Rethinking Higher Ed Sustainability in Tough Times
As Andrea Putman and I discuss in our forthcoming book, Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change, a commitment to sustainability can both maximize benefits and minimize risks. It can lead to a more efficient use of limited resources, higher productivity, and the development of distributed leadership on campus. It can create greater collaboration across organizational silos, strengthen trust with external stakeholders, and enhance a college’s brand value, making it easier to recruit outstanding students and faculty and staff members and retain them. All of this can produce a significant competitive advantage for the institution.
Just as important, adopting sustainability as a core financial strategy means taking a broader approach to investment. Higher education, if it intends to take its own long-term sustainability seriously, needs to focus on how increases in endowment spending can improve the well-being of society and the environment.
It’s pretty simple, actually. Colleges and universities can only thrive if society and the biosphere are healthy. Any college or university that is so shortsighted as to pursue its ends without taking into account the interests of the larger community or ecosystem will not thrive over the long haul. In the end, it will find itself forced, one way or the other, to deal with the fact that its future is inextricably linked to that of the larger web of social and ecological relations in which it is embedded. It is recognition of this interdependence, for example, that has driven Yale University to invest in the City of New Haven and Berea College to invest in the land and people of the South.
College and university endowments, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, could be a powerful force for social and environmental good even as these institutions pursue their own self interest. Yet only 35 percent of the institutions surveyed in the College Sustainability Report Card 2009 invest in renewable energy and only 10 percent in community-development funds.
If everyone is to have a chance at a healthy future, higher-education institutions must embrace a larger understanding of their mission and not confine themselves simply to growing their endowments while the communities around them come unraveled and the degradation of the environment continues unabated.
One of the best ways that a university can have a positive effect on the environment and local economy is to set aside a proportion of its endowment to use as a revolving loan fund for cities and towns to use in communitywide energy-efficiency retrofits. Such loans have the potential for returns on investment as good as anything in the financial markets today. (Of course, considering the state of Wall Street, that’s not saying much.)
In making such investments, a university can not only help reduce the carbon footprint of its communities, but also keep dollars from flowing out of the community and into the pockets of the utility companies. These dollars will recirculate in the community, increasing spending and indirectly contributing to the creation of new jobs. And, as Van Jones points out, investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy also directly create new green-collar jobs that can provide much-needed economic stability during even the toughest of recessions.
Given the latest economic forecasts, it’s an idea worth considering.