Higher Education’s Role in Creating a Sustainable World


by Carol Brodie


There are over 4,000 institutions of post-secondary and higher education in the United States, with over 14 million students.  In 1999, 2.3 million degrees were handed out. These technical schools, colleges, universities, and professional schools prepare the majority of the professionals who will work, teach, and live in our towns and cities.  The graduates of these institutions will affect future generations by their example and their teachings.  Their alma maters, therefore, play an important role in how society defines its priorities and goals, and accomplishes its objectives.

Johnson and Beloff (1998) state that education is the best way to prepare future citizens to respond to an environmental agenda, and that higher education is the best place to provide that instruction. Cortese (2003) states that in order to solve some of the current and pending environmental problems, humans need to understand their impact on the earth, and their connections to the natural world.  He states that the change in thinking needed is “a sustained, long-term effort to transform education at all levels” and that “higher education institutions bear a profound, moral responsibility to increase the awareness, knowledge, skills, and values needed to create a just and sustainable future.”

According to Orr (1994), one of the goals of higher education should be to prepare its graduates to be responsible citizens, including the knowledge about their place in the natural world, and the sustainable practices needed to protect that world.  However, teaching these values is not necessarily, by itself, enough — higher education should “practice what it preaches“ and make sustainability a fundamental part of its curriculum, operations and investments.

Universities function as a microcosm of society; therefore, the manner in which they carry out their day-to-day activities can be a demonstration of the ways in which we can achieve environmentally responsible living.  By looking closely its own practices, the university can set an example in sustainability, and engage students in understanding the ecological footprints institutions and individuals leave (Abate et al., 1995).

A movement was begun towards these ends in 1990.  In order to attempt to define and promote the concept of environmental sustainability in higher education, the Talloires (pronounced Tal-Whar) Declaration was created. The president of Tufts University convened twenty-two university leaders and nine international environmental experts in France to voice their concerns about the environmental condition of the world and to create a document that spelled out actions that colleges and universities should take to create a sustainable future. This gathering defined the importance of higher education in the following way:

“Universities educate most of the people who develop and manage society’s institutions. For this reason, universities bear profound responsibilities to increase the awareness, knowledge, technologies, and tools to create an environmentally sustainable future.” (Report, 1990).

The Talloires Declaration is a plan with ten “action items,” and is intentionally broad, covering the major areas of university activity: teaching, research, operations, outreach and service. The Declaration is designed to be interpreted and shaped for each individual institution. (Report, 1990).

Increasingly, universities are bringing sustainability into their curriculum, and incorporating its principles into their operations (Barlett and Chase, 2004; Cortese, 2002).  Making this change has helped them to realize economic savings and esteem amongst their peers through the greening of their campuses. As an example of savings on a larger scale, in California the state’s Sustainable Building Task Force commissioned a report to assess the costs and financial benefits of constructing sustainable buildings in the state. The report shows that it costs, on average, nearly two percent more to construct a green building than one using conventional methods. However, the energy savings realized equal more than ten times the initial investment during the life of a building, conservatively assumed to be twenty years (California Integrated Waste Management Board, 2003).

How can universities promote sustainability?  There are so many ways.  Since they are such microcosms of society, they can model green principles in every aspect of their operations.  For example, consider their physical plants.  These operations manage the physical environment in which students live and learn, and employees work.  They have enormous capabilities to save money and resources through green practices.  Native plants in the landscaping save water. Chipping and spreading green materials saves money on mulches, saves water, and reduces removal fees.  If they follow the Green Building Council’s standards for LEED certification in new and retrofitted/renovated buildings, they will discover energy savings – for example, night cooling systems and occupancy sensors reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and save universities money at the same time.

An exemplary model of sustainability in buildings can be seen at Lewis and Clark College in Portland Oregon.  Their new residence halls have been rated LEED Silver, and their new social sciences academic building (Howard Hall) is expected to be rated LEED Gold.  The new 50,000-square-foot building is expected to consume 40 percent less energy than a typical building of the same size, with raised-floor displacement ventilation and night cooling systems. Its elevator operates with 40 percent less electricity than standard elevators and does not use hydraulic fluid.  Its storm-water filtration, storage, and reuse system has already received praise from the Oregon Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Touring the building in October of 2004, I at first found its exposed steel, unpainted concrete blocks, and polished concrete to be somewhat stark; however, they have softened the effect with student art and other projects.  Howard Hall has a smaller ecological footprint than the structures it replaced, but it brings a net gain of 25 offices and 14 classrooms to the campus. Additionally, the contractors recycled more than 95 percent of the construction debris and used low-toxicity adhesives, carpet and composite wood products throughout the building.

Additionally, Lewis and Clark has a natural gas co-generation unit for electricity and for heating the school’s swimming pool.

Transportation is becoming a hot topic at universities.  Visit just about any campus today, and you will find electric carts being used by their dining services, physical plant, housing, student life – you name it.  Electric carts are just the beginning, though – universities are coming up with some very innovative – and fun! – sustainable solutions.

Let us consider the example found at the University of Oregon (UO).  UO has one of the highest concentrations of bicycle per capita in the State of Oregon, possibly the country.  This high level of bicycle use benefits the campus, the city of Eugene, and the state by reducing the usage of fossil fuels, and reducing the need for parking on the UO campus.  University campuses are facing a huge problem because of limited parking areas and increased numbers of cars.  Being in Eugene is beneficial for the campus, too, as that city has built one of the most sophisticated and highly developed bike route systems in the country.

Bicycle “taxis” are another innovative – and fun! – step that UO has taken. The Tandem Taxi Service began operating at UO during the spring term of 1997, and was first service of its kind on any college campus.   They use 2 and 3 seat bicycles to provide free evening transportation for the University Community. And in the spirit of teaching sustainable practices to our young, Tandem Taxi introduced a new program of giving children from UO’s child care program experience in riding a bicycle.

California State University at Chico has developed an extensive transportation program designed to reduce the University’s contribution of air pollutants to the valley portion of Northern California. The University has selected three transportation alternatives on which to focus, including the increased use of bicycles.  To encourage bicycle use, the campus has over 5,000 bicycle parking spots and has cooperated with the City of Chico to establish a major cross-town bicycle path that terminates at the University campus.

Food service is another area in which universities are leading the way.  For example, at the University of Portland, their food service provider, Bon Appetit, strives for sustainability by buying from local organic farms and co-ops.  Their “Farm to Fork” Program involves the purchase of produce and dairy (organic when available) from small local farms, meat purchases of grass-fed animals raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics, and sustainable seafood purchase principles.  They also feature recycling and energy-saving efforts such as using biodegradable disposables.

At Portland State University the Food for Thought Café is a student-run café that embodies sustainability principles.  It began in the spring of 2000 with a group of students interested in promoting sustainability in their campus food systems.  They have a community business mentor, and partner with the Western Culinary Institute which assists them with menu development and the placement of interns.  Most of the food in the café is local and grown sustainably.  Disposable materials are eliminated as much as possible, and recycling and composting are within easy reach.

Even our office practices can make a difference.  Margins on our letters and reports, for example, can save on paper and printer cartridges.  At the University of Pennsylvania a policy was set that mandated reducing margins on most university documents.  This simple and painless step saved the university over $120,000 per year (Pearce and Uhl, 2003).

University curricula are an obvious area in which universities can teach and model environmental sustainability.  Environmental studies/sciences programs and majors can be found at many universities across the country, such as Sonoma State University, The Evergreen State College, and even small private schools such as the University of the Pacific.  Environmental sustainability is also found incorporated into other university programs such as law (Hammer, 1999) and business schools (Pesonsen, 2003).

Very few teacher preparation programs include environmental education — the numbers of such programs has dropped significantly since the 1970s heyday.  This is one of the primary reasons why basic environmental education is rarely taught in K-12. Gabriel (1996) claims that one of the reasons basic environmental education is rarely taught in K-12 is that teacher preparation programs rarely include environmental content.  Gabriel identifies barriers to incorporating environmental education in higher education, and they include such factors as the disciplinary structure of higher education, and the fact that state teacher requirements do not include environmental education.  Strategies offered for influencing higher education institutions to include environmental education in their teacher prep curricula include such ideas as implementing faculty development programs in the area, establishing partnerships with local schools, developing campus environmental stewardship programs, and taking the leadership step of signing the Talloires Declaration.

So, where do we go from here?  Let us start with encouraging higher education institutions to sign the Talloires Declaration.  Then, let’s ask them to walk their talk.  They should implement faculty development programs in the environmental sciences and establish partnerships with local schools to teach our young about their own place and their planet.  Universities can implement sustainability principles in their operations, housing, purchasing, and community and campus environmental stewardship programs.  All these steps are important, and overall represent a collective intention for a sustainable future.

Carol Brodie is a doctoral student at the University of the Pacific, exploring case studies of universities at varying levels of organizational environmental sustainability.