Published on 2014/11/06

Top Three Misconceptions about Environmental Sustainability in Higher Ed

Top Three Misconceptions about Environmental Sustainability in Higher Ed
It’s critical for higher education leaders to take environmental sustainability on campus seriously in the short term.
The environment, sustainability and efficiency have been hot topics for decades, but only within the last 15 to 20 years have colleges and universities started to take notice of their own sustainability. Many are faced with the challenge of realigning institutional practices, processes and resources to fully institute sustainability on campus (Finlay & Massey, 2012). While there are many misconceptions about sustainability within higher education, this article will focus on the top three.

1. It is Only An Administrative/Leadership Problem

In many cases it will be a leadership team that discusses aspects of sustainability, but it should be a whole campus initiative. Sustainability should be part of the college or university’s mission, outlined in the academic and research policies and embedded into the strategic plan. “For sustainability to be the most effective, it needs to become a part of everyday life on campus, not an abstract concept that does not relate to the institution’s activities” (Finlay & Massey, 2012, p. 155).

This helps to minimize any misconceptions about sustainability amongst all constituencies. “Small groups of committed individuals should begin initiatives and, if successful, build on this instilled confidence and momentum throughout the entire university” (Finlay & Massey, 2012, p. 155). Finlay & Massey (2012) goes on to say, “Institutional benchmarks and successes of sustainability programs need to be shared, such as financial savings, enhanced public relations, and greater student recruitment” (p. 156).

2. It is Too Expensive To Retrofit

There will always be an investment to improve infrastructure, policies and culture, but with sustainability the return on investment (ROI) is always positive. The following are specific examples from the literature that highlight the ROI.

California Polytechnic State University has developed a master plan that clearly articulates campus sustainability goals and targets. The university has reduced energy use per square foot of building space by approximately 15 percent. The campus has purchased solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays and is constructing a cogeneration facility (Finlay & Massey, 2012, p. 158).

Texas A&M University’s campus-wide Metering, Retrofits and Continuous Commissioning Program reduced energy consumption by 33 percent and saved more than $50 million USD in electricity and water costs over ten years (Finley & Massey, 2012, p. 158).

Tufts University reduced the energy consumption of the ubiquitous cold drink vending machines on campus. Vending misers reduce the power input by 46 percent without compromising the products within. With a passive infrared sensor, the vending machine powers down when not in use while monitoring the ambient temperature to cool the machine at appropriate intervals (Finlay & Massey, 2012, p. 159).

The key is to have a strategy to address areas on campus and implement them over time. That strategy should address the ROI, impact on the campus, and who will be involved in the process. Over time, a college budget can address many sustainability efforts.

3. It is Only About Environmental Aspects

College and university sustainability tends to only focus on the environmental aspects. However, there are also social and economic impacts. As mentioned before, sustainability should be campus-wide and be all-inclusive with all constituents. Because of this, sustainability should be embedded into the curriculum, student activities, and other aspects of the culture of the campus. The economic impact should be directly related to the strategic plan as it relates to the ROI and cost savings to the college. “Regardless of how it is defined or measured, sustainability is ultimately a human value, not a fixed, independent state of social, economic, and ecological affairs” (Emanuel & Adams, 2011, p. 82).

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model, it is important for college and university officials to start letting go of these misconceptions as they design their sustainability strategies. A budget should be developed and incorporated into the financial planning of the college and multiple constituents should be involved in the process. From curriculum to student activities to physical changes taking place on campus, sustainability should be intertwined throughout campus.

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Jessica Finley and Jennifer Massey, “Eco-campus: applying the ecocity model to develop green university and college campuses,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. 13 (2), 2012. pp. 150-165.

Ricahrd Emanuel and J.N. Adams, “College students’ perceptions of campus sustainability,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12(1), 2011. pp.79 – 92.

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Readers Comments

Fraser MacDonald 2014/11/06 at 1:06 pm

Universities have the power and the opportunity to play a leading role in creating sustainable campuses and sustainable lives more broadly. Higher ed institutions pride themselves on innovation and being at the cutting edge of new ideas, so it blows my mind that any of them are reticent to jump into sustainability planning whole-heartedly.

Victoria Bedkowski 2014/11/07 at 9:17 am

While I agree that the ROI for sustainability measures is positive, I think it’s worth considering where the money for the initial investment has to come from. I think it’s legitimate to be concerned about spending money on retrofitting when so many schools are strapped for the cash to run their academics.

Evan Duff 2014/11/10 at 11:36 am

That is a great point Victoria. This is why these types of initiatives should be part of the overall strategic plan for any college or university.

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