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.
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?
Table 1: Comparison of Talloires Declaration Signatories to All U.S. 4-Year Institution
How are Signatories Performing in Terms of Sustainability?
Table 2: Sustainability-Leadership Scale/Score (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?
Table 3: Correlations (r) between Institutional Characteristics and Sustainability Outcome
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?
Table 4: Barriers to Campus Sustainability
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?
Table 5: Campus Rationales for Pursuing Sustainability
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-365-1883.