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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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional


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