Greening Campuses, but Not Classrooms

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by: Joel Makower

The conversation on college and university campuses about environmental issues has grown more robust in recent years.
Nearly every school — four-year and two-year schools alike — seems to have a program aimed at, variously, reducing energy and water use, harnessing renewable energy, increasing recycling and composting, ramping up green procurement, reducing toxic materials, and promoting driving alternatives. Everyone from deans to janitors have gotten into the act, making commitments on climate, cleaning, computers, and more.

But all this green action seems to be cutting class.

That’s one conclusion from a comprehensive new study aimed at assessing "the extent to which college and university leaders value environmental performance and sustainability and are putting these values into practice." Campus Environment 2008 (Download – PDF) from the National Wildlife Federation surveyed nearly 1,100 campuses and compared the results to a similar survey done in 2001. It’s the largest such survey done in the United States.

NWF found that while campus administrators are ramping up their commitments to reduce their schools’ environmental impacts and making significant changes in day-to-day operations, environmental academics are lagging, and may have declined since 2001.

It’s not surprising that campuses are getting greener, based on the growth of green-campus organizations and initiatives I’ve witnessed over the past few years. Last year, when I keynoted a conference of APPA, an association of campus facility managers, I found a whole ecosystem of groups, including the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education; Campus Safety, Health, and Environmental Management Association; Campus Sustainability Planning Network; National Association of College and University Business Officers; and the Society for College and University Planning. All are concerned about the greening of campuses. Nearly 600 U.S. college presidents have signed the President’s Climate Commitment, which mandates that signatories develop a comprehensive plan to achieve climate neutrality, take specific actions, and report publicly on their progress. And the Talloires Network includes more than 60 schools on five continents that have committed to work towards sustainability. You can now find ratings of the greenest U.S. campuses from Princeton Review — a refreshing counterbalance to the publication’s infamous ratings of party schools.

And this doesn’t include students’ extracurricular activities: conservation clubs, climate action groups, Earth Day chapters, campus greening groups, food activists, and chapters of Net Impact, a network of business students and recent grads interested in corporate social responsibility. And then there are the campus organizing programs of Environment America (formerly U.S. PIRG), Greenpeace, National Wildlife Federation, and others.

But what about in the classroom? There, the news isn’t so good. According to NWF’s study, between the years 2001 and 2008, the amount of sustainability-related education offered on campuses did not increase and may have even declined. That’s surprising, given the apparent growth in "green MBA" programs and other courses of study that focus on environmental topics.

According to NWF:

Today’s student is just as unlikely as in 2001 to graduate with exposure to basic ecological principles, much less with an understanding of how the human-designed economy can work in harmony with natural systems. At only a minority of schools have 50% or more of the students taken a course on the basic functions of the earth’s natural systems and even fewer have taken courses on the connection between human activity and environmental sustainability.

Areas such as business, engineering, and teacher education still lag far behind the natural and physical sciences in offering environmental or sustainability courses within their disciplines. Relatively small percentages of campuses offer interdisciplinary degree opportunities in environmental and sustainability studies. Moreover, considerably fewer campuses today require all students to take courses on environmental or sustainability topics.

The study found that while a large majority of campuses report that at least some of their undergraduates are exposed to basic ecology and environmental sustainability, this number has decreased since 2001. Relatively few schools offer a certificate or other recognition in environmental or sustainability studies.

Moreover, support for faculty professional development has also declined since 2001. One-third of all campuses have programs to support faculty professional development on environmental or sustainability topics, down from half in 2001. Few schools evaluate or recognize how faculty integrates environmental or sustainability topics into their courses, which hasn’t changed since 2001. And a small minority of schools continue to have research institutes that study sustainability, climate change, or clean energy issues, though this is less prevalent now among four-year schools, NWF found.

"The real shocker was how little progress seems to have been made on teaching sutainability directly in higher education’s environmental programs and in integrating sustainability principles throughout the curricula," Kevin Coyle, NWF’s Vice President for Education, told me. "If we are looking ahead at a new energy economy and new ways of devloping products, machines, structures, and business systems to support it — it seems that American higher education has a lot of ground to make up."

That’s a sad state of affairs given the enormity of some of the challenges we face. As we tackle climate change, and the growing global need for sustainable food, shelter, and mobility, we’ll need to throw our best and brightest at the tasks. That they enter the workforce ill-educated about the basics of ecological systems and sustainability — and how these relate to their chosen professions — does not bode well. It suggests that the workforce of tomorrow will be no more up to the professional, technical, and cultural challenges than those that preceded them.

There’s a bit of irony in all this, with campus administrators making bold commitments to getting their houses in order, from both a strategic and operational perspective, but not managing to make similar commitments to their students.

Julian Keniry, who runs NWF’s Campus Ecology program, summed it up nicely: The campuses, she says, are "failing to preach what they practice."

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