Greening the Ivory Tower: Campuses Make Sustainability a Core Curriculum

By Buttenwieser, Sarah Werthan | Earth Island Journal, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Greening the Ivory Tower: Campuses Make Sustainability a Core Curriculum


Buttenwieser, Sarah Werthan, Earth Island Journal


The hottest color on college campuses these days is cool-the-climate green. One obvious signal: More than 400 higher education leaders have signed on to the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. Ralph Hexter, president of Hampshire College, describes his rationale for participating in the effort: "Human activities are responsible for the problem, and working together, humans have the capacity to solve the problem. Achieving climate neutrality within a reasonable time flame is absolutely essential for our collective future. It is our responsibility as world citizens--one we dare not shirk."

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The presidents' climate effort is far more than just an academic exercise. As a $315 billion chunk of the US economy, colleges and universities have the potential of prompting widespread societal changes. The ecological innovations taking place on college campuses are poised to influence similar environmental reforms that are occurring within local governments and some businesses. At the same time, the efforts for greener campuses are helping to shape the worldview of an entire generation.

"To my knowledge, there hasn't been a similar commitment in higher education in US history," says Judy Walton, director of strategic initiatives for the Association of the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). "I can't recall another collective agreement, with a reporting structure, signed by presidents of every type and size of institution. The breadth of signatories matches the breadth of this challenge. These institutions recognize the urgency of the situation and understand that their responsibility means going beyond 'business as usual.' [To do this] means rethinking the way higher education institutions operate, teach, conduct research, and relate to their communities. It is not simply a research problem, and it will require the largest collective action possible to be a success."

Not Your Parents' Earth Day

The quest for campus sustainability is taking place at large state schools, small liberal arts campuses, and elite Ivy League universities, as well as local community colleges. At Hampshire College, known for its experimental attitude, students have started a community garden. Campus activists at the more buttoned-down Dartmouth College recently completed a summer-long sustainability tour in a vegetable oil-powered bus. Within the giant University of California system, students are pushing for a system-wide local food program and have already convinced the regents to reduce the fuel use of campus transportation fleets. Administrators at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, MA built a new biomass hydronic heating system that cuts campus greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent and saves the college roughly $300,000 per year.

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Of course, environmental issues have been a popular cause at colleges at least since the first Earth Day in 1970. "'Greening' has been out there for a good long time, a relic from the '60s and '70s Mother-Earth-lovin' days," says Marian Brown, the sustainability coordinator at Ithaca College. Today's swell of environmental activism is different, however, in that it's occurring as part of a larger societal shift toward a post-industrial economy.

"Student activists and faculty led the charge for the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act," says Tom Kimmerer, executive director of AASHE. "But this movement is probably stronger, in part because of external drivers. When Wal-Mart and the Dow Jones make sustainability a market factor, you know demand is real."

Steadily increasing energy prices and growing awareness about the dangers of climate change have made university administrators energetic supporters of student efforts. These huge challenges also allow student organizers to frame their campaigns as ways to address other pressing concerns. …

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