Sustainability Assessment at Institutions of Higher Education

The Declaration, Volume 3, Number 2 : September 1999  [Feature]

By Wynn Calder, Richard Clugston and Thomas Rogers

With support from the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation, ULSF has developed the Sustainability Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ), a survey instrument designed to assist students, faculty members, staff and administrators in determining the extent to which their college or university is sustainable in its teaching, research, operations and outreach. Academic institutions vary considerably in how they approach sustainability: some concentrate on minimizing their ecological impact through changes in operations; others emphasize faculty and curriculum development; etc. The ULSF assessment of sustainability at a college or university asks representatives to give their impressions of their institution’s accomplishments on eight critical dimensions of sustainability: 1. Mission and Purpose of the Institution, 2. Curriculum, 3. Scholarly Activities, 4. Institutional Values and Practices within its Ecological and Social Systems, 5. Institutional Operations, 6. Faculty Development and Rewards, 7. Institutional Support and Student Life, and 8. Outreach / Partnerships. The instrument draws on the impressions of knowledgeable members of an academic community to determine priorities for more precise research and action to promote sustainability on campus.

In constructing the questionnaire, we envisioned both an assessment instrument and a teaching tool. In other words, by its very design and content we wanted the SAQ to instruct its users on the meaning of sustainability in higher education. We also intended the SAQ process to stimulate conversation and debate within institutions on the path to sustainability. “Sustainability” implies that the critical activities of a college or university are ecologically sound, socially just, economically viable and humane, and that they will continue to be so for future generations. We sought to encompass a definition of sustainability that included social and economic, as well as environmental dimensions.

In the process of designing the SAQ, we tried to determine the basic characteristics of colleges and universities fully committed to sustainability. Certain essential dimensions kept recurring as we tested various draft questionnaires with different campus representatives and sustainability advocates. Though approaches to “greening” higher education do vary considerably, we feel the institution must be implementing meaningful practices in the following eight areas to be demonstrating significant progress toward achieving sustainability:

  1. The written statements of the mission and purpose of the institution and its various units express their philosophies and commitments. The descriptions of learning objectives and public relations materials of the various schools, departments, programs or offices thus would express prominent and explicit concern for sustainability.
  2. The college or university would appropriately incorporate the concepts of sustainability into all academic disciplines and in liberal arts and professional education requirements. Likewise, a firm grounding in basic disciplines and critical thinking skills is essential to pursuing a sustainable future. Institutions committed to sustainability often prominently feature certain topics in their course offerings, e.g. Globalization and Sustainable Development; Environmental Philosophy; Nature Writing; Land Ethics and Sustainable Agriculture; Urban Ecology and Social Justice; Population, Women and Development; Sustainable Production and Consumption; and many others.
  3. Sustainability is integrated into faculty and student research (including such areas as renewable energy, sustainable building design, ecological economics, indigenous wisdom and technologies, population and development, total environmental quality management, etc.)
  4. A major shift from the current academic paradigm lies in a conscious reflection of the role of the institution in its social and ecological systems. Students learn about the institutional values and practices in this context. For example, all graduating students would understand: a. how the campus functions in the ecosystem (e.g. its sources of food, water, energy, endpoint of waste and garbage) and its contribution to a sustainable economy.
  5. b. how the institution views and treats its employees (such as student, staff, faculty involvement in decision-making, their status and benefits, etc.).
  6. c. the basic values and core assumptions present in the content and methods of the academic disciplines.
  7. Since research and teaching are the fundamental purposes of academic institutions, knowledge of sustainability is a critical concern in the hiring, tenure and promotion systems. We would expect the institution to: a. reward faculty members’ contributions to sustainability in scholarship, teaching, or campus and community activities.
  8. b. provide significant staff and faculty development opportunities to enhance understanding, teaching and research in sustainability.
  9. The institution has an “ecological footprint.” In its production and consumption the institution should follow sustainable policies and practices: for example, CO2 reduction practices and the use of emission control devices; sustainable building construction and renovation; energy conservation practices; local food purchasing program; purchasing and investment in environmentally and socially responsible products; and many others. Furthermore, these operational practices are integrated into the educational and scholarly activities of the school.
  10. Institutional support and student life services would include certain practices, such as: a. new student orientation, scholarships, internships and job placement counseling related to community service, sustainability and/or justice issues;
  11. b. an Environmental or Sustainability Council or Task Force, an Environmental Coordinator or Curriculum Greening Officer;
  12. c. regularly conducted environmental audits;
  13. d. prominent public, student and staff celebrations of sustainability on campus (for example, lectures, conferences, Earth Day celebrations, etc).
  14. The institution would engage in outreach and forming partnerships both locally and globally to enhance sustainability. The college or university would support sustainable communities in the surrounding region and relationships with local businesses that foster sustainable practices. The institution would also seek international cooperation in solving global environmental justice and sustainability problems through conferences, student/faculty exchanges, etc.

Through our consultation and design process, we explored short and long versions of the instrument with different blends of quantitative and qualitative measures. In order to keep the SAQ primarily qualitative and impressionistic, we decided not to include a rating/scoring system. The goal of the assessment exercise is to provide a comprehensive definition of sustainability and a snapshot of a college or university on the path to sustainability. We determined that a rating/scoring system would make the instrument prematurely quantitative and difficult for most to complete without extensive research. It might also turn away prospective users.

We are currently distributing the SAQ widely and are working intensively with a small set of colleges and universities using the SAQ as a catalyst for institutional change. Representatives from various schools active in the development of the SAQ are interested in having us visit them and work with the SAQ. ULSF is planning site visits in which students, staff, faculty and administrative leaders will complete the questionnaire and determine areas needing greater attention: they would set priorities for pursuing sustainability at their schools.

To accompany the SAQ, we are developing a set of in-depth resources on the various dimensions of sustainability. For each of the eight dimensions listed above, a wealth of qualitative and quantitative resources exist that can assist institutions in extensive assessment. ULSF has already developed a lengthier version of the SAQ and compiled a reference list. We envision that campus representatives will begin the assessment exercise by filling out the Standard Form, gaining an overall picture of their institution’s commitment to sustainability. They can then refine this picture by completing the Long Form, or going into the priority areas they have identified and exploring more detailed quantitative measurements or guides to implementation. This phase of the project consists of organizing the considerable number of in-print and online resources available on each of the eight dimensions of the SAQ-and for each subpoint of the eight-into a comprehensive guide to implementing sustainability on campus.

Eventually, we intend to develop a self-assessment/strategic planning protocol on the worldwide web for use by institutions pursuing sustainability. ULSF can reach only a small number of institutions in person. The worldwide web will make the SAQ and companion materials more widely available to interested individuals and institutions and enable them to engage in their own self-assessment processes. For each dimension and sub-dimension the user could search for resources (such as green purchasing guides, sustainability curricula, and auditing approaches) and link to other sites (like Second Nature’s Starfish, Campus Ecology, and the Harvard Committee on the Environment) to access more information or tools.

We recognize that the task of developing a comprehensive, reliable, and valid instrument is formidable. While we’ve made considerable progress toward our goal, we know that any such work rests firmly on the principle that indicators need to be constantly monitored, evaluated and improved. Thus, we are hopeful that the SAQ will be used as a foundation for continued research and collaboration. We encourage you to contact ULSF at 202-778-6133 if you are interested in receiving the SAQ and exploring a workshop on its use at your institution.

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