Building a Culture of Sustainability at an Online University
The trick is to find a way to turn this seeming liability into an advantage. One possible way to do this would be to leverage the creative potential of social media to engage students and faculty in a conversation about sustainability and climate change, and promote actual behavior change on the part of individuals. If you haven't already done so, establishing a Facebook page for greening the campuses is an obvious first move; getting a Twitter conversation going is also another obvious step you can take. But how do you generate interest in using these tools?
The most important thing in any social marketing effort -- which is what we're talking about here -- is to get people to make an early incremental commitment. If you ask folks for too much upfront, you're likely to scare them off. From this perspective, getting people to "follow" you on Twitter and "like" you on Facebook could be seen as one of the ways that you can get people to make their first incremental commitment. But you need to follow up with something more substantial quickly or you will lose momentum.
Given the dispersed nature of your community, it might make sense to get people to commit as individuals to changing some aspect of their personal lifestyle and in this way build a more tangible community of shared purpose. You could use David Gershon's Low Carbon Diet to suggest a range of actions that people could take and how much each action would reduce that individual's carbon footprint. But you need to provide a way for people to make these commitments public so that they can hold each other accountable and a way to measure the results. Both of these (accountability and the ability to measure progress) are important principles of social change theory.
I recommend that you take a look at the Interfaith Power and Light initiative, which puts together a really interesting model for doing something along these lines using the web. Take a look, in particular, at its Cool Congregations project and 10% Challenge. I think these ideas could be pretty easily translate from congregations to student and faculty teams. You might organize along department or degree lines and pit them against each other (business on one campus versus business on the other campuses, for example) in a contest to see who could lose the most weight on the low carbon diet.
In addition, to fuel the competition, you could organize a contest around each participating team making a short (2-3 minutes) video about sustainability and/or climate change using a cell phone or small video camcorder like a Flip (but nothing more sophisticated or expensive because then people won't be competing on a level playing field) and having a panel of judges (fair and balanced, you decide!) to select a winning team. You could even have winners for different categories; comedy, drama, action, and musical, for instance. During the contest you could get participants to post the videos on the web and let people know about them through Facebook and Twitter. Instead of a formal panel of judges, using the web, you could have people vote for their favorites. Or you could do both: "the people's choice" award and the judges' award. You might be able to get the administration to put up a small amount of money that the winning teams could commit to some climate or sustainability action on campus (a student organic garden, the showing of a relevant movie, or more bike racks, for example).
The ultimate goal of these activities is to build a network of committed activists that you can then leverage for more direct collective action on the campuses such as a student vote to mandate fees for sustainability work in the university. Even a small annual fee of $10-15 can add up very quickly to a substantial sum of money that can then be used towards increasing the sustainability of the campuses. You might even be able to raise enough money this way to hire a sustainability coordinator!
Remember that you don't need everyone on board to carry the day. The kinds of activities suggested above allow you to attract and engage the early adopters, who can then reach out to a larger number of people on campus to build what is known in social change theory as "the early majority." In many cases, the early adopters and early majority can be enough together to tip the balance in the right direction. Of course, there will always be "the laggards," the folks who will never change their behavior or consciousness. Don't waste your energy or time knocking yourself out to get this group on board -- to put it bluntly, you don't need them.
It sounds as if there have been a number of truly significant changes in university operations and that what you are seeking is to go beyond that to shift people's behavior and consciousness. I think perhaps something like I'm suggesting above will help. At least I hope so!
Good luck! Your commitment and passion is inspiring and gives me hope for our future.
Does anyone else have suggestions for Laura? Anything you've tried at a web-based university or other learning organization that has worked?