Universities Set Out To Lead on Sustainability. The Results Have Been Underwhelming.

Fifteen years ago, a dozen university presidents urged hundreds of their peers to sign on to a letter that they hoped would transform higher education’s role in advancing sustainability.

The letter, known as the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, was meant to encourage universities to do more than just slash carbon emissions and waste. It envisioned a broad leadership role for colleges on one of the most-pressing issues of our time, urging colleges to commit to creating a culture of action that would turn their most important resource—young and motivated students—into champions of a new sustainable society.

By the time the initiative officially launched in 2007, a group of 284 presidents had signed the letter. The results have been, at best, underwhelming.

Many believe that higher education still isn’t all that close to leading in environmental stewardship. It hasn’t meaningfully prioritized sustainability, its efforts on cutting carbon emissions have been uneven, and most of the progress, where it has happened, has been from a small group of wealthy schools.

“I would say that sustainability in higher education has been a tremendous failure in every way possible,” said Madhavi Venkatesan, an economics professor at Northeastern University and an environmental activist.

The failure could have impacts far greater than the carbon emissions and waste of campuses. Many worry that an entire generation of young people will be unprepared or unmotivated to deal with the harsh environmental realities heading their way.

“If you look at, let’s say, the membership of the Senate or the House of Representatives or the board members of any major company, 97 percent almost certainly have an undergraduate degree,” said Julian Dautremont, Director of Programs at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, or AASHE. “The potential impact of higher ed is enormous.”

That potential motivated the development of organizations like AASHE and Second Nature, nonprofits whose main mission is to support the advancement of sustainability in higher education. Both organizations have developed tracking systems and programs that universities can use to gauge how well individual colleges are doing in areas like reducing carbon emissions.

But so far, only 10 universities nation-wide have actually reached net-zero carbon emissions. Many more universities have set carbon neutrality goals, but many of these goals are on an unambitious timeline of 20 years or more in the future. Universities now understand just how much investment it takes to decarbonize an entire campus, which is why many fail to commit to bold timelines.

Ronnie Lipschutz, a professor of politics at University of California at Santa Cruz, said that some universities use net-zero carbon goals as opportunities for good press rather than actual accountable commitments.

“I don’t blame universities for not succeeding. I blame them for touting their achievements which are probably doubtful,” said Lipschutz. “There’s a lot of PR here.”

And most institutions in the country don’t participate in the sustainability programs of Second Nature and AASHE at all, meaning that universities that have set modest goals of carbon neutrality are actually making a better effort than most.

“I’m highly confident in saying that there are 3,000 schools out there that are really not doing much at all in sustainability,” said Steve Muzzy, climate programs senior manager at Second Nature.

“I don’t blame universities for not succeeding. I blame them for touting their achievements which are probably doubtful. There’s a lot of PR here.”

Ronnie Lipschutz, UC Santa Cruz

There is real transformative work going on at some universities, Muzzy and Dautremont said, in cutting emissions and reducing waste. But higher education as a whole just isn’t there yet.

One of the main reasons that the majority of universities have failed is financial, and the challenges many colleges face have only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There are definitely quite a few institutions of higher learning that are just trying to keep the lights on,” Muzzy said. “So, to really consider long term operational infrastructure changes, they just can’t even think about it.”

The reality is that meaningful investments around sustainability, like electrifying a university’s bus system or overhauling a campus’s heating system, can cost millions of dollars upfront even if it has the potential to save money later. It’s why, for better or worse, the vast majority of universities that have made significant progress on sustainability are schools with major endowments.

High school and university students stage a protest against the climate policies in Belgium in 2019. (Ale_Mi/Depositphotos)

But even wealthy universities have, on the whole, done a poor job in one potentially powerful role they could be playing in environmental stewardship: integrating sustainability across the academic curriculum.

“Students who are studying engineering or business or political science, those folks are likely to be in positions of a significant amount of influence potentially on sustainability,” Dautremont said. “And that’s where the integration of sustainability curriculum has been weaker.”

Many students are graduating right now, he said, with little to no training on thinking critically about how their careers and future lives could potentially affect the world around them. Right now, sustainability as an academic subject is usually a major, class, or brief lesson, but rarely a core part of a curriculum.

“Sustainability from the academic perspective is still thought of as a class where you learn about the meaning of greenhouse gases, but that’s not what it’s about,” Venkatesan said. “It truly is a world view.… It’s a behavioral change in how we perceive the world around us.”

There are some exceptions, the experts said. Colorado State University, for one, offers an example of how sustainability in the curriculum could be better integrated.

The university has a school of global environmental sustainability that is dedicated to integrating topics from its school across the university curriculum. As a result, there is a major and minor in sustainability in every college of study at the university. Almost one in five undergraduate courses at the university offer some form of sustainability education.

At most universities, it would be unlikely for a student to be exposed to sustainability without choosing to study it. But a student at CSU would have a hard time getting a degree in any subject without at least some exposure to sustainability in the classroom.

“We have support from our president for sustainability and we have support from our students and faculty for sustainability,” said Tonie Miyamoto, director of division communications at Colorado State University. “I think the system only works when it’s completely infused like that.”

Powerhouse Energy Campus of Colorado State University. (PixelsAway/Depositphotos)

The hesitance of many other universities, though, to teach sustainability like a core subject    may point to the reality that higher education itself hasn’t really adopted a new mindset.

Michael Smith, an environmental history professor at Ithaca College, saw firsthand how universities are failing to integrate sustainability into their core goals and operations. During the 2018-19 academic year, Ithaca College began a strategic planning process called Ithaca Forever in which Smith hoped sustainability would be at the forefront.

“How cool would it be for Ithaca College to be able to say, you know, five years from now we will guarantee that every student, no matter what their major, will graduate having some understandings of the parameters of the climate crisis and some skills for being a change agent in the world,” Smith said.

But as the process went on, Smith felt that the college hardly prioritized environmental stewardship. The university didn’t mention sustainability specifically as one of its goals in the Ithaca Forever plan and then, as part of larger budget cuts, it laid off nine professors who taught some aspect of the climate crisis. 

David Maley, director of public relations at Ithaca College, took issue with the claim that the college doesn’t care about environmental stewardship. He pointed out, for example, that a Climate Action Action group was created to achieve one of the nine goals that didn’t specifically mention sustainability in the Ithaca Forever plan. Ithaca, he added, has made progress in cutting carbon emissions and improving energy efficiency to get to carbon neutrality by 2030.

Ithaca has, Smith agreed, made significant progress in operational sustainability. But he remains dissatisfied with the college’s overall commitment to the cause. He was especially disheartened when, in early June, Ithaca took the step of eliminating its position of sustainability coordinator. 

Despite the difficulties, Muzzy from Second Nature is hopeful that it’s still not too late for universities to be the leaders that that climate commitment from 15 years ago once envisioned. As President Joe Biden talks about making climate a priority, Muzzy said he has already received an uptick in inquiries from universities about joining one of his organization’s carbon initiatives.

But time, he said, is running out. If it takes another five or 10 years to persuade people that a climate crisis is real, and that they need to act, Muzzy said, “we’re in trouble.”

Cover photo: University of California Berkeley’s solar car team members recharging their car at the American Solar Challenge in Ann Arbor. (smontgom65/Depositphotos)