glasser and Andrew Nixon

This century will likely be confronted with unprecedented environmental, political, and security challenges. While the global economy has generally become more materials and energy efficient, both global population and per-capita consumption continue to rise-and generate with them increasingly destructive impacts. Those of us in the United States represent 4.5% of the world’s population, yet we consume roughly 25% of its resources. The necessity for consumption increases in the least well-off nations is obvious, but whereto stop and how to reduce and manage the impacts associated with consumption are anything but obvious.

As you read this, the consumption habits and lifestyles of more than 14 million college students are being shaped in our nation’s academic institutions and most of them, in David Orr’s words, are being taught to be “more effective vandals of the earth” (Orr, 1994: 5). The United States’ almost 4,000 universities and colleges-as generators of ideas, products, and expectations-serve as trendsetters and beacons for the future. They also act as microcosms of society-housing and feeding people, performing research, maintaining facilities, purchasing, administering projects, investing, balancing budgets, and, hopefully, adhering to environmental laws. In performing these activities, they consume tremendous amounts of water, energy, toxic chemicals, natural resources, consumer products, labor, and capital and thus generate a huge ecocultural wake. At this point you might be inclined to ask, “How well are our academic institutions preparing the nation’s college students to make wise personal, political, and economic decisions for the change-filled and potentially volatile century before them?”

A recent study by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) represents the first attempt to comprehensively assess the state of environmental and sustainability initiatives at institutions of higher learning in the United States (McIntosh, et. al., 2001). The NWF’s goal was to assess the extent to which awareness of sustainability issues and environmental concern have actually spawned new initiatives in institutional mission, curriculum, and operations. While some significant strides have been made in particular areas and at particular institutions, the general trend is rather dismal (Glasser, 2001). Only 8% of the responding institutions report requiring all students to take a course on environmental issues and only 3% of the other institutions stated that they have plans to institute such a requirement. While 64% of the responding presidents cited fitting in with the culture and values of the campus as the key reason for developing environmental programs, they cited government regulations (60%) as the primary factor that shapes environmental programs-over student, faculty, staff, or alumni interest. Yet it is interesting to note that in recent years, Brown, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Long Island University, and New Jersey University have all been cited by the EPA for alleged mishandling of hazardous wastes (Brainard, 2002). In general, the vast majority of presidents stated that they have no plans to strengthen or refine existing policies or standards. The NWF study clearly demonstrates that academia has a long way to go.

If society is to initiate a midcourse correction, a deep rethinking of the role and responsibilities of higher education will be in order. We will need to take a fresh (and honest) look at where we are, how we got here, and where we want to go. We will need an ecoculturally literate citizenry that recognizes how science, technology, language, lifestyles, economic incentives, policies, and values all join together to engender patterns of unsustainablity. Ecological economics, industrial ecology, and green architecture will likely be integral parts of a solution, but they alone cannot constitute the solution. We will need more materials and energy efficient economies to diminish our dependence on fossil fuels and toxic substances and facilitate the transition to economies based on renewable energy and cyclic use of materials. We will need to learn from natural systems to create more ecoculturally sensitive design, engineering, agriculture, waste treatment, forestry, and fisheries management. But we must also scrutinize the deep cultural assumptions that promote and perpetuate patterns of unsustainability-our commitment to unlimited progress, the ease with which we privilege new knowledge over ancient wisdom, our naive embracing of technological optimism. Probing these assumptions should improve our ability to recognize the connections between our actions and their effects on the world. This may free us to eliminate the perverse incentives and social traps that make it unpopular to confront consumption, stabilize population, rethink land-use and transportation, and grapple with environmental justice, biopiracy, and equity concerns-issues that are driven more by social norms and values than technology.

Chet Bowers has cogently observed, “The world has problems and the universities have departments.” Another paradox is that when academics do study critical social problems, we rarely invest time and effort to invent creative solutions to these problems. The intellectual, institutional, operational, and lifestyle changes that are necessary to bring about an ecoculturally sustainable society are complex and they will necessarily involve difficult tradeoffs and conflicts-but they are not insurmountable. Institutions of higher learning are uniquely positioned to help usher in this transition to a more sustainable world. They must, however, learn how to balance developing disciplinary expertise and acquiring basic knowledge with cultivating ecocultural literacy and solving real-world problems. At the same time, they must equip students to transcend disciplinary shackles-to think “out-of-the-box.” Finally, institutions of higher learning must demonstrate their commitment to make society more sustainable by incorporating sustainability considerations directly into teaching, research, operations, facilities management, purchasing, and their interactions with local and regional communities.

Campus Sustainability Assessment
One bright star on the horizon is the “campus sustainability assessment” (CSA) movement. The idea of sustainability assessment is a logical extension of the concept of “environmental impact assessment,” which dates back to 1970 and the National Environmental Policy Act. We define a CSA as any structured attempt to assess quantitatively or qualitatively one or more aspects of an academic institution’s ecocultural wake or the institutional characteristics that shape its ecocultural wake. We use the term “ecocultural wake” to refer to the collection of direct and indirect effects on both society and the environment (both positive and negative) that are associated with one or more aspects of an institution’s activities. CSAs come in two primary forms. A focused CSA examines either one aspect of an institution’s policies or practices (e.g., water or energy or education) or multiple aspects of an institutional subsystem (e.g., a building or a department/college). A comprehensive CSA examines multiple aspects of the entire institution’s policies and practices (e.g., solid waste, air, purchasing, and research).

The first comprehensive CSA attempts were in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom in the 1980s. The first significant comprehensive CSA in the U.S., the “In Our Backyard” study by a group of six Environmental Planning graduate students from the University of California at Los Angeles, dates back to 1989. As of 2001, there have been more than 500 projects in the United States and hundreds internationally that use the campus as a living laboratory to study resource flows and other aspects of an academic institution’s ecocultural wake. By creating opportunities to gather a broad array of baseline data on the functioning of a campus, successful CSAs represent the first step in wise planning for any academic institution that aspires to become more sustainable. Assessing “where you are” and “where you want to go” are logical preconditions for setting achievable goals and targets-signposts that help map the way to a sustainable future. CSAs can give meaning to the phrase, “Think globally, act locally.” Their beauty lies in the open, transparent manner in which they take the “sustainability pulse” of an academic institution. Their authority comes from an ability to blend pedagogy and problem-solving in a manner that stimulates and encourages continuous improvement in environmental performance. By bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders to engage in a collaborative assessment of an institution’s strengths and weaknesses and a hopeful conversation about its future, they can help create a safer, healthier, more vital campus, and a culture committed to sustainability.

Some CSAs have focused on energy, solid waste, hazardous substances, recycling, or landscaping, while others have concentrated on dimensions such as procurement policies, campus design and growth, environmental health and safety, and environmental literacy. By identifying issues and opportunities, a CSA can help an institution to promote regulatory compliance, decrease liability risk, and reduce operation and maintenance costs. In several cases, CSA reports have identified more environmentally or socially sound practices and policies that have enabled institutions to both reduce their ecocultural wake and save money. Many of these reports, however, are piecemeal and theoretically deficient. In all cases the full potential of these projects has been diminished by poor intra- and inter-institutional coordination and by inadequate assessment resources.

The Campus Sustainability Assessment Review Project
We created the “Campus Sustainability Assessment Review Project” in 2000 to address these voids and answer a variety of unresolved questions. How has the CSA movement, primarily in the U.S., changed over time? What is its current status? What qualifies as “best practice”? Can the progress and pitfalls of the CSA movement be described succinctly? A disclaimer may be in order. Our goals were rather narrow and limited to assessing the characteristics, depth, breadth, and quality of the CSA corpus. We have made no formal effort to evaluate the success of particular CSAs from the standpoint of their ability to generate changes on their respective campuses (this is more in the realm of the NWF study). Our ultimate goal has been to use this research to promote the CSA movement by advancing the process of performing high-quality, contextually appropriate CSAs and thereby also facilitate the “greening” of higher education, in general.

An outline of our approach may be helpful. First, we created an annotated bibliography of CSA and related literature. Second, we amassed the world’s largest “hard copy” library of extant CSAs (U.S. and select international). Third, we constructed a searchable CSA database, which contains an overview of each assessment project, detailed information on the categories and indicators it considered, and up-to-date contact information. Fourth, we used this database to help us evaluate the assessment corpus and identify current “best practices” in each assessment dimension. Fifth, we interviewed a small set of key leaders in the CSA arena to learn first-hand about their “successes and messes.” Finally, because each academic institution has a unique set of resources and faces a unique set of challenges, we are currently in the process of using the information we have gleaned to develop a set of guidelines, indicators, metrics, and templates to help individuals and institutions perform their own contextually appropriate, “exemplary” CSAs. This research will become available on the web in late 2003.

Our database incorporates sixteen major categories-Institutional characteristics, CSA Project and Team characteristics, and fourteen sustainability characteristics, including Air, Built Environment, Business and Management, Culture and Community, Education, Energy, Food, Hazardous Substances, Land, Purchasing, Research, Solid Waste, Transportation, and Water-which represent 127 indicators. While we currently have 950 CSAs in our database, we limit our reporting here to those CSAs available to us up through 2001-778 in total. This data is drawn from nine countries and 272 academic institutions worldwide, although 94% are from the U.S. and Canada. We therefore make no attempt to make any claims about the status of CSAs worldwide. What follows is a brief overview of what we have learned.

After correcting for unusual events, such as the Earth Day 1990 Campus Environmental Audit Campaign, the total number of CSAs conducted each year has risen gradually. More institutions, however, are jumping on the CSA bandwagon-four times as many in 1999 as a decade earlier. Conducting CSAs appears to be significantly more popular at public institutions (64%) than private (36%). Focused CSAs represent the bulk of the corpus (77%), while comprehensive CSAs make up the other 23%. The most plausible explanations for this phenomenon are the relative difficulty and complexity of performing a comprehensive CSA and the time and resource commitments that they demand. Of the 179 comprehensive CSAs for which we have data, 130 are at unique institutions. This suggests that at least 49 institutions (38%) are performing follow-up CSAs and thus have the ability to use this data on how their ecocultural wake is changing over time to improve planning.

We have detailed information on the categories considered for 679 CSAs. The sustainability categories most commonly addressed include Energy (45%), Solid Waste (42%), Land (31%) and Water (28%). In contrast, less than ten percent of this group considered Business and Management (8%), Culture and Community (5%), Education (9%), or Research (4%). When these categories were addressed, they were almost always part of a comprehensive CSA (80% or greater likelihood). This phenomenon is readily explainable. Reports tend to favor easily quantifiable, direct impacts over indirect impacts (e.g., Purchasing), qualitative, social impacts (e.g., Culture and Community and Education), and difficult to quantify impacts and processes (e.g., Business and Management). Furthermore, categories such as Energy, Water, and Solid Waste offer the greatest potential for near-term financial savings. Nevertheless, there has been a growing tendency to broaden the scope of the comprehensive CSA process by addressing these previously under-represented categories. It is important to note that there has been no corresponding trend to expand the total number of categories considered in the typical CSA. We do, however, see a trend, especially with comprehensive CSAs over the past few years, to follow pre-existing, structured assessment frameworks.

We have detailed data on CSA team composition for 606 CSAs. The majority (67%) were conducted as student course projects. Student course projects make up 73% of all focused CSAs and 30% of all comprehensive CSAs. Other team types for comprehensive CSAs include: task forces (18%), environmental management systems (17%), operations staff (16%), student organizations (16%), student theses (10%), and independent parties (2%). In contrast, the other team types for focused CSAs include: operations staff (20%), task force (2%), independent parties (1.3%), student organizations (1.2%), environmental management systems (1%), and student theses (1%). Analysis of CSA team trends reveals that the task force and environmental management system (EMS) are growing in popularity for comprehensive CSAs. They are the only team types whose share of comprehensive CSAs increased over time; most others, in fact, declined. Trend data also reveal that student course projects are an increasingly popular approach for performing focused CSAs.

In summary, the typical CSA does involve students throughout its process and results in a public report that discusses guiding principles and makes specific recommendations for improvement. The typical CSA does not receive administrative support, result in a report with a sophisticated action plan, significantly involve staff throughout its process, or receive substantial publicity throughout its process.

Our “best practice” evaluation was based on a thorough review and multi-criteria assessment of fifty-five CSAs. This subset of the corpus was chosen by a screening process that evaluated each CSA according to the following four selection criteria: assessment scope (focus on comprehensive CSAs), report quality, representation (reflect corpus diversity-annual and national distributions and categories addressed), and non-redundancy (limit reports from the same institution and those that use the same assessment framework). The CSAs chosen for detailed evaluation represented 38 public and 17 private institutions. Seven were from Canada and 7 others were from Europe. Forty-two were comprehensive and 13 were focused. Forty-one represented baseline studies and 14 were follow-up studies. Sixteen were conducted by task forces, 6 were conducted by operations staff, 8 were conducted as student theses, 7 were conducted by student organizations, 16 were conducted as student course projects, and 3 were conducted as part of a formal, university-wide environmental management system.

To treat focused CSAs and comprehensive CSAs in an unbiased manner we used a simple additive weighting scheme that gave equal weight to three assessment dimensions: assessment depth, report content, and report presentation, which were represented by thirteen assessment criteria. The total scores were normalized to a value of ten. A fourth, independent dimension, assessment scope, was used to reflect the number of assessment categories that were addressed.

Total scores for the fifty-five reviewed CSAs ranged from 2.0 to 9.9; the average score was 5.6. Fourteen of the fifty-five reviewed CSAs received a score of 7.0 or higher-we consider these to truly represent “best practice.” We learned three primary lessons from the best practice evaluation. First, “best practice” CSAs are at least a North American and Western European phenomenon. Six of the fourteen top CSAs were non-U.S., which represents nearly 50% of the non-U.S. CSAs reviewed. In addition, three of the four non-U.S. countries represented in this evaluation are in this top group of fourteen. Second, “best practice” CSAs share at least four common report characteristics. They all clearly stated their goals and objectives; they all provided information to facilitate decision-making; they all recommended specific actions; and they all provided rationale for their recommended actions. Third, although this sample size is very small, it shows a demonstrable improvement in CSA scores over time. Average scores increased over the past decade from 4.7 to 7.1.

While being “less bad” is clearly not good enough as a guiding principle for the future-it does represent a start. If you are on a collision course with an iceberg, avoiding it (if only for the time being) is a most promising turn of events. CSAs, if performed and publicized effectively, can help us to confront our institutions’ sustainability pulse. By helping us to see the aggregated effects of our collective decisions over time, they help to turn the focus toward the future. They help us to see that while you can import wood or plant a tree farm, you can’t simply import the climate stabilizing, habitat, recreation, and flood control benefits that an intact ancient forest provides. Such information frequently leads to overload and paralysis, but by sharing our successes, we can foster the courage and inspiration to do something about it.

In search of anecdotal information on the success of CSAs, we sent out a questionnaire to 23 key leaders in the CSA movement. We received 13 responses. Albeit a small sample size, it did convince us that high-quality CSAs can yield some very promising results. All respondents generally concurred that CSAs helped to stimulate awareness of sustainability issues on their campuses. In 5 cases, a campus sustain-ability/environmental coordinator was hired after the CSA; in 3 cases a campus-wide sustainability committee was created; and in 2 cases a campus environmental/sus-tainability mission statement was created. Such heartening information may embolden us to chart a new course for a more sustainable and desirable future.

While we make no claims to the effect that “more information will definitely lead to more intelligent behavior toward the environment or, ultimately, improved decision making,” we are claiming that acquiring a landscape view of our ecocultural wake and drawing attention to the downstream consequences of our actions are necessary prerequisites for wise decision-making. As with the famous adage about voting, we believe that CSAs should be conducted regularly and often (but generally not more than every few years-as they require a considerable investment in time, effort, and cost). We hope that our work, by improving the information on CSAs, by outlining their many benefits, and by creating resources for conducting them, will help to spark a host of new, high-quality CSA initiatives. It is possible to create a sustainable and desirable world, one college and university at a time.

Brainard, Jeffrey, “EPA Office Files Hazardous-Waste Complaints Against Three More Universities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (11/12 2002). Online version:

Glasser, Harold. “Murky Grades on Campus Sustainability: A Survey Reveals a Widespread Unwillingness to Make the Environment a High Priority.” AGB Trusteeship 10 (2 2002): 34-35.

McIntosh, Mary with Kathleen Cacciola, Stephen Clermont, and Julian Keniry; Survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates. State of the Campus Environment: A Natonal Report Card on Environmental Performance and Sustainability in Higher Education. National Wildlife Federation, 2001.

Nixon, Andrew. “Improving the Campus Sustainability Assessment Process.” Undergraduate Honors Thesis, Western Michigan University, 2002.

Orr, David W. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1994.

Harold Glasser is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies Program at Western Michigan University and Director of the Campus Sustainability Assessment Project. Andrew Nixon is a Postgraduate Researcher in the same program. Their research on campus sustainability assessment, which most recently has been very generously supported by the Wege Foundation, will become available on the web in late 2003. They can be reached at: Environmental Studies Program, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008; tel: 269-387-2713; fax: 269-387-2272; e-mail: or

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