Empathy, Transformation, and Leadership: A Brief Reflection on AASHE 2012

Posted on October 16, 2012. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

For the past 48 hours, I’ve been taking a deep and nourishing drink from the campus sustainability firehose at the AASHE 2012 conference.  Going all the way back to the very first AASHE conference in Tempe, Arizona in 2006, I’ve found these gatherings to be both educational and inspirational.  Other than that magical first gathering on the Arizona State University campus six years ago, this year’s conference in Los Angeles might very well have been the best one yet.  As I pour over my pages and pages of notes and reflect on the experience, I find that three themes emerge from the pages: empathy, transformation, and leadership.

First, empathy.  This was the theme that caught me by surprise.  The moving keynote performance by Dr. Robert Davies and the Fry Street Quartet humanized our collapsing environmental systems in a collage of images, music, and scientific data so effectively that many in the audience were in tears by the end.  I had to spend a few minutes gathering myself after the session, reminding myself that this is why I chose this profession, that this is why I – and so many others – continue to fight for a better future.  As Monty Hempel observed the next day, human empathy is the gateway to sustainability.  This led Dave Newport to ask a most important question: “How do we turn our human empathy back on?”  I’d like to think that if we can an answer to Dave’s question, we might actually transform the world.

Yes, transformation.  From the opening keynote to the closing awards ceremony, transformation was interwoven throughout the conference.  Hunter Lovins spoke of transformation of higher education with the emergence of online educational tools, a topic I covered recently when I suggested that online education could be the biggest sustainability initiative ever in higher education.  Unfortunately, aside from Hunter Lovins, there were to my knowledge no further serious discussions about online education and sustainability in any of the conference presentations.  If the same holds true next year, I will truly be shocked.

Numerous sessions explored transformations in how we design and construct buildings for university campuses, including experiences with net-zero energy buildings as well as those that meet the stringent guidelines of the Living Building Challenge (LBC).  But even the LBC was itself challenged as not being sustainable, with restorative design identified as the next milestone on the horizon.  Steve Baumgartner of Buro Happold suggested that next year at AASHE, we need to discuss what the word living actually means when applied to a building, because the “living building” designation of the LBC is in itself misleading.  The state-of-the-art has progressed dramatically since the first AASHE conference in 2006, but whether the average new campus building has transformed all that much in the past six years is another question altogether.

That 2006 conference witnessed the announcement of the founding of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, a truly transformational moment in sustainability education in higher ed.  Far too few schools have followed ASU’s lead, although the number of majors, minors, and certificate programs related to sustainability has blossomed.  Shirley Vincent of the National Council for Science and the Environment presented a detailed census of such programs, reporting that there are now 143 sustainability degrees, 298 sustainability specializations within degree programs (such as civil engineering or architecture), and 294 minors and certificates in sustainability.  The numbers look impressive – until you realize that there are about 3,400 two-year and four-year institutions of higher education (not including the for-profits).   In other words, there are only 0.2 sustainability major, minor, specialization, or certificate programs per college.  The transformation might very well come from online programs, because the pace of change at most schools to date – including my own – has been far too slow.

The final emergent theme from AASHE 2012 was leadership.  Mike Shriberg presented a compelling sustainability leadership program at the University of Michigan, with a limited and tightly-knit cohort of 25 students admitted per year traveling together through an 11 credit sequence to equip them to become leaders for a sustainable future.  But what does sustainability leadership mean?  A team from Portland State University led by Dr. Heather Burns posed this question in a workshop at the end of the conference, and the responses from the participants included the following:

  • “Sustainability leadership is a change of heart… beating in rhythm with the world” [there’s that empathy theme again!]
  • “It’s leadership embedded in natural systems, educating and communicating to bring others to that frame.”
  • “It’s setting the example.”
  • “It’s being humble and knowing when to ask the right question.”
  • “It’s being a catalyst, a change agent, a co-creator, a collaborator.”
  • “It’s the ability to reimagine the world, and to motivate others with that vision.”
  • “It’s an emergent quality, shared for a period of time, and then passed on to others.”
  • “It’s showing instead of telling.”
  • “It’s a burden!”

Empathy, transformation, leadership… these were the threads that tied together the AASHE 2012 experience for me.  As Robert Davies instructed, “It’s now time for us to believe what we know…  None of our efforts are enough just yet…  We must transform, or collapse.”  Sobering words.  If ever there was a time for empathetic and transformational leadership, now is the time.  But this is not a task to outsource to others; it’s one to take on ourselves.  As Gandhi observed, “We must be the change we wish to see.”

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The Sustainability Officer’s Dilemma (Thoughts from AASHE 2011)

Posted on October 11, 2011. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , |

Earlier today, as I stood on the balcony of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, the first LEED-certified convention center in North America, I was struck by an irony.  Immediately to my left was the Rachel Carson Bridge, a span named for the famed biologist and author of Silent Spring, the book widely credited as sparking the modern environmental movement. Passing beneath the bridge, on the smooth waters of the Allegheny River, navigating upstream against the current, was a coal barge.  I had spent the past 36 hours at the AASHE 2011 conference inside the convention center learning how heroes and heroines (David Orr’s words, not mine) at institutions of higher education across North America and in cities like Pittsburgh are battling to preserve what’s left of our natural resources and chart our schools, communities, countries, and world on a new sustainable course, and yet there was a floating reminder – a sort of industrialist’s drive-by – of what we’re up against.  The world is full of people with clever ideas to remove carbon from the ground and put it up into the atmosphere, accelerating our demise as a civilization.  And they’re still winning.

As I’ve talked with colleagues about the biggest challenges that they face in their jobs, two central themes have emerged, and these two themes get to the heart of the sustainability officer’s dilemma.  The first is perhaps best told through an anecdote.  A sustainability officer at a major university discovered that his university was spending $5,000 on c-fold paper towels (you know, the kind that when you grab one, five drop out) in a highly-trafficked campus restroom, so he convinced the building manager to remove the paper towels and install quick-dry energy-efficient hand dryers instead.  The project was an economic success, it eliminated a waste stream, and it avoided the environmental impact of the manufacturing of paper towels.  Only one person complained about the project, and the basis of his complaint was that he couldn’t use the electric hand dryers on the Sabbath.  The building manager reacted by putting back the paper towels.

From my perspective, this is not really a story about paper towels at all.  Rather, it is that we so often sacrifice system performance in pursuit of responding to a complaint or solving a problem, when in fact we should optimize the system and then handle anomalies as they arise.  I see this with energy management all the time.  We overcool a building to keep a single hot spot from getting too warm, when we should instead set the building at a proper temperature range and then solve the problem of the hot spot.  Or we cool a building 24/7 to keep a rogue server from overheating when that server should actually be in a data center.  In the paper towel example, perhaps the building manager could have offered a school-branded hand towel (an over-the-top act of customer service, as surely this problem must arise for the complaintant elsewhere).  Or the building manager could have just said no.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead, the performance of the system was sacrificed.  The anomaly drives the system.

If the first theme is a common syndrome of the operational and administrative side of campus, the second theme that I heard over and over again is a syndrome of the academic side of campus: our academic departmental boundaries, and the system of rewards and promotions that exist within and reinforce those boundaries, are ill-suited for the fundamentally multi-disciplinary work of sustainability.  We incentivize our academic scholars to think narrowly, to research narrowly, and to teach narrowly (to the extent that they’re incentivized to teach), and as a result we educate our students narrowly, and they graduate without a broad understanding of how the natural systems upon which their lives depend even function.  And for that, they often start their careers deeply in debt.  It’s no wonder we end up accelerating our own demise – that would be the expected outcome of our higher education system as presently designed, churning out graduates who (mostly unintentionally) will outdo each other in doing us all in.

These two syndromes that form the sustainability officer’s dilemma are both problems of systems design.  I’ve attended every AASHE annual conference since the first AASHE conference in 2006 (and several Greening of the Campus conferences as well), and in my view this seems to be the first time that so many sustainability officers have come together and talked about and framed their challenges in this way.  I believe this represents a significant leap forward in the maturation of the campus sustainability movement.  When we reassemble next year in Los Angeles, I expect to hear many lessons about how my colleagues are finding leverage points to change how these systems function, and even perhaps changing paradigms at their universities.  We will need success stories at the systems level, because for all our LEED buildings and energy and water conservation measures and recycling initiatives, we are still on the pathway to demise.  The earth is finite, and it’s high time our universities educate and act accordingly.

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Green Jobs (Everybody Wants One)

Posted on May 19, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , |

I’ve served as a campus sustainability professional since 2004, and my observation has been that each year brings with it a new initiative or buzzword or idea that sweeps through sustainability offices in higher education.  For example, 2004 was the year that green building and LEED seemed to reach a tipping point on university campuses, and 2005 witnessed a boom in biodiesel projects.  Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” led us all to calculate our carbon footprints in 2006, and thanks to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, in 2007 we decided to do something about those carbon footprints by committing to become climate neutral.  2008 offered us a frightening glimpse of the future as the complex interconnections of energy, climate, water, and food became apparent, and these topics coalesced in the tangible form of university trayless dining initiatives.  So naturally, I’ve been waiting for the next big thing to reveal itself for 2009, and I’m ready to declare that the wait is over.  2009 is the year of green jobs.

Over the last few years, a number of people have come to me seeking advice about green jobs.  Usually the inquiries have come from undergraduates, and they’ve historically come at a modest but steady pace.  The last few months have been totally different.  Yes, I’m still hearing from students – and a lot more students to be sure – but also from mid-career professionals who are ready to make a change, MBAs seeking a new direction, and young alums who don’t want to get locked-in to their current (non-green) paths.

I’m certainly not a trained career counselor, but there are a few things that I’d like to say to job-seekers and potential employers about green jobs.

  • First, not all green jobs are born green.  Or, to put a different spin on it, one approach could be to “green” an existing “brown” job.  This is easy to say of course, and I certainly know from experience the difficulty of putting this into practice.  A number of years ago I worked as a water and sewer engineer for a utility, and I encountered a considerable amount of resistance and even some ridicule when I proposed that we initiate a series of water conservation programs.  Yet, times do change.  A few years after I left, the combination of population growth and a severe drought triggered a water emergency, and now that very same utility has a reasonably robust (although certainly not exemplary) water conservation program.  Certainly a lesson for greening an existing brown job would be to know when the time is right.
  • Second, for recent graduates, inexperience in the workplace can be an advantage when they seek a green job, as it’s harder to unlearn a way of thinking than it is to learn it.  My former colleagues at the utility had to unlearn a way of thinking before they could see that reducing demand for water was just as important if not more so than simply adding supply.  I was inexperienced enough not to be burdened with their mental framing.  When I tell students that their inexperience can help them, I also add that some in their generation (not all, mind you, but some) think in systems and readily see connections in ways that quite frankly their parents’ generation does not.  I attribute this in part to the fact that these young adults were raised in a world of hyperlinks.  The ability to see connections without pre-existing frames will put any seeker of green jobs at an advantage.
  • Third, a number of students will tell me that they’re planning to just “finish up” their major, and then they want to get a green job that’s presumably something completely different.  If they dislike their major, then that’s fine.  However, I do advise students to first think about whether they can leverage what they already know before they make a clean break.  Similarly, when someone with many years of professional experience tells me that they want to start over, the first thing I ask is to see their resume, which often reveals a set of experiences that if framed the right way can help make the next step to a green job easier than they might have otherwise thought.  I also remind them that young green companies need experienced hands to help them grow, which offers another point of entry.
  • Fourth, if employers haven’t figured out by now that that this generation of students not only want green jobs but are demanding them, then they are missing out on a golden recruiting opportunity that can also help to transform their companies.  I know a lot of people with green jobs, and I would describe most of these people as being highly motivated and passionate about their work, as it gives them a sense of meaning and purpose in what they do.  What employer wouldn’t want to capitalize on that?  If I had to describe my colleagues when I worked as a highway engineer many years ago, well… motivated and passionate would not be amongst the words I would have selected.

So what new initiatives might those of us in the campus sustainability community undertake related to green jobs?  One possibility would be to partner with campus career services centers to host green jobs speakers and fairs, and to attract employers that offer entry-level green jobs to recruit at our campuses.  A second possibility of course would be to continue working to green existing brown jobs on our campuses.  A third suggestion is to provide opportunities for students to work part-time in some sort of campus green job, such as a dormitory eco-rep or sustainability office intern, so that they can gain experience prior to entering the workforce.  A fourth suggestion is to promote class projects that use the campus or neighboring community as a hands-on laboratory for learning about sustainability, which again provides students with tangible experience prior to graduation.  Finally, beyond our own campuses, another idea would be to include opportunities for potential employers to meet and interview sustainability-minded students at a future AASHE conference.  (The time is certainly ripe for some bright entrepreneur to launch a green version of Monster.com, which with apologies to Red Sox fans I’ll call “GreenMonster.com” but until that happens perhaps there’s a role for AASHE to play).

In closing, given everything I’ve already said, I will caution that at some point in time that is likely closer than we think, green jobs will just be known as jobs.  Remember ten years ago when the internet revolution spawned e-business?  I distinctly remember the then-dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School noting as he launched a new initiative in e-business that before long, we wouldn’t be using the word “e-business” anymore.  The “e” would go away; it would just be business again, albeit something quite different than before.  He was right.  I think the same will hold true for green jobs.  There will still be jobs that are most certainly not green, but those that are will be so ubiquitous that we won’t find ourselves calling for them to be created by the millions.  The only trick is for us to figure out how to get there from here.

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The Start-Up Guide for the Campus Sustainability Professional

Posted on November 21, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

We’re now over a week past the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE’s) 2008 conference and my mind has not stopped racing.  With numerous presenters providing ideas, insights, and lessons from leading campus sustainability programs, I feel like my to-do list doubled in three short days.  We’re understaffed and overworked, right?  I’m not kidding when I say that we’re going to need to focus on sustaining the “sustainers”. 

A genuine source of optimism at the AASHE conference was that the ranks of the “sustainers” are growing rapidly.  When I first joined Rice in December 2004, I estimated that there were about 50-75 campus sustainability professionals in the US.  By late 2008, I’m now counting closer to 170, although I did read an article that suggests the number could be over 250.  That same article forecasts that over 1,000 schools will employ a sustainability professional by the end of the decade. 

If we are in fact facing a quadrupling of our ranks by the next AASHE biannual conference in 2010, then it’s time to devote some attention to advising our forthcoming new peers on how to get started.  I have ten pointers to share, and I welcome others to add their own. 

  1. Meet the people.  Success in this profession depends upon relationships and knowing who does what on a university campus, including amongst the students.  The first several months for a campus sustainability professional should be booked solid with introductory meetings, from VPs to Custodial Supervisors to Deans to Project Managers to Student Leaders to Maintenance Supervisors to Faculty, etc.  You’re not going to know exactly what to say, and your new colleagues may not yet understand how it is that you’ll be able to help them, but nevertheless establishing the relationship is critical.  As time goes on, your role will often be to “play matchmaker” and “connect the dots”. 
  2. Conduct a preliminary assessment.  How and what is your university doing from a sustainability perspective?  You (and your administration) need to know the story, and when you do the gaps and opportunities will become clear.  The AASHE Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) is a new tool that will help in this endeavor, even if you don’t follow it exactly or formally.
  3. Find the data.  How much energy is your university consuming?  How about water?  What’s your recycling rate?  What’s your carbon footprint?  You can’t effectively manage what you don’t measure, and you can’t provide a proper assessment without good data (or noting the data gaps).
  4. Develop a sustainability web site.  You will need to establish an online presence, and with today’s content management systems anyone can manage and edit a web site.  Until you do so, your program runs the risk of being unknown both inside and outside of your campus.
  5. Join the Green Schools listserv.  The ability to ask questions of your peers and to receive quick responses is invaluable.  The Green Schools (GRNSCH-L) listserv links campus sustainability professionals together in a virtual email community, and is well-used as a vehicle for information sharing.
  6. Subscribe to the AASHE e-bulletin.  This free weekly e-newsletter compiled by the staff at AASHE provides a snapshot of campus sustainability news from all across higher education.  There is no better way to keep up with the exploding campus sustainability movement than this resource. 
  7. Subscribe to the right periodicals.  You will soon find yourself buried beneath a pile of unread magazines, some of which are basically wall-to-wall advertising.  It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all of the free magazines, so much so that you’ll miss what’s important.  In my view, there are three periodicals that you should definitely subscribe to, and a fourth that I would also recommend as a resource.  First, there is no better source for unbiased general green building news and product assessments than Environmental Building News.  The last time I checked the annual subscription rate was $99, but I’ve certainly found that it’s well worth the cost.  Second, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) publishes a free magazine called High Performing Buildings that is full of hard data and case studies about green building, with an emphasis on energy use and conservation.  ASHRAE is an organization that commands respect from even the most doubtful engineers who might try to block the introduction of sustainable design concepts.  Third, the recently launched Sustainability: The Journal of Record offers real promise as a becoming the magazine of the campus sustainability professional (calling it a journal is a bit misleading as its more accessible and less research-heavy than a typical journal).  Together, these three publications offer a solid foundation for getting the most out of your periodicals.  A fourth magazine, GreenSource, provides a useful albeit non-essential assortment of case studies, broad topical features, and product advertising.  This magazine is free to industry professionals (you’ll probably need to call customer service as its not apparent from the web site how to get around the cost for general subscriptions).
  8. Purchase the LEED guide.  The US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program is the standard for green building in the US.  The LEED guidebooks for New Construction and for Existing Buildings are quite accessible to non-architects (which describes most campus sustainability professionals), and will help to provide some structure to your thinking of how to approach sustainable design concepts in new and existing facilities. 
  9. Attend the leading campus sustainability conferences.  Mark your calendar for the AASHE and Greening of the Campus conferences.  These two biannual events alternate in years, and are the best opportunities to learn from and interact with your peers at a national level.   
  10. Join AASHE.  Self evident by now, right?  This is your professional organization, and with a paid membership anyone on your campus can access AASHE’s growing and highly useful resource center of best practices in campus sustainability.  I’ve found that my membership fee has easily been recovered in time saved through the AASHE resource center over and over again.

I would welcome additions to or critiques of this list.


James L. Elder, “Think Systemically, Act Cooperatively.”  Sustainability: The Journal of Record, October 2008, p. 319-328.

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Between the Sessions: Taking the Emotional Pulse at AASHE 2008

Posted on November 12, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

The AASHE 2008 program offers opportunities for campus sustainability professionals to speak with each other on a broad range of topics: master planning, service learning, utility efficiency, carbon footprinting, and strategies for change, just to name a few. However, it’s only between the sessions where we ask an important professional question: “How are you?”

Ours is a new profession, and many of us are in uncharted territory virtually every day. As such, I find it’s useful when I gather with my peers to take check-in on their emotional pulse. Following is what I’m hearing:

  • First, without exception, campus sustainability professionals are feeling overworked. Many are having difficulty keeping-up with their workloads, and some appear to be sacrificing their personal well-being in the process.
  • Second, many expressed the need for full-time support staff. One even received a promise of multiple support staff upon his hiring, and that promise remains unfulfilled a year later.
  • Third, some are operating without a budget, and many find the lack of financial resources to support projects and initiatives frustrating, especially when such projects have a clear economic and immediate economic payback.
  • Fourth, some mentioned an inability to say no when a request or an opportunity crosses their desk, no matter how busy they already are.
  • Fifth, all are driven by a deep sense of urgency – even emergency – in their work. With many experts suggesting that our window to act on climate change is literally just a few more years in order to avoid dangerous tipping points, it’s no wonder that campus sustainability professionals feel the need to overwork themselves.
  • And sixth, given all of the above, it is quite remarkable that many of my peers still feel hopeful. Certainly the upcoming administration of President-Elect Barack Obama is a hot topic of conversation at AASHE 2008, and there is a genuine belief that issues like energy and climate change will be addressed soon with a thoughtful, science-driven approach. But the sense of hope is not just a function of national politics. Perhaps it’s because they are working so hard on sustainability issues, and because they see so many other people joining the profession and working so hard, that there’s a sense that real progress is being made. But make no mistake, it’s a cautious hope.

So, with a sense of great burden, of being under-equipped and overworked, the surprise is not just that campus sustainability professionals remain hopeful. It’s also that no matter the challenges, they also still seem to love their work. I continue to detect a sense of genuine fulfillment amongst my peers. But I wonder how long that will last. Are we running the risk that the profession itself as currently practiced is unsustainable?

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A Movement Reaches Adulthood (AASHE 2008, Opening Night)

Posted on November 10, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , |

In the spring of 1990, Oberlin College Professor David Orr launched a movement.

Students graduating from Arkansas College (now Lyons College) in Batesville, Arkansas in 1990 may never know that their commencement speaker that year delivered an address that literally changed higher education. Dr. Orr, in posing the provocative question “What is Education For?”, challenged the university with an assignment to:

“…examine resource flows on this campus: food, energy, water, materials, and waste. Faculty and students should together study the wells, mines, farms, feedlots, and forests that supply the campus as well as the dumps where you send your waste. Collectively… support better alternatives that do less environmental damage, lower carbon dioxide emissions, reduce use of toxic substances, promote energy efficiency and the use of solar energy, help to build a sustainable regional economy, cut long-term costs, and provide an example to other institutions. The results of these studies should be woven into the curriculum as interdisciplinary courses, seminars, lectures, and research. No student should graduate without understanding how to analyze resource flows and without the opportunity to participate in the creation of real solutions to real problems.”[1]

This assignment marked the beginning of the modern era of the campus sustainability movement. Within just a few years, leaders at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston – inspired by Dr. Orr – hired the first campus sustainability officer, George Bandy.[2] By January 2005, approximately 50 people held titles as campus sustainability professionals. This emerging profession needed a professional organization, and thus the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) was founded in 2006 to promote sustainability in higher education. The AASHE 2006 conference in Tempe, Arizona drew over 650 registrants, making it at that time the largest campus sustainability conference ever. By the fall of 2008, the ranks of the campus sustainability professional had grown to approximately 160, with new positions created at the rate of about one a week.

Today, 1,700 people are gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina for AASHE 2008 in what I can only assume is once again the largest campus sustainability conference ever. This movement is no longer on the periphery of higher education. It is not a boutique activity of “the haves”. This is the mainstream.

As I sat in the audience for the opening keynote address from Lester Brown, I found myself thinking about David Orr, and about the folks who created the first campus sustainability officer position at UTHSC-Houston (who were all eventually shown the door by an administration that didn’t get it), and about those early campus sustainability professionals who spent considerable time just trying to convince others of the relevance of their work, and I wondered if they felt the same optimism and pride that I was feeling that finally – finally – this movement has come of age.


[2] Yes, others played this role in some form or another, but to my knowledge George Bandy was the first to hold the title of a campus sustainability officer.

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