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

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