Sustainability in Higher Education


Environmental sustainability is a fairly new topic. It was not until the early 1970s that people, who weren’t scientists, began taking an interest in the environment. It wasn’t until later that higher education institutions caught on and realized that they could make an impact when it comes to conserving our earth’s resources, and protecting our environment. Efforts in this cause have changed exponentially since steps towards sustainability began in institutions. In the last 10 years some institutions have made tremendous strides by providing students sustainable housing, programming, and classes. Here at Barry University, we have also taken steps to reduce our carbon footprint. Although, our efforts may not include sustainable housing amongst all of our residence halls, the efforts taken in recent years has been tremendous. The future of sustainability on college campuses will hopefully continue to help young adults care more about our environment. Institutions should be moving more towards solar power, as opposed to depending on electricity as their main source of energy. Campuses that have conservation efforts already in place, like Barry University, will continue to expand on their contributions to the protecting our earth. In order to expand these contributions, institutions have to commit to extending more of their budget for sustainability. One institution that I came across has committed a large budget and their time into sustainability, Green Mountain College. They even have a way that makes their students financially contribute. Hopefully we will see more colleges and universities adopt this model in the future.

The History of Sustainability in Higher Education

Although the first American college, Harvard College, was founded in 1636, sustainability efforts did not being in higher education until a few hundred years later (Geiger, 2016). Americans were not concerned about the harm that was being done to Earth for hundreds of years. Some of this lack of concern had to do with the lack of research done on the subject, and the lack of technology available to do said research. According to Clugston and Calder, it was not until the early seventies when a large amount of people understood the beating that our planet was taking from all of the emissions and pollution being caused by people (Clugston & Calder, 1999). The environmental movement started to become mainstream. The people who cared about the conservation of the earth began trying to bring about legal change through education, lobbying, and legislative action (Prinster, 2016).

Jean Mayer, the President of Tufts, convened twenty-two university leaders in Talloires, France, to voice their concerns about the state of the world and create a document that spelled out key actions universities must take to create a sustainable future. (Clugston & Calder, 1999).

Now, more than 265 university presidents have signed this document, The Talloires Declaration, and by doing so have taken an oath to make their campuses more sustainable. Some of the ways this declaration asks universities to take stand are recycling, sustainability education, and resource conservation (Clugston & Calder, 1999).

Sustainability Efforts in the Last Ten Years

In higher education some institutions ignore the importance of environmental sustainability. Colleges and universities may think that adding sustainability efforts to their campuses is not cost effective, and they may not feel that students would be impacted by efforts made towards sustainability. If institutions would pay for these projects upfront, they would see that they could save money and resources in the future. The University of Western Michigan has implemented over 100 energy conservation measures in the past 20 years. They believe that the average payback period for these measures is three and a half years, and they have reduced the institutions energy consumption by 22 percent (Stevens & Mackey, 2011). These efforts to save energy, from a higher education stand point, could move the students of these institutions to continue sustainable efforts after the graduate. This could eventually have a global impact on our environment. Stevens and Mackey go on to say, Universities should approach sustainability as an expectation, not an add-on (Stevens & Mackey, 2011). Institutions could create better globalized citizens by making sustainability imperative on campus, even by starting with something as little as recycling efforts or doing away with plastic straw in the cafeteria.

A few universities, such as the University of Washington and Duke University, are allowing students to learn from their sustainability efforts by having the students conduct research on the initiatives already in place on campus, and the possibility for new eco-friendly initiatives. Duke University’s program is especially unique. The students conducting research live in what they call their Smart Home Program.

The dorm, in effect a live-in research laboratory, includes passive thermal cooling, 18 solar panels, six rainwater collectors to provide graywater for toilets and washers, and two labs in which students test new ideas (, 2012).

Now, it is understandable that not all institutions can afford the Smart Home Program, or possibly even have the student body that would be interested in that experiment. If it were possible that more schools used these initiatives as an opportunity for students to learn, then these efforts would not only be environmentally friendly and cost efficient, they would a gateway to research that is much needed for our Earth today.

Currently the number one institution in sustainability, according to the Chronicle, is Green Mountain College in Vermont. Green Mountain College plans to use one hundred percent renewable energy by the end of this decade. Sustainability has played a core part of their mission since 1995, and one of their residence halls runs completely on renewable energy. Green Mountain College has a very detailed strategic plan that outlines their sustainability initiatives for current students, and for years to come. Every student pays a thirty- dollar fee when they enter the university, and these funds are put towards sustainability. Every year the students vote on what initiative they want the money to go towards. The college also has very low waste. They feed pigs at local farms with their left over food scraps, as well as using composting on campus. They are striving to make recycling easier than throwing things out in garbage. Green Mountain barely uses any electricity because eighty-five percent of their energy comes from their biomass plant. They also have a large amount of solar panels (Green Mountain College, 2018).

Sustainability Efforts at Barry University

This year, Barry University has taken some big steps when it comes to sustainability. Though we are far behind in a lot of efforts, compared to other universities, we are making good strides in our own right. As of October 1, 2018 Rousell Dining Hall is plastic straw free, paper straws are available by request. Since plastic straws are not recyclable, the university is saving thousands of straws a year by not polluting the landfills and oceans with them. Barry also ordered more than ten new trash/recycling bin combinations that were placed all over campus. This effort gives more visibility to recycling, and it also gives someone the opportunity to recycle an item that they might have just thrown in the trash if a recycling bin was not in close proximity. Barry University also has more than 12 hydration stations on campus. The stations are features that are attached to water fountains. The contain filtered, chilled water, and they automatically dispense water when a water bottle is placed underneath it. The dispenser will then stop when the bottle is pulled away. This encourages the students are faculty of the university to use reusable water bottles, instead of wasting money and resources on plastic water bottles.

Another thing that Barry does well is the Switch It Off campaign. This initiative allows freshmen students, who live in the residence halls, to compete by saving energy. The university has a system that records all of the energy used by each hall. Each hall has specific programming that is geared toward energy conservation. At the end of the spring semester, whichever hall has saved the most energy wins a prize that is decided upon by the university. Barry also has a community garden that is being planted later this month. The garden will include vegetables, herbs and flowers. The vegetables will be sold, and the proceeds will go towards new seeds for the garden, and general garden maintenance. Earlier this year Barry started a bike sharing program with Lime Bike. This program allows students to rent bikes on campus for fifty cents every half hour. Students can travel off campus with these bikes because each one is equipped with a navigation system. This program provides cheaper and sustainable transportation for students on campus (Barry University, 2018). Barry has also started inviting local middle school and high school students to campus to teach them about the importance of sustainability and social justice. The program is called the Community Learning Partnership. Several meeting throughout the school year are scheduled with same schools so that we are consistently teaching the same students, along with some new ones.

The Future of Sustainability in Higher Education

Many institutions are taking strides to improve conservation and sustainability efforts to create a better global society, but there is still more to be done. Many students are being impacted by the visible changes these institutions make, but how are the institutions going to reach the students that don’t care as much? My suggestion would be to make sustainability a necessary part of a student’s core classes. Require a student to learn about this initiative, and even throw in a service learning aspect. A beach clean-up would be a great example for service learning at an institution near a coastline. This way students are forced to see how polluted our oceans get. The goal would be to give the students the extra push to get involved in sustainability, so that they can see how every day choices effect our environment.

Anthony D. Cortese challenges higher education institutions to use a larger portion of their budget towards sustainability efforts. Cortese asks, If higher education does not lead the sustainability efforts in society, who will? (Cortese, 2003). Institutions and the grand opportunity of impacting new young minds every year. Moving forward, if colleges and institutions happened to make sustainability imperative for students, then the world could be greatly impacted. With more than four thousand colleges and universities with thousands up thousands of students attending each year, society could begin to change rather quickly if institutions of higher education took the challenge by Cortese.

Cortese continues to write about Carnegie Melon University and their Green Design. This program is similar to the one that Duke University uses (discussed earlier). More than 250 students, faculty, and staff worked on the design of a sustainable building, for the university, over a five-year period. A few features of this building are that it uses natural light, is completely solar powered, and no toxic chemicals were used during its construction (Cortese, 2003). Yes, this is something that is already constructed, but this is just one institution. It is rare that an institution has these funds available, and that they put them towards sustainable efforts. This is something that other colleges and universities should strive for on the path to sustainability.

Higher education institutions should be leaders on the sustainability front.

Colleges and universities are like small cities, and their impact is substantial, says Meghan Fay Zahniser, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) said, If today they all went carbon-neutral, it still would not move the needle on climate change. But they are responsible for preparing leaders of tomorrow with solutions to tackle the environmental challenges that impact all of us in our personal and professional lives. (Prinster 2016).


Higher education institutions have become a major component when it comes to educating young people on sustainability. These initiatives are fairly new to society, and colleges and universities have stepped up to the plate in order to preserve our environment. Since the majority of people did not start openly supporting sustainability until the early 1970s, higher education institutions have caught on quickly to the cause. Many schools are adapting to new initiatives every year. Some are just starting to recycle, and that is okay. Any act big or small can really effect students attending these colleges and universities, and help make them better citizens for the global society. Hopefully, other institutions can adopt the programs listed above about Duke University and Carnegie Melon University. If the budget is there, and more buildings are able to provide sustainable living (with a heavy aspect on learning) then that would bring us closer and closer to saving our environment. Not every school is going to be able to show the initiative that Green Mountain College does. If other institutions made a commitment to sustainability in their core commitments or their mission, then maybe more could be accomplished when it comes to sustainability.

My Final Thoughts

After deeply researching this subject I was surprised to learn how new this topic is. I believe that institutions acted relatively quickly to this call for action, regardless of what the government might have said about the environment and climate change at the time. My personal hope is to impact someone’s life while I am studying here, and educate them on sustainable living. Things as little as bringing your own bags to the grocery store, or not using a plastic straw can make a huge difference. Luckily, I work in an office on campus that is responsible for a number of sustainability initiatives on campus that I wrote about in a previous section. I feel as though I have been able to help spread some knowledge about conservation and sustainability, but I hope to reach more people and see the influence that I spread turn into action. After learning about Green Mountain College I am inspired. They have made a way for every student to get involved in their initiatives. They set university wide goals that motivate university officials, students, staff, and faculty to help make these changes happen. I hope to see Barry and other universities adopting this model.

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