Sustainability in Higher Education: Necessity… or Cult?

Contributed by Richard Rood, PhD

I recently attended a webinar, organized by Spheres of Influence ( ), on the emergence of sustainability as a course of study. The webinar had a special focus on The New School ( ) which has recently gone beyond divestiture to embed climate change into its entire curriculum. The New School is at the forefront of sustainability which fits into its vision ( ) “where design and social research drive approaches to studying issues of our time, such as democracy, urbanization, technological change, economic empowerment, sustainability, migration, and globalization.”

Sustainability is a young and changing field of research and education. Sustainability is not as easy to define as, say, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, or urban planning. The Graham Sustainability Institute ( ) at the University of Michigan, answers the question “What is Sustainability?” ( ) as, “Sustainability encompasses solutions-driven scholarship and practice that seeks to safeguard the planet’s life-support systems and enhance quality of life for present and future generations. The field is defined by the problems it addresses rather than the disciplines it employs. It draws from multiple disciplines of the natural, social, engineering, design, and health sciences; from the professions and humanities; and from practical field experience in business, government, and civil society.”

The incorporation of sustainability into university research and education is not without controversy. In a recent blog on universities divesting their endowments and pension funds from fossil fuel companies ( ), one of the articles I referred to was by George Will ( ) in which Will takes the position that divestment is sustainability gone wild. Will states that sustainability is like a religion with, for example, its premises “more assumed than demonstrated.” He further argues that “weighing the costs of obedience to sustainability’s commandments is considered unworthy.” Will is riffing off of the more than 250 page document by the National Association of Scholars ( ) entitled, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism ( ).

The National Association of Scholars “is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.” The National Association of Scholars was founded in 1987 by Stephen Balch, who is identified as an American conservative scholar ( ). The National Association of Scholars should not be confused with National Academy of Sciences ( ), which is the abbreviation I associate with “NAS.”

The material I reference above strongly links sustainability and climate change, and, ultimately, takes the position that universities are taking unfounded positions based on “unresolved scientific debates.” There is suggestion that faculty are pressured “to imbed sustainability into the curricula of unrelated courses.” The document relies, sometimes deftly, on the rhetorical forms ( ) that are used to nurture doubt.

These writings from George Will and National Association of Scholars pose sustainability as political or ideological. There is the suggestion in these writings of a cultish march towards sustainability across the university community, and that divestment of fossil fuels is part of that cult.

Universities and the members of the faculty at universities are not homogeneous bodies of institutions and individuals. As stated in my divestment blog ( ), my faculty colleagues don’t all support divestment. In fact, based on the Figure below, I would conjecture that more universities have denied efforts to divest than have approved them.

Figure 1: More than $50B in divestment pledges has come from 28 universities, 41 cities, 72 religious institutions, 30 foundations and hundreds of individuals. The New School is committed to divestment. (Credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News)

Similarly, there is a wide range of opinions on sustainability and the integration of sustainability into curriculum. In science departments, there is often the opinion that sustainability is notional, and not easily defined nor easily measured; hence, it is not science. It is also true that sustainability has far broader reach than climate change.

I was first introduced to sustainability as a subject of research and education when I started my academic career in 2005 at University of Michigan. At University of Michigan, we have the Erb Institute ( ) which is “Creating a Sustainable World Through the Power of Business,” the Center for Sustainable Systems ( ), which supports “the design, assessment, and management of systems that meet societal needs in a more sustainable manner,” and the Graham Sustainability Institute ( ), which fosters “sustainability at all scales by leading stakeholder-centric activities that systematically integrate talents across all U-M schools, colleges, and units.” All of these institutes have strong relationships with donors who have high success in business. Their donations paint the picture of individuals, families, and businesses that recognize the importance of sustainability to assure future societal and business success. (Disclosure: I work closely with the Graham Sustainability Institute ( ), and I am a Dow Sustainability Distinguished Faculty Fellow ( ).)

One of the points from the Spring, 2015 Spheres of Influence webinar ( ) is that sustainability is emerging, and that standards and practices are maturing. Sustainability studies and education are no longer only for the early adopters ( ). For those interested in the incorporation of sustainability into education, there a number of resources, including Sustainability Improves Student Learning ( ), a group that includes associations of physics, chemistry, biology, and geosciences.

Adding the concept of sustainability to problem-solving requires that we think about where our resources come from and what happens to our waste. It brings into consideration the energy required to obtain resources, manufacture, and dispose of and manage the waste products. The value of the environment and ecological systems is brought into the calculation of cost. It’s true that there is nothing in that list that is an easy calculation, and there are many aspects of sustainability that are not uniquely and definitively quantified; there are value judgments made by individuals, governments, advocacy organizations, and corporations.

Since sustainability crosses many disciplines, it is, in fact, quite difficult to bring into the discipline-focused culture of universities. It brings a focus to problem- solving and participatory, deliberative process. There is a high demand from students, who increasingly see the requirement to manage our resources and wastes in order to thrive. Sustainability is an essential topic of research and education; it is something that we must learn to do right.

About the author

Professor Richard Rood is a climate scientist who teaches multidisciplinary graduate and undergraduate courses at University of Michigan. He is a Dow Sustainability Distinguished Faculty Fellow. Prior to his teaching career, he served as a scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A climate-science communicator, he uses his spheres of influence by reaching a wide lay audience by blogging about climate change for the WeatherUnderground ( )

May 26, 2015 at 7:17 pm Leave a comment

Curriculum Transformation for Climate: A “Grass Tops” Story of Change at The New School

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

In our Spring 2015 Spheres of Influence Virtual Fireside Chat, we heard the story of how students at the New School in New York City used their voices to move the leadership of the university not only to divest from fossil fuels, but to commit to embedding climate change in entire curriculum. And, the leadership has gone still further by determining to create an entire campus– from students to staff to faculty– of “climate citizens” who will be required to make climate commitments.

Michelle DePass, Dean of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School shared the back story and some of the challenges they’ve faced in this transformation, while Dr. Debra Rowe, Founder of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, offered context related to sustainability curriculum in higher education.

Listen here to Michelle DePass share this powerful “grass tops” story of curricular and culture transformation, and to Debra Rowe share insights and resources for joining the growing movement of educators creating curricula for sustainability:

April 29, 2015 at 10:36 pm Leave a comment

The SilverLeaf Navigates Its First Winter… And Copes with “Range Anxiety”: TheSilverLeaf Chronicles 4

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

It’s been a cold winter in Chicago. And electric cars are known to have less battery range in cold weather. Creating “range anxiety.” The SilverLeaf has been tested.

Lake Michigan, March 2015

Lake Michigan, March 2015

Just how severely has my NissanLEAF been tested in its first winter?

Let’s just say it hasn’t been this cold in February in nearly 140 years– going back to 1875. The average temperature in February, 2015 was a painful 14.6 degrees. There were days with wind chills of 30 degrees below– eye-ball-hurting-cold. Beautiful, but cold.

How has The SilverLeaf fared on this test? Not badly.

I’ve charged the car pretty much every chance I could. I plug in every night at home (instead of every 2-3 nights in warmer weather), and at the office where I work downtown three days a week, where I park in a lot where I can plug into one of the numerous outlets on the wall. I even charged at a ChargePoint station — for a couple of bucks– at Walgreen’s when I went in for an urgent care appointment– I’d never used a public charging station while running errands before.

I use the heat judiciously because the heater drains the battery.  On milder winter days–especially if the sun is beating down into the car– I’ll turn the heat off for a bit after I’ve warmed the car up.  I use the heated seat all the time and the heated steering wheel– which is quite nice.

We’ve had quite a bit of snow– not like the 9 feet of snow they got in my native Boston– but we’ve had some blizzards. The car held the road quite well. It got stuck on top of a pile of snow in the alley, but that had to do with the pile of snow, not the design of the car.

So The SilverLeaf has done quite well. I’ve had a bit more “range anxiety” than in the summer. (Can you tell I like using “range anxiety?” It’s the psychologist in me!) But all I’ve had to do is be more vigilant about charging.

Yes, it’s been a really cold, icy, snowy winter in much of the US. But lest we forget about the poorly-named problem of global warming– global temperatures are on average still rising at a very concerning rate. The thing is that we don’t just get warm weather, we get weird weather– like 20 inches of snow in Kentucky– which is why I call it “global weirdness.” And why I drive an all-electric car.  Because I love my kids. And I feel a moral obligation to the children of the world to do my part to tackle global weirdness– cold winters, heightened “range anxiety” and all.

March 9, 2015 at 9:00 pm Leave a comment

Sustainability moves from competitive edge to collaborative tool

Contributed by Ilsa Flanagan

One of the most exciting developments in the sustainability movement is its evolution to encompass a broader vision for how we think about and conduct business. In January 2015, three thought leaders on the Spheres of Influence Virtual Roundtable shared provocative and groundbreaking advances in this space. These advances suggest that organizational sustainability initiatives and partnerships may teach us more than we ever thought possible.

Competitors to Collaborators. Nancy Goldstein, MBA, Founder and Chief Strategist of CompassX Strategy in Chicago, highlighted surprising new partnerships among corporations that tackle sustainability issues, particularly among emerging B Corporations (B Corps). As the owner of a B Corps and the leading spokesperson for B Corps in Chicago, she sees this as evidence of movement toward something bigger than the self-interest of companies, who typically view each other as competitors rather than partners. By collaborating to build a movement, B Corps are using a “business savvy” attitude and sharing socially responsible best practices to solve the world’s biggest social and environmental problems.

Prospective B Corporations must complete a rigorous 200 question assessment on employees, the environment, and community. This assessment, asserts Nancy, “measures what matters” and reflects progress toward better standard practices and accountability for business. The emerging B Corps movement is one in which all stakeholders matter—including the planet.

Nancy gave an example of three different web designers in Chicago, all of whom are B Corps competitors by day, but nonetheless have chosen to work together on addressing environmental issues in their industry. Imagine the disruptive power if this kind of collaboration happened on a national or global scale. What if Coke and Pepsi agreed to transform plastic bottle packaging? Or if Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase worked together to create standards for sustainable finance?

Shaking up the status quo. David Wilcox, MBA, Founder of ReachScale Consultancy in Boston, is all about scale and networks—two levers that when activated will increase the rate at which we can solve societal problems. Because we are over-invested in organizations and underinvested in networks, we’re just running in place when it comes to solving the world’s environmental and social problems. He suggests we reconsider the nonprofit model (which relies on unreliable private and federal funding) and instead scale up social enterprise, which is a more sustainable and stabile model for delivering services and doing business. Yet societies and corporations funnel most of their “do good resources” into NGOs, a sector with limited innovation and collaboration. If we move resources out of those unsustainable models into sustainable ones, we can then reinvest resources as problems are solved, creating a revolving loan fund of sorts for sustainable solutions, a funding source that is self-sustainable.

This shift also presents an important opportunity to target resources for what David calls “purpose-built networks aligned with the purposes of other people.”

Invite everyone into the conversation. Global leadership thought leader Nadine Hack, MBA founder of beCause Consultancy in Switzerland, found that when launching a new initiative or plan, each person involved must have a genuine stake in the process and outcome. They have to care before they can commit. Sustainability leaders, then, need to build in a process by which each and every one of our stakeholders is fully on board. This takes time and patience. Nadine suggests that “as decisions are being made, invite people from all levels of your organization and network to be part of that dialogue—from the mail room to the board room.” To ensure that the process has meaning and depth, there needs to be space for honest and candid feedback. If our co-workers and collaborators feel they are being listened to and valued—even if what they offer is not ultimately incorporated—they will have a sense of ownership, a sense that they were part of creating the new plan or project. As Nadine has experienced, by “constantly exploring how we can genuinely be more honest, we can establish a transparent two-direction conversation.”
These practices of nontraditional collaboration, creating networks, and total engagement are at the heart of the next wave of sustainability initiatives. Sustainability has always been about inclusion, partnerships, promoting trust and transparency. Now, these are becoming key values for any successful organization.

About the author

Ilsa Flanagan is the director of the National Reframing Initiative, mobilizing a network of human service professionals, practitioners and policy makers to create a new narrative for human needs. You can learn more about this and her other projects at Previously, Ilsa founded the Office of Sustainability at the University of Chicago.

February 19, 2015 at 7:31 pm 2 comments

Miss the Roundtable on Sustainable Collaborative Leadership? Listen Here!

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

If you missed the rich conversation on January 21st, 2015, with master global bridge builder Nadine Hack and collaborators in the social enterprise, corporate sustainability and collective leadership space, fear not!

You can listen in to Nadine Hack, Nancy Goldstein, David Wilcox, Dean DeCrease, and Melissa O’Mara shared their wisdom, struggles and insights on how we can move the sustainable leadership needle:

(Pay no attention to the misleading zeros, press play on the left to hear the audio)

We are exploring the possibility of a second event to allow for more in-depth analysis into the complex and challenging topic of Sustainable collaborative leadership. Stay tuned!

January 29, 2015 at 3:50 am Leave a comment

Top 5 Ways Our Family Went Green-er in 2014 – Part II

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

In the last post (Part I) about how our family continued the process of going green in 2014, I talked about several lifestyle changes we made, from getting a new water filter system to buying an all-electric NissanLEAF (aka The Silver Leaf). In Part II, I share the top two ways we went green-er in 2014.

All of our lifestyle changes are well and good. We need to alter the way we orient ourselves to the day-to-day actions that impact– and often deplete– the natural world that sustains us.

And we need to use the power of social influence to create a new normal that respects the limits– the “limitedness”– of natural resources like water, and create a sense of “enoughness” so that we can appreciate all that we have– not just our stuff, but the people in our lives.

That said, we need to go beyond individual lifestyle changes in order to achieve the scale of change required to ensure future generations a world that we can be proud to leave them.

Hence, the top two changes I made in 2014.

#2. Expanding My Spheres of Influence

The Spheres of Influence platform now has over 10,000 followers, across this blog and social media outlets such as Twitter (@drsarahsviews for the lay public and @sarahbwarrenphd for the professional audience).

We all have various spheres of influence— our homes and families, our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our purchasing power, and the all-important voting booth.

I’m continuing to expand and use both my face-to-face and virtual spheres of influence to engage the “un-enlisted” as well as my sustainability colleagues in dialogue about how we can most effectively ensure a viable, sustainable future.

The Spheres of Influence Virtual Fireside Chats continue to bring together national and international experts and thought leaders with the lay public to share insights and inspiration about how we can move the needle.

Yes, I believe that using our spheres of influence has greater cumulative impact than any single lifestyle act– even driving a green car.

#1: Using My Voice as a Voter for Our Kids’ Sake

Using our voices and our votes is the single most important, powerful action we can take. Maybe I should have used caps there. That’s how crucial using our voices to policy makers is if we want to protect the quality of life for the children and grandchildren we love.

When the KeystoneXL Pipeline vote came up in November, 2014, Illinois Senator Durbin was the lone undecided vote in the Senate. I called his office that day, along with many others. He voted against KeystoneXL.

It took about one minute, maybe two, including looking up the number.

KeystoneXL– and other crucial matters– are far from over. We will have a chance to use our voices again!

I know you’re probably overwhelmingly busy. I know I am. I’m a self-employed, divorced mother of two young kids who had two major orthopedic surgeries in 2014. But I made that phone call to my US Senator’s office.

The photo that says it all appears again in Part II of the two-part series on how we went green-er in 2014.

The photo that says it all appears again in Part II of the two-part series on how we went green-er in 2014.

When President Obama was in the US Senate, I wrote a letter via his Environmental Legislative Assistant about climate policy. Then-Senator Obama’s Legislative Assistant called me, an ordinary citizen. We had a series of conversations. I was amazed.

Turns out our elected officials are listening– which I didn’t know until I used my voice.

Since then I’ve learned that often a legislator’s vote can be tipped by personal contact from as few as five or six concerned voters. I have a friend who is a former legislative assistant who said just one compelling story can affect how a legislator votes. Just one voter!

It’s worth taking the time to be an engaged eco voter, because the scale and urgency of our ecological problems require changes at the policy level.

And I’ve discovered that using my voice is empowering. Who knew?

Looking ahead to 2015

Let’s see… In 2015, I plan to get our household composting.

I will continue to convene the Spheres of Influence community, and to use my voice as a voter because it’s the most important action any of us can take. I hope you will join me in reaping the rewards of being an engaged voter.

Won’t you join me in using your spheres of influence to protect the natural world for the children we love fiercely?

Share your story in the comments area!

January 13, 2015 at 1:03 am Leave a comment

Top 5 Ways Our Family Went Green-er in 2014 – Part I

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

photo 1-2A fellow eco citizen’s car– and bumper sticker– says it all.

Going green is process, which is why I’m sharing our family’s ongoing efforts to reduce our eco impact and use our spheres of influence to protect the natural world for future generations.

From water filters to cars to voting– from lowest to highest impact green actions– in Part I, here are three of our family’s top five eco actions in 2014. Part II to follow!

#5. Buying a New Water-Efficient Water Filter

Over the past few years I’ve gone from wasting water without thinking– at all– to appreciating its preciousness to life.

When I learned that our under-sink kitchen “reverse osmosis” water filter wasted 4 of gallons (0r more) of perfectly good water for every gallon it gave us at the tap– I looked into water filters that clear out the toxic junk such as heavy metals without wasting water.

On Amazon I found the Value Line 2 Stage Water Filter. It was more expensive than the reverse osmosis filter system I’d previously bought at Home Depot, but it lasts a lot longer. And it cleans out the toxic stuff from the water that I don’t want to put in my body– or my kids’– without wasting gallons of precious water every day.

And I learned that water filter cartridges are recyclable through some programs:

Learn more about the pros and cons of different home water filtration systems here: ( is a great organization for both information and eco advocacy.)

#4. Using a Real Green Dry Cleaner

I got snagged by dry cleaners’ advertising their “green” or “organic” cleaning. It took me several years to wonder and then ask “What are you using?” I learned that it wasn’t toxic perc, but it was a hydrocarbon. As in petroleum. Not in fact eco-friendly. At all.

I don’t like to spend a lot of time being angry, but green-washing scams of any sort make me angry. So I used that anger to propel me to find a real green dry cleaner.

It’s a bit hard to find dry cleaners that are using genuinely environmentally responsible methods such as “wet cleaning” or C02 cleaning, but they exist. There’s one at the forefront — it just happens to be in my neck of the woods in Chicagoland– The Greener Cleaner. They pick up and deliver for free, too.

Learn about their green methods:

Learn more about the dry cleaning green-washing scam :

#3. Driving Green

I committed to purchasing the greenest car I could afford.

In 2014, I leap-frogged from a conventional gasoline powered car over a hybrid car, straight into an all-electric NissanLEAF.

No, buying an all-electric car is not the highest impact action we took because it’s an individual lifestyle action, not an action on a collective scale. But it still counts.

To be precise: My conventional 4000 lb. Toyota, which we drove about 8,000 miles a year, generated about 8200 tons of CO2 year. If we accept that an electric car is “zero emission”– the non-renewable electricity source notwithstanding– that means my family is putting 8200 less pounds of global warming pollution into the air.

To put that in perspective, the average U.S. household “carbon footprint” is about 50 tons CO2 a year. The single largest source of emissions for a typical household is from driving gasoline cars.

Not only is the NissanLEAF quite affordable (as low as $200 a month), there’s no maintenance cost, and no cost for gas. Ever. The numbers pencil out amazingly– even with gas prices at their current low.

And my ten-year old son says the lines of the headlights as “cool.”

Calculate and learn more about the contribution of your car– and household–  to global warming pollution here: (This calculator is hosted by Bonneville Environmental Foundation,, a credible source.)

Follow the chronicles of our family’s adventures with “The SilverLeaf” here on this blog!

Next Up in Part II

In Part II we’ll talk about the highest impact (collective impact!) actions we took in 2014.

Part II of this two-part post on how we went greener in 2014 will be posted soon!

January 10, 2015 at 6:56 am Leave a comment

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