As U.S. abandons Paris, institutes of sustainability take action on campus

Not even two years ago more than 300 colleges and universities had signed onto the White House-launched American Campuses Act on Climate, which supported the climate negotiations scheduled to take place in Paris in 2015.

More recently, in the shadow of the United States turning its back on the latest Paris climate negotiations, many of those same institutions are doubling down on the pledge, which states, 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."

Beyond the feel-good vibe of the commitment, what actions are those institutions taking to back up their promises? Many have developed institutes of sustainability that they're turning to to help guide the transition.

The subject of sustainability has long been an interest in higher education, not just as a way of operating but also as an academic discipline. Until recently it has been the domain primarily of schools of the environment with a focus on "forestry, fisheries and resource management." Now sustainability education and research are finding new homes in "schools of business, architecture, public policy, public health, engineering, law and many more" in the form of interdisciplinary "sustainability institutes," according to a new report from the University of Michigan.

That shift, wrote authors Andrew Hoffman and Jessica Axson, has created "new challenges" for internal coordination and external engagement of partners and fundraising. Hoffman is a professor of sustainable enterprise at the university and education director of the Graham Sustainability Institute. Axson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of environmental health sciences with a research focus on environmental and health aspects of particulate matter.

The report examined 18 universities with various models for studying the subject of sustainability, looking at approaches to governance, research, education, engagement, campus operations and best practices.

Of the group, 12 institutes said they pursue projects with campus facilities and operations, turning the campus into a "learning laboratory" and helping facilities implement climate action plans that call for more efficiency and effectiveness while still pushing down the costs of operations. Among the areas of engagement are work tied to greenhouse gas reductions, building improvements and waste reduction.

While these efforts may aid the campus at large, one challenge the institutes face is a "tension" between their unit and others on campus, especially when they're viewed as competing for resources. A frequently cited antidote: taking on a "service mindset," and providing services and opportunities to the academic units "that they cannot provide for themselves."

Another recommendation: to seek institute funding beyond those tied to research. "Be sure the funding model, return on grants, and credit for teaching does not compete with but benefits the academic units," asserted one respondent. "Try to get off being funded by overhead return. Not just that it is uncertain, but it sets up a competition with departments that is unhealthy," suggested another. A "generous advisory board" and a "strong link with the development office" will make a "big difference," wrote the researchers.

The report was commissioned by the University of Texas at Austin and funded by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. It's openly available on the U Michigan website here.

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