Campus Sustainability Programs

First published on 

[Note: I’m posting this blog in honor of the annual meeting of the Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences, which is about to start here in Washington DC.]

Campus sustainability programs are not just successful applications of sustainability models on a small scale. They can also serve as important demonstration projects and teaching opportunities. In my own observation (for example, experiencing and comparing institutions as different as Duquesne University and esoteric government installations), is that institutional- or campus-level sustainability compares favorably with community-based programs and can be a vehicle for introducing sustainability ideas and approaches, making them normative or “accepted practice”, and teaching how sustainability works, not only for students but for the community in general.

In short, I have come to appreciate that campus sustainability projects are not simply evidence of institutional commitment and a growing job opportunity for sustainability professionals, but also a vanguard of change that promotes sustainability in natural communities.

The near-universality of sustainability on university, college, and research campuses is one of the most important legacies of sustainable development. Campus sustainability became established early because of student and faculty concern and appreciation for the humanitarian mission of the university and its related institutions. However, it was also a tactical achievement because it created, seemingly almost overnight (actually, over a period of two decades) thousands of locality-specific demonstration projects, some innovative and some derivative, in every part of the developed world.

While “sustainable development” is often, and incorrectly, thought of as a concept mostly applicable to developing societies, it is equally important for industrial and post-industrial societies, which are themselves transitioning into new economic models. Sustainability concepts , locally relevant, evaluated, and demonstrated to work, also influence planning for the future growth of communities and the development of sustainable technology. Add to that the teaching value of campus sustainability and it is clear that campus sustainability programs are a force to push forward transition to a sustainable economy and society.

University, college, and research campuses are microcosms of community sustainability because they are communities, with a resident population (living on campus or off campus nearby), facilities with common features to towns and cities, and a governance structure. This makes them near-ideal demonstration programs, in addition to the benefit to their institutions.

Any, even incomplete, list of the community characteristics of university, college and research campus must include these physical and the social characteristics:

  • Autonomy, as campuses have their own local management and often governance similar to towns
  • Defined physical territory, which is relatively self-contained for essential services and, importantly, psychologically as a social space
  • Mix of enterprises not unlike a natural community: classrooms and meeting spaces, offices, maintenance areas, food services, transportation systems, basic infrastructure (energy, water, sanitation, solid waste removal, etc.), “sacred spaces” (areas kept sacrosanct from change, whether from religious devotion or respect for history), diverse workplaces (including laboratories) with special problems, retail and service providers, security, and (to varying degrees) healthcare
  • Cultural life: campuses, even (sometimes, especially) a research campus often sponsor or host cultural activities, such as concerts or lectures; university and college campuses have rich arts and humanities opportunities that have a critical role in thinking through and internalizing the meaning of sustainability for the campus community and its implications for the broader society
  • Culture: every campus has an indigenous culture formed form the traditions of the location, the mission of the organization, the attitudes of the resident population, the community surrounding it (often in reaction to them), and common experience; this culture is a shaping force on coomitment to sustainability but the local culture almost always reinforces the status quo of the mission and gives residents a reason to value sustainability
  • Financial controls and systems for tracking costs, even if revenues are not involved
  • Evaluation, either formal through administrative or research-driven assessment or informally through the response of a generally highly-educated community invested in quality of life on the campus
  • Governance structures that almost always include a high degree of resident participation, in which issues of values, preferences, and perceptions play out

These characteristics make management of sustainability on a campus highly comparable to community sustainability. What works technically on campus has a higher probability of working in a similarly engineered natural community than an innovation designed, usually by non-experts, as a one-off intervention for the community.

Of course, university, college, and research campuses also have characteristics quite different from natural communities, including:

  • Separation of management functions from resident governance, because campuses are owned by organizations that have internal policies, from residence governance, which is well developed in some types of campuses (e.g. student life at universities, unionized workforces) and rudimentary at others (recreation associations, informal feedback)
  • Innovation and insightful analysis can occur in a safe academic or research environment more easily than in a natural community, where people have less in common intellectually but more in common in terms of family ties and history
  • Mechanisms for managing town-gown relationships, including personal relationships, so that campus-community trust is maintained
  • Financial mechanisms, including eligibility to receive grants and to attract the interest of donors, that allow investment outside the core budget of the institution; natural communities rarely have these resources for strategic investment
  • Different demographics than most natural communities: sometimes, as in many small colleges and research campuses, the demographics are more uniform but in others, such as most large state universities, they are much more diverse than the surrounding communities
  • A strong tendency toward “intellectual monoculture”, in which attitudes and point of view are more uniform, especially toward sustainability and other public goods
  • A commonality of purpose beyond a desire to live together comfortably

Some of these attributes for campuses are highly positive for sustainability, but they make campuses sufficiently unlike natural communities that success cannot be guaranteed when a model is replicated. However, success on a campus does seem to make it more likely that a model will succeed when taken into the community.

(c) Tee L. Guidotti, 2016