The Future of Sustainability Leadership Rests with Higher Education

In the 1960s and ’70s, when the environmental movement was growing increasingly mainstream, activists focused on effecting change through legislative action, lobbying, education, and establishing watchdog agencies to crack down on pesticide use, for example. Although these areas remain vital to reining in human effects on the environment, the movement has evolved to concentrate on sustainability — implementing  processes and policies that preserve natural resources for future generations.

[Above: In fall 2015, CSU was named one of only five universities in the nation to achieve a Platinum-level Bicycle Friendly University designation from the League of American Bicyclists.]

Higher education institutions are poised to be leaders on the sustainability front. Not only are they able to develop responsible environmental policies and procedures for their campuses, but they are also essential for educating future leaders and entrusting them with the skills they need to face the challenges of tomorrow.

“Colleges and universities are like small cities, and their impact is substantial,” says Meghan Fay Zahniser, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). “If today they all went carbon-neutral, it still would not move the needle on climate change. But they are responsible for preparing leaders of tomorrow with solutions to tackle the environmental challenges that impact all of us in our personal and professional lives.”

According to researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the warming of the earth’s atmosphere, due to an overabundance of atmospheric gases — like carbon dioxide — that trap heat in a “greenhouse effect,” has led to sustained drought, rising sea levels, and shifts in crop cycles. The more than 1,300 global scientists that comprise the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agree that this warming trend is largely the result of human activity.  Scientists also agree that the economic impact of climate change will exacerbate existing inequality in every country in the world.

Even so, many people in the U.S. are unconcerned about climate change. In the 2014 Global Trends Report by market research organization Ipsos MORI, which surveyed more than 16,000 people in 20 countries, the U.S. ranked last in concern over the environment; 32 percent of respondents in the U.S. disagreed with the statement, “We are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly.” By comparison, only 7 percent of people in China — one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide — disagree with that statement.

A Colorado State University (CSU) student studies in the Pingree Park Valley during a four-week field course at CSU Mountain Campus
A Colorado State University (CSU) student studies in the Pingree Park Valley during a four-week field course at CSU Mountain Campus

Zahniser says students can be apathetic about environmental issues as well, but AASHE works to encourage and support schools across the country to embrace sustainability and embed sustainable practices into their curricula and across their campuses.

With AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS), colleges and universities of varying size and location can track their progress toward sustainability. STARS is transparent and self-reported and allows schools to compare their efforts with those of other colleges and universities across the country while facilitating the sharing of best practices. Institutions earn points in the categories of academics, engagement, operations, and planning and administration, and they receive either a reporter seal or a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum rating.

This past year, Colorado State University (CSU) became the first institution — out of the more than 700 in the U.S. and abroad that use STARS — to achieve the platinum rating since the tracking tool’s introduction in 2010. Tonie Miyamoto, CSU’s STARS liaison and director of communications and sustainability for Housing and Dining Services at the university, says compiling data for the report engaged the entire campus.

“No one pointed a finger at any one office and said, ‘Sustainability is your job — fill this out,’” she says. “Every division was involved in completing the data. It helped us see sustainability as something we all do.”

Unlike many other AASHE-member schools, CSU does not have a centralized sustainability office, which Miyamoto says allows for a more holistic, integrated approach to sustainability efforts.

CSU students clear debris from a trail as part of CSUnity, a volunteer program that draws more than 2,400 students annually.
CSU students clear debris from a trail as part of CSUnity, a volunteer program that draws more than 2,400 students annually.

In the category of planning and administration, the STARS report asks institutions to assess their level of commitment to diversity and equity and their support for underrepresented students and faculty. For Miyamoto, consideration for these groups is crucial to any university’s sustainability efforts.

“Traditionally, our campus has had sustainability leadership that is male and white, so we’re trying to engage more women, people of color, LGBTQ students, and those with disabilities,” she says. “Sustainability leadership is usually from a place of privilege. If you have money, you can buy organic fruits and vegetables; if you have time you can join environmental clubs and volunteer. Everyone is impacted by climate change, but often it’s those with the least who have the most to lose.”

One way CSU works to engage more underrepresented students in sustainability efforts is through its Eco Leaders program, in which Miyamoto is involved. These “leaders” are students — usually in their first year — who live in the residence halls and engage their peers in environmentally responsible behaviors. Miyamoto says the program empowers students to step into leadership roles.

“In the application, we don’t ask questions about whether they were privileged in high school or had the ability to work on sustainability projects,” she says. “Instead, we ask about their lived experiences and their passions. We usually pick students who have not had the opportunity to be engaged or who are international students. … We’re showing them they’re not only part of the movement, but they’re leaders in change.”

CSU also embeds its sustainability mission into its curriculum, with related majors and concentrations. In addition, students have the opportunity to take sustainability immersion programs, which combine fieldwork with coursework.

Even after earning the platinum rating, CSU’s work is never done, Miyamoto says.

“It’s very inspiring how far we have to go,” she says. “With sustainability, you never quite get there.”

She says CSU is continually launching pilot programs and conducting research into sustainability best practices, but that the university is in some ways limited by its status as a state-funded school. “We have to make sure money is being used wisely, which means we haven’t been able to do big-ticket items,” Miyamoto says.

Instead, CSU combines smaller scale efforts with grants and public and private funding.

While every institution faces unique challenges in building a more sustainable campus, Zahniser at AASHE says there is a common course of action schools can take, no matter their size or location.

“The solution is to find a champion who will embed sustainability in the institution,” she says. “That person can come from all different levels — from the top to the student level — because [students] are not only the customers, but also the end product.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. To view the STARS report on where colleges rank in regard to sustainability, visit