Talloires in Action: Creating Leaders and Laggards in the U.S.

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

By Michael Shriberg

While several U.S. colleges and universities have used the Talloires Declaration (TD) as an organizing framework and impetus for campus environmentalism, other institutions have largely ignored the commitments embodied in the TD. Although case studies reveal the process and progress of TD implementation at particular campuses, there has been little systematic, empirical research on why and how Talloires Declaration signatories translate their symbolic commitments into concrete action. In part to address this knowledge gap and help institutions implement the Talloires, the study described in this article1 systematically assesses institutional signatories in the U.S. to develop a framework for analyzing, assessing and promoting organizational change for sustainability. The survey described in this article focuses on “environmental sustainability,” the ecological component of the broader concept which includes social and economic considerations. I use the term “sustainability” to indicate comprehensive, holistic initiatives oriented toward eliminating negative and increasing positive present and future ecological impacts. Initiatives oriented toward “greening,” “pollution prevention,” “conservation,” “ecological education” or similar, more limited goals comprise important pieces of the larger picture of sustainability.

I created the “Campus Environmental Sustainability Survey” (CESS) for this study after an extensive review of current assessment tools for sustainability in higher education (for a summary of this review see Shriberg 2002) as well as more general surveys on organizational change and transformational leadership. Therefore, the CESS combines existing instrumentation with measures created specifically for this study. Because most colleges and universities do not have environmental audit data and because I sought data on motivations and processes, the CESS relies on qualitative self-assessments of institutions, largely on a 1-5 likert scale (1=Strongly Disagree; 3=Neutral; 5=Strongly Agree). Unless otherwise noted, this is the scale used throughout this article.

At the institutional level, the CESS targeted the 59 colleges and universities in the United States whose presidents signed the Talloires Declaration as of May 2001. At each institution, I sent the survey to between 9 and 13 individuals, including the president/chancellor, senior academic affairs officer, senior business officer, senior operational officer, senior student affairs officer, director of environmental health, energy coordinator, president of faculty senate, and president of student government. I also sent surveys to the environmental coordinator, recycling coordinator, dean/director of environmental studies, and president of student environmental group if these positions existed at the institution. The surveys were mailed in May 2001, and I conducted e-mail and phone follow-ups until September 2001. Of the 687 valid surveys sent to 59 institutions, 249 individual surveys were returned (36%) from 56 institutions (95%).

Who are the U.S. Signatories?
Compared to the average U.S. institution of higher education (Brownstein 2000; Rodenhouse 2000; Mondragon 2001; Population Division of the United States Bureau of the Census 2001), Talloires Declaration signatories are statistically more likely to be public, larger, cost less, and grant higher degrees (i.e., doctorates) (Table 1). Although the difference is not statistically significant, signatories tend to be more heavily concentrated in the South – and less concentrated in the Midwest and West. Therefore, while Talloires signatories are diverse, they do not represent a statistically random sample of U.S. 4-year institutions. This bias is a result of a variety of factors – including the location of ULSF on the East Coast as well as a strong effort in the early 1990s that encouraged Virginia public institutions to sign – and constrains the broad applicability of the CESS.

Table 1: Comparison of Talloires Declaration Signatories to All U.S. 4-Year Institution


Talloires Declaration Signatories

U.S. Institutions

P-Value of Difference











Size (mean)




Tuition (mean)




















Higest Degree Offered













*p<.05, **p<.01

How are Signatories Performing in Terms of Sustainability?
The CESS creates a sustainability-leadership scale/score (SLS) for each institution based on integration of sustainability into 5 areas: operations, research, curriculum, service and campus-wide sustainability policies and action (Table 2). Individual responses in each area are aggregated for each institution, using weighting based on expertise of respondents. For example, a senior operational officer’s response on the operations section of the CESS receives a higher weighting factor (1.25) than that of the president of the faculty senate (.75). The aggregate scores for each area are averaged to obtain the final SLS (for each responding institution), which is approximately normally distributed with a mean of 3.33 (1=No efforts; 5=Comprehensive Sustainability Program) and a range of 1.70-4.63 (Table 2). While the responding institutions’ placement along this scale cannot be displayed due to confidentiality assurances, the institutions statistically break out into three categories when outliers are not considered: Sustainability-Leaders (18 institutions (32%): 3.6-5.0); Average Performers (19 institutions (34%): 3.1-3.6); and Sustainability-Laggards (19 institutions (34%): 0-3.1). Clearly, U.S. Talloires signatories differ greatly in their commitment to sustainability.

Table 2: Sustainability-Leadership Scale/Score (SLS)

Integration of Sustainability into…

























Campus-wide Actions/Policies










Aggregate SLS





N=56 ; Note: Each score represents the mean of all responding institutions. Within each institution responses are weighted by areas of expertise.

In addition to the calculated SLS, respondents directly assessed their campus’ overall environmental efforts on a 1-7 scale with 1 equaling “no initiatives,” 4 equaling “many separate ‘greening’ efforts,” and 7 equaling “comprehensive, long-term sustainability program.” Respondents indicate that their campuses fall just slightly above the middle of the range (4.12) . 79% of respondents rate their campus as a 3, 4 or 5, which indicates that signatories are doing a mediocre job of environmental management. According to the CESS, many campuses have environmental groups and sponsor community service activities, and many institutions have individual environmental leaders, but few institutions are outspoken on sustainability, as defined by taking institutional leadership positions on issues such as global warming or overconsumption (Table 2). A common environmental strength is curriculum development, although requiring basic ecological literacy is not on the agenda of most campuses. Campuses excel in traditional operational measures – such as recycling – but are reluctant to undertake more ambitious operational activities, such as promoting alternative transportation and buying renewable energy. The integration of sustainability into research varies greatly, but this variation is based on the research commitment of the institution generally as opposed to the level of ecological commitment specifically. The CESS also reveals that campus-wide environmental policies and actions are lacking at all but the most environmentally and socially advanced campuses. The vast majority of campuses have piecemeal, uncoordinated efforts.

The survey results and related comments demonstrate, as one respondent describes, that many colleges and universities are “beginning to put environmental sustainability practice and policies into place.” Many respondents echo this sentiment: “This institution is in the infancy stage of sustainabil-ity but is definitely moving towards it – at a snail’s pace”; “The next two years will see (campus) emerge as a leader in sustainability;” “We’re moving slowly in the right direction, but this still isn’t a campus-wide priority.” Moreover, comments and data reflect that programs are generally scattered, but are moving toward increased organization and coordination: “Programs exist, but are new, underfunded, and undersupported;” “A process of coming together has started.”

What Institutional Characteristics Correlate with Success (or Failure) in Implementing Talloires?
The CESS identifies internal organizational conditions which are not specific to environmental issues, but which can be conducive to or present a barrier to the ascendancy of sustainability issues onto the agenda of campus stakeholders (Table 3). For example, the survey found that perception of image and reputation can be a key “hook” for change agents. Institutions striving to improve their external and internal image are likely to be open to sustainability initiatives as a way to become nationally or internationally recognized (or maintain their strong images). Moreover, the CESS demonstrates the importance of collaboration. Since environmental and interrelated social issues span multiple divisions, departments and stakeholders, they are only likely to become a priority when cross-functional and interdisciplinary decision making is prevalent. Therefore, bureaucratic and hierarchical structures tend to discourage progress on sustainability. The CESS also demonstrates that progressive and liberal political orientation is a strong predictor of environmental progress. Institutions which are predominantly conservative or “anti-liberal” in their political orientation – often demonstrated through appointments to the governing board and administration – are less likely to seriously pursue sustainability.

Table 3: Correlations (r) between Institutional Characteristics and Sustainability Outcome








1. Sustainability Leadership Scale/Score (SLS)







2. Positive Internal Image







3. Collaborative Approach







4. Progressive Political Orientation







5. Transformational Leadership







6. Ethical/Moral Orientation







N=56, *p<.05, **p<.01

While the CESS found a weak positive correlation between the presence of transformational leaders on campus and sustainable outcomes (Table 3), this linkage disappeared in the presence of other organizational conditions. The CESS also found a weak positive correlation between institutional ethics/morality and sustainable outcomes. Finally, the survey found that progress on sustainability is possible at all types of four-year U.S. institutions that signed the TD, although conditions for success are slightly more favorable at small, private colleges. Overall, it appears that non-environmental organizational conditions significantly affect whether or not a Talloires signatory makes and realizes commitments to sustainability.

What are the Strongest Barriers to Implementing Talloires?
The CESS contains 15 questions about barriers to institutional environmental efforts, including six questions about lack of commitment from various stakeholders (e.g., governing board, administrators, students). The most problematic barriers (Table 4) are “higher priority of other initiatives” (mean=4.17), “lack of funding” (mean=4.08), and “lack of time” (mean=3.78). Commitment from stakeholders is more problematic at higher levels in the institutional hierarchy, with means arranged in the following decreasing order (Governing Board – Administrators – President – Staff – Faculty – Students). Lack of commitment from students (mean=2.53) and faculty (mean=2.71) as well as “fear of change” (mean=2.78) and lack of commitment from staff (mean=2.78) are the least formidable barriers to sustainability-leadership.

Table 4: Barriers to Campus Sustainability





Higher Priority of Other Initiatives





Lack of Funding





Lack of Time





Complexity of the Issues





Lack of Commitment from Governing Board





Lack of a Coordinating Person/Entity





Academic/Administrative Structures





Lack of Information





Lack of Commitment from Administrators





Lack of Commitment from the President





Lack of Tangible Benefits





Lack of Commitment from Staff





Fear of Change





Lack of Commitment from Faculty





Lack of Commitment from Students






Some of the best information about barriers comes from respondent comments. The dominant theme about lack of money is reflected by the following comments: “Of course money and financial concerns are always paramount. I think the administration is interested in ‘sustainability’. However, it isn’t clear at what cost.” “The only barrier to additional improvement is funding.” One respondent continually wrote “funds?” at various points in the survey. Other respondents reflect the common sentiment that sustainability is not high on the priority list of leaders: “leadership is generally pro-environment but it is not a high priority”, and “what has been missing is the leadership to effect change.” Other respondents comment about the lack of widespread support: “The environmental club president has been pushing for a green star institution but unfortunately she is, for the most part, a one woman operation.” Some respondents report that one individual or organizational level is a particularly strong barrier: “zero interest by facilities V.P.;” “Current VP of Finance is not environmentally oriented;” “Board is made up of wealthy business folks who aren’t really aware of sustainability issues and don’t necessarily care” and “Our president and provost don’t seem to have a clue when it comes to sustainability.” Finally, one respondent simply wrote “POLITICS.” Overall, it appears that environmental sustainability issues are not often on campus agendas, and tend to receive more attention from students and faculty than top decision makers.

What Activist Strategies Produce Environmental Organizational Change?
Sustainability advocates and potential change agents clearly struggle for institutional attention and resources. However, there is little empirical research on the types of activist strategies which are most likely to garner attention. The CESS indicates that Talloires Declaration signatories are most likely to pursue sustainability because of the potential benefits to reputation (3.76), cost savings/finances (3.72), and regulatory pressures (3.68) (Table 5). Signatories are least likely to be motivated by benefits to stakeholder satisfaction/happiness (3.11), strategic positioning (3.36), and stakeholder recruitment (3.39). However, when these potential reasons for sustainability action are correlated with reported sustainability outcomes (i.e., SLS), a strong correlation (r=0.65; p<.01) appears between appealing to institutional strategic/ethical interest and sustainability success. Conversely, more short-term appeals – such as finances and regulatory compliance – are not statistically correlated with reported sustainability outcomes. This finding indicates that the approach that change agents take to promoting environmental sustainability issues can have a great impact on the outcomes. Ethical and long-term strategic approaches are particularly effective, perhaps because benefits to pursuing sustainability are not typically apparent in the short-term or in conventional measures of success. At high levels in the organizational hierarchy (i.e., governing boards, the president and administrators), appeals to institutional strategic positioning are effective. At lower levels in the organizational hierarchy (i.e., students and faculty), sustainability rationales that appeal to personal ethics and commitment are effective because individuals seek outlets to express moral orientation through the organizations in which they are involved. Therefore, change agents can “unlock” an underlying environmental and social ethic by encouraging involvement in sustainability efforts, and can receive broad support in return. This result is robust regardless of the underlying organizational ethic.

Table 5: Campus Rationales for Pursuing Sustainability





Reputational Benefits




Cost Savings/Finances




Regulatory Pressures




Responsibility as a Model




Ethical and/or Moral Obligations




Ability to Create Social Change




Recruitment Benefits




Strategic Positioning




Retention/Stakeholder Satisfaction





The ultimate goal of the CESS and subsequent qualitative research is to provide a “roadmap” for stakeholders attempting to create organizational change for sustainabil-ity as well as for scholars. While this “roadmap” is not a complete guide or set of instructions to translate potential institutional leadership (i.e., signing the Talloires Declaration) into initiatives and actions, it is a starting point. The CESS establishes the importance of non-environmental internal conditions – particularly image/reputation, decision making structures and political orientation – in providing a context for success or failure of sustainability initiatives. This research establishes that multiple, diverse stakeholders are likely to be successful when they promote sustainability in terms of institutional strategic positioning and an ethical/moral obligation and opportunity. This study establishes that competing institutional priorities and lack of integration across functional areas are major barriers to TD implementation.

One surprising result of this research is the enthusiasm of change agents about the potential for sustainability to become a major focus of their institutions. The belief that campus sustainability efforts will succeed is based in the strong grassroots support that change agents receive as well as initially favorable (or, at a minimum, not oppositional) responses from institutional leaders. However, this study reveals little evidence of the coordination of operations, teaching, service and research that characterizes strong sustainability efforts. Few colleges or universities consider sustainability a core competency or a cultural and decision making criterion. Therefore, most institutions have pockets of environmental activities, but little or no coordination, leadership or major actions, and have yet to address the deep questions of sustainability.

Surprisingly, only 61 respondents report knowledge of their institutions’ signing the Talloires Declaration (25%),2 while 46 respondents claim their institution has signed no declarations (18%), and 142 respondents report either “do not know” or left the question blank (57%). One respondent reports: “Our President signed the Talloires Declaration, but then has ordered a series of anti-environmental projects.” Another reports: “Our then-Provost was an original signatory of the Talloires Declaration, but that action did little to influence our campus culture as a whole.” While these findings indicate that few institutions organize specifically around Talloires, it does not necessarily mean that campus sustainability declarations are useless. While Talloires is not often the driving force for campus sustainability, survey comments and follow-up case studies3 reveal that Talloires can be an important tool for advocates and serve as an indicator of commitment. Using Talloires to focus and organize efforts might be increasingly important in the future because the survey reveals the extent to which campus environmental sustainabil-ity efforts are being conducted in a piecemeal, disjointed fashion.

Implications for Advocacy
Beyond creating descriptive knowledge of organizational influences on campus sustainability, a major goal of the CESS and related research is to provide prescriptive advice for advocates. The following list of general recommendations summarizes this advice:

1) Know Your Institution: While analysis of the CESS provides details on which organizational conditions are conducive to progress on sustainability and which are not, an important general finding for advocates is that knowledge about your institution translates directly into strategies that are more productive. Understanding institutional characteristics that affect perceptions and actions related to sustainability is a key precondition to developing an effective advocacy campaign.

2) Diversify Your Allies: Campus sustainability efforts tend to arise from a small group of committed individuals with similar viewpoints and backgrounds. This study reveals that sustainability “allies” can and should come from many different disciplines and departments. Positions within the institutional hierarchy often do not account for the level of influence or commitment that individuals have relating to sustainability. Therefore, advocates should find people who believe in sustainability and provide them with the rationale and resources to advance initiatives and avoid reluctant individuals. In fact, the more diverse the sustainability coalition, the more likely advocacy is to be successful and recognized.

3) Tailor Your Approaches: This study makes it clear that the way to effectively promote sustainability to governing boards is different from the way to promote sustainability to students or operations staff. The lesson for sustainability advocates is to carefully assess potential reasons for support or resistance to sustainability initiatives before approaching individuals or groups of stakeholders.

4) Create a “Crisis” (or capitalize on an existing one): This study demonstrates that putting environmental and interrelated social and economic issues onto the agenda of decision makers is a difficult yet crucial task for advocates. To combat this problem, advocates need to create situations (i.e., “crises”) that decision makers must respond to, thereby raising sustainability to at least a minor priority. A crisis can be as simple as requesting a meeting or as elaborate as a demonstration. Regardless of the specific method, sustainability advocates require a way to move sustainability onto the priority list of institutional leaders and other stakeholders.

5) Institutionalize Organizational Changes: Interest and commitment to sustainability tend to waver over time, and coordination tends to be a major problem. Therefore, sustainability advocates need to create organizational changes that become integral to the campus, such as creating a sustainability coordinator position, oversight committee, and a policy/mission statement, all of which correlate with increased chances of sustainable outcomes. When changes are institutionalized, a college or university’s cautious tendencies turn advantageous since the new processes are difficult to dislodge. In this way, consideration of sustainability within and across research, teaching, operations and service becomes part of the institutional decision making process.

The Talloires Declaration was designed as an integrative and powerful framework for action on campus sustainability. In the United States, the institutions which signed this declaration vary greatly in terms of environmental progress, but share some common processes, successes and frustrations. By analyzing these institutions and institutional processes and conditions, the Campus Environmental Sustainability Survey contributes to what is likely to be a long process of rigorously analyzing how, why and what colleges and universities can and should do to move society on the path toward sustainability. The ultimate goal of this line of research is to bridge the gap between activist calls for campus leadership on sustainability and the inherent tendency of colleges and universities to resist organizational changes.

1 The full text of the study is available at http://sitemaker.umich.edu/snre-student-mshriber. The author thanks ULSF, the Erb Environmental Management Institute, and the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School for generous support of this research.
2 For fear of biasing the results, the survey did not reveal that each college or university had signed the Talloires Declaration, and asked “My campus has signed external Declarations on sustainability” (yes, no or don’t know). Thus TD impact is only indirectly measured.
3 These “follow-up case studies” include a comparative case study of two institutions with similar demographics but very different levels of environmental success as well as an in-depth, participant observation-based study of the University of Michigan. The Michigan case study is being published in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (Summer 2003).

Brownstein, A. (2000). “Tuition rises faster than inflation, and faster than in previous year.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 27): 5.

Mondragon, J. (2001). E-mail to Mike Shriberg & Amy Lockwood from staff member at Higher Education Publications.

Population Division of the United States Bureau of the Census (2001). School Attendance, US Bureau of the Census.

Rodenhouse, M. P. (2000). 2001 Higher Education Directory. Falls Church, VA, Higher Education Publications.

Shriberg, M. (2002). “Institutional assessment tools for sustainability in higher education: Strengths, weaknesses, and implications for practice and theory.” Higher Education Policy 15: 153-167.

Dr. Michael Shriberg is Program Director and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, PA. This article derives from his doctoral dissertation entitled “Sustainability in U.S. Higher Education: Organizational Factors Influencing Campus Environmental Performance and Leadership” completed at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment. He can be reached at mshriberg@chatham.edu or 412-365-1883.

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