How universities can plant the seeds for a sustainable society

Colleges and universities historically have not viewed their operations and impacts through the lens of sustainability. That's surprising considering the volume of energy consumed and waste produced on a daily basis by students and faculty.

These institutions have an opportunity to foster sustainability by making organizational changes involving operations and student and faculty behavior. In order to prepare the next generation of society's leaders for a sustainable future, universities should consider how they can serve as a model of sustainability and teach students to be responsible citizens.

Higher education institutions "prepare most of the professionals who develop, lead, manage, teach and work in, and otherwise influence society's institutions," according to Anthony Cortese, cofounder of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). As such, they "bear a profound moral responsibility to increase the awareness, knowledge, skills and values needed to create a just and sustainable future."

To serve as a model of sustainability, colleges and universities should make commitments via goals and targets that lead them in a sustainable direction. The Green Report Card, for example, found that 64 percent of schools, including more than 300 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada with the largest endowments, have a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They should use metrics to track performance and measure progress using commonly accepted standards. AASHE created the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System as a voluntary, transparent and comprehensive rating system for higher education institutions.

As with companies, sustainability should infiltrate all levels of the campus, from utilities, procurement and IT to campus safety, residence halls and student groups, among others.

The Green Report Card found that 79 percent of schools have green building policies. For food services, many universities encourage tray-less dining and offer water refill stations to encourage students to refill water bottles. And in the Athletics department, the Collegiate Game Changes Report found that college athletics and recreation programs are tackling sustainability with recycling programs, energy efficient lighting and controls, water efficient fixtures and on-site renewable energy.

Colleges and universities should encourage green transportation, listen to stakeholder expectations, organize sustainability champions and make sustainable investments, such as buying fairly traded products and investing in sustainable companies.

At the same time, they can teach students about sustainability in a variety of ways, the most obvious being academic programs. Arizona State University, for instance, opened the world's first School of Sustainability, which offers 305 corresponding majors and 500 minors.

Interdisciplinary classes also can be offered that address sustainability. Because it is a topic that affects multiple disciplines, such as environmental science, engineering, business and political science, universities should consider how to integrate sustainability in course offerings. For example, the University of Michigan Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise offers a dual degree program and cross-listed courses with the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ross School of Business to promote dialogue and collaboration between aspiring professionals in environment and business disciplines.

Colleges and universities also can create sustainability-focused research opportunities and engage students with ambassador programs. Universities can join Net Impact, which works with students to build campus leadership programs involving networking events, service projects, career panels and campaigns to promote sustainability on college campuses.

All of these actions will promote sustainable behavior on college campuses and encourage students to continue living sustainably as they enter the workforce.

Universities have a "golden opportunity to create a new generation of socially and ecologically responsible citizens," according to Penn State University Professor Christopher Uhl and organic farmer Amy Anderson [PDF].

If society is a garden, then universities are the gardeners. However universities plant the seeds of sustainability initiatives will stimulate the growth of a sustainable future.

Seedling image by fotohunter via Shutterstock.