From scholarship to climate action at PSU


This is an edited excerpt from the book "Sustainable Solutions: Let Knowledge Serve the City" by B.D. Wortham-Galvin, Jennifer H. Allen and Jacob B.D. Sherman, published by Greenleaf Publishing.

Sustainability — environmental, economic and civic — has been a core focus of Portland State University (PSU) for decades. PSU's motto, "Let Knowledge Serve the City," speaks to our deep and unique engagement with our region. This ongoing, mutually beneficial linkage emerged in part from the institution's contentious history of origin. Started as an extension center in 1946 to serve returning World War II veterans, and initially intended to go out of business after a few years, Portland State kept growing. It grew despite opposition from other state universities and the former State Board of Higher Education — all of whom wanted to see PSU go away[…]

Oregon and Portland's long-standing "green" focus initially centered on preservation of nature and open space, reflected in the Urban Growth Boundary, permanent public ownership of all ocean beaches and the nation's first required bottle deposit bill. It has evolved in recent years into concerns about climate change […]

Thus, sustainability has deep roots, and a large number of faculty engaged with long-lasting connections to many local, regional and national organizations. But PSU and Portland, while still frontrunners, are far from rare. Most colleges and universities use various forms of green branding to appeal to today's students.

Competition for environmental and sustainability research dollars can be fierce, prompting universities to stake their claim as leaders in the field. And it's not just students and faculty. The Climate Leadership Network of Second Nature, for example, has more than 650 signatories for its Carbon Commitment — an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by having universities pledge to develop Climate Action Plans related to energy purchases, travel and buildings, as well as curriculum [...]

The development of PSU’s sustainability programs and its community engagement in this context has been a process of ongoing learning and adaptation toward achieving our long-term aspiration to be a national leader in sustainability scholarship. While substantial progress has been made, challenges remain. Here we offer observations on the overarching lessons learned, in the hope that they may be useful to other institutions pursuing sustainability as an institutional priority.

It takes time. It took several years to lay the foundation among faculty, students and community partners that made it possible for PSU to articulate a shared long-term vision. It is important not to underestimate the time needed to build trust and social capital around such efforts. Similarly, it takes time and patience to establish trust and effective working relationships between faculty, students and community partners. However, the importance of taking the time to understand each other’s priorities, interests, goals and culture cannot be underestimated.

Find and engage champions among faculty and staff

Key to the success of PSU’s efforts to build its sustainability programs and to engage in meaningful ways with the community was the engagement of key faculty from a variety of departments who valued inter-disciplinarity and collaboration. The commitment of these faculty to working together across disciplinary lines and to taking the time to learn how to partner collaboratively with community members was essential to the success of sustainability initiatives. Similarly, the engagement of key university staff committed to sustainable practices laid the foundation for initiatives such as the Living Lab and other partnerships between academics and operations.

Give students responsibility and meaningful roles

PSU students have played a critical role since the beginning in advocating for sustainability efforts and in bringing energy and innovative ideas to the table. Offering mechanisms for student engagement and leadership can significantly leverage sustainability investments and ensure that sustainability programs are continually refreshed with new thinking and energy. Students are also able to provide a provocative voice to advocate for ideas staff may not be ready to champion, and they are extremely motivated to engage in problem-based opportunities that expose them to "real world" issues — an opportunity to enhance their learning as well as to contribute value to the community.

Top administrative support makes a big difference

PSU has benefited from the outset from a strong commitment to sustainability efforts, community-based learning, and engaged scholarship from university leadership, including the Provost, the Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Research, and the President.

While a sustainability effort could not succeed without faculty, student and staff interest and investment, the importance of this high level validation played a critical role in allowing these efforts to move forward, even with what were at the time fairly limited resources.

Engage community partners early and in meaningful ways

From the beginning, the involvement of community members in research projects, strategic planning and prioritization has enabled PSU to demonstrate the alignment between its work and community priorities, and allowed PSU to leverage resources to ensure projects would move forward. The track record that PSU had developed in terms of community engagement was one of the main reasons that the James and F. Marion L. Miller Foundation sought to invest in PSU’s sustainability programs.

Demonstrate early success

Winners beget more winners. During the start-up phase of developing PSU’s sustainability programs, several activities received positive feedback from the administration, faculty, students and community partners. These efforts helped establish a track record of innovation and success the encouraged ongoing investments of time and resources by all parties.

Target funding to projects that build core scholarship areas

There has been an ongoing tension between being inclusive and focusing resources on key areas in order to build institutional capacity rather than "peanut buttering" the resources too thinly across multiple areas.

The Miller Foundation funding allowed PSU to invest in building capacity in key areas, including ecosystem services in urbanizing regions, urban sustainability, developing partnerships with the city of Portland on climate action issues, and brokering the development of community partnerships more broadly. Investing in laying a strong foundation in targeted areas that represent PSU’s strengths has generally resulted in better outcomes over time. Only targeted investments can allow an institution to create a competitive niche in this rapidly expanding field.

Choose 'wicked problems'

Sustainability education and research is meant to tackle society’s most complex problems. These "wicked" problems involve known and uncertain feedback loops so that often the selected solution will not ultimately resolve the problem, but will instead introduce further complications requiring attention.

Wicked problems require interdisciplinary approaches and the engagement of community partners to combine frontier scientific and experiential knowledge, both explicit and tacit, to mold solutions and to adaptively manage new issues. Academia is the prime institution to foster and lead such approaches to finding solutions to society’s vexing challenges that span environmental, social and economic realms.

Emphasize scholarship aspects to faculty

Because the concept of sustainability often raises issues of values and ethics, there can be concern among university communities regarding whether it constitutes an ideological agenda. Universities’ unique contribution to this field is to bring the rigor of scholarship to the table, and emphasizing the scholarly aspects and opportunities in the field is critical to ensuring broad engagement of faculty.

Stress problem-solving to the community

PSU has a long-standing reputation for its community-based learning programs. Consistent with the approach of these programs, PSU’s work with community partners has been most successful when joint work has responded to key needs and priorities in the community. As noted above, taking the time needed to understand these needs and priorities, and establish a foundation of trust with community members so that they understand their culture, priorities and needs are being taken into account is essential to successful partnerships.

Seek opportunities for public exposure

Universities in general are notorious for not publicizing their accomplishments to audiences outside of academia. The roots of this modesty likely extend back to the ethics and training of being a good scientist. In an emergent field such as sustainability science, humility is not a virtue — keeping the public and community partners informed of new initiatives and progress is imperative to build support for program growth, acquiring new resources, and to open the door to collaborative university-community partnerships.

Bridge the silos

Given the traditional disciplinary structure of universities, innovative administrative mechanisms and structures are needed to bridge these silos and to reward interdisciplinary scholarship and problem-based work. Similarly, having the capacity in the university to serve as a "broker" between faculty, students and community partners, and as steward of these partnerships over time, can significantly enhance the success of community-university partnerships.

Targeting resources toward projects that bring groups of faculty together from multiple disciplines and that engage them and their students in co-production of knowledge with the community can send an important signal in this regard, as well as providing support for the development of social capital among faculty members and community partners.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communicating clearly and constantly is critical to fostering support for sustainability programs. This communication must be "two-way" in order to ensure that the good ideas that can come from anywhere are heard and reflected in institutional development. Communication is equally important whether resources are limited or substantial, in order to create an environment of trust, transparency and excitement.