Colleges and universities across the United States are turning into reality the ideal of preparing students to work toward a just and sustainable society. They’re doing so by modeling environmental and social responsibility, and training students in responsible attitudes and actions. As much as any other sector, higher education is addressing such imperatives as climate science and diversity. As their efforts expand and deepen, individual institutions are measuring their work to assure long-term positive effects.
Determining a stance, modeling and teaching action steps
Increasingly, institutions are realizing that an essential element of their character must be a clearly defined sense of responsibility to community — locally and globally — and the environment — socially and ecologically. Colleges and universities need to maintain a heightened sense of institutional conscience by voluntarily minimizing their impact on the environment and otherwise promoting the common good, going beyond compliance with laws and regulations. This new sense of commitment needs to be embraced alongside the primary educational mission. Institutions can refine their character based on these considerations:
- Physical impact: How we positively affect the environments where our institution is located and where our faculty, staff and students reside; how we increase the diversity of our campus community and vendors; and how we help individuals boost their health and well-being
- Perceptions: How we are viewed by our faculty and staff; if we are the employer of choice for prospective candidates; how our students view us; and if we are a preferred provider of higher education in our market space
An early leader in social responsibility and sustainability is Arizona State University in Tempe. In 2006, the university established its School of Sustainability within the Global Institute of Sustainability, which is the center of the university’s sustainability initiatives. Students are working toward the goal of mitigating 100% of the university’s greenhouse gas emissions related to building energy, refrigerant and waste by 2025, and are trying to eliminate 100% of transportation greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.
Many institutions are committing to sustainable purchasing, showing fiscal stewardship as well as environmental care. For instance, Yale University buys event items in bulk to save money and to reduce waste in support of its philosophy ─ “Yale University Procurement supports the research, teaching and practice missions of the university by leveraging the overall purchasing power of the institution, reducing the overall cost of goods and services, facilitating the acquisition of all necessary goods and services.”1
Other institutions are stepping up to model sustainability across operations and community relations. Breathtaking examples range from building a rainwater harvesting system, purchasing dining hall food from local producers and increasing transactions with minority- and women-owned vendors to increasing faculty diversity and promoting on-campus wellness through pedestrian- and walker-friendly initiatives.2
Going public about intents and purposes
In 2015, 218 colleges and universities, representing millions of students, announced their intent to act responsibly and sustainably when they signed the American Campuses Act on Climate Pledge.3 The pledge reads, in part:
“We recognize the urgent need to act now to avoid irreversible costs to our global community’s economic prosperity and public health and are optimistic that world leaders will reach an agreement to secure a transition to a low-carbon future. Today our school pledges to accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy while enhancing sustainable and resilient practices across our campus.”
Making purposes and actions known can bring both external and internal benefits. Institutions publicize their commitment through direct communications with stakeholders, social media and press releases, website postings and materials for potential students. Since the issue is important to the general population, an institution can boost its reputation by making social responsibility and sustainability part of its public image, encouraging more loyalty among alumni and community members considering contributions to the institution, as well as attracting like-minded students to enroll. In the increasingly competitive environment of higher education, these external advantages could be key to an institution’s success. Internally, social responsibility and sustainability tend to foster higher employee satisfaction and loyalty, which have been shown to improve job effectiveness and result in employee retention, reducing attrition-related expenses.4
Using data to gauge effectiveness, substantiate work
Cost savings and avoidance are real results of many social responsibility and sustainability initiatives. Goshen College reduced its electric consumption by 25% and gas consumption by 23% between 2007 and 2014.5 Energy-efficient features at the school include a computerized building temperature regulation system, motion sensors for indoor and outdoor lighting, a solar hot water collection system, and open loop ground-source heat pumps.
At Arizona State University, the institution reports an 18% reduction of emissions, despite having 25% more people (staff and students) on campus and almost 25% more building space.
Beyond direct cost elimination, other important results can include reductions in food waste and recyclable materials sent to landfills and greater on-campus health and diversity, in addition to improved employee motivation and institutional pride.
When considering how to gauge success, some questions arise: What is the long-term purpose of this initiative and how can it be measured? How will the success of individual efforts be measured? Can results be tied to hard empirical data that can be audited or substantiated?
For instance, an institution encourages carpooling and observes fewer cars parked throughout campus. To demonstrate actual results, it would need to track the progress employees are making in reducing the number of single car trips and how that converts into avoiding consumption of tons of carbon emissions. Tracking and measuring can be complex and labor-intensive, but they must be done to show noteworthy outcomes to stakeholders.
Sustainability reports on institutions’ efforts are increasingly being issued in conjunction with financial reports. They should be verified by a third party such as an independent CPA or an environmental consulting or engineering firm. This independent assurance of sustainability metrics and analysis can provide confidence about the credibility of not only the report, but also of the efforts themselves.
A sustainability report can be the proof that students and the community are looking for as they evaluate your institution and its commitment to the common good.
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The State of Higher Education in 2016