Campus Sustainability: An International Perspective

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

Last month, I attended the 2nd Symposium on Sustainability in University Campuses (SSUC) conference in Florence, Italy. With 60 attendees from academic institutions around the world (largely from Europe), the conference offered an opportunity to hear from our international counterparts about how they have managed to advance environmental sustainability on their campuses.

The conference, hosted by the University of Florence, opened with remarks from the university’s Rector, Luigi Dei (the Rector is akin to a President or a Chancellor of a university). Dei’s comments fixated on the need for academic institutions to move above and beyond conventional understandings and implementations of sustainable solutions, as well as more contemporary brushes with misinformation. Dei highlighted the world’s current “struggle against ignorance,” explaining that “free market principles do not work everywhere, as they have increased the divide between the rich and the poor.” He concluded that sustainability “is a way to hypothesize new rules about addressing these issues.”

Dei’s opening remarks largely set the tone for the conference, as most institutions at the conference brought to the podium their nascent efforts to begin integrating sustainability into their curriculum and into their campus operations. However, while other conferences I have attended (e.g., AASHE) have focused more specifically on the implementation and replication of certain projects, the SSUC conference stayed largely fixed on approaches and introductions to ways of engaging campus communities around sustainability. Most presentations highlighted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as both a motivation and a framework by which to create sustainability programs.

A particularly insightful presentation, delivered by Professor Ronnie D. Lipschutz from U.C. Santa Cruz, highlighted how experiential learning, particularly utilizing the campus as a living laboratory, is a highly effective way of getting students to more directly interface with environmental sustainability on campus. According to Lipschutz, motivating behavioral change requires more deliberate project planning: one can’t merely just offer a project to students and ask them to develop solutions, but instead one should present them with a campus-focused problem that is local and directly affects the students on an ongoing basis. Doing so is not only more effective in bringing students into sustainability projects, but it is also a more accessible way for students to develop the skill sets needed to address environmental problems in academic and professional environments after graduation. With that being said, the resources need to be there to successfully administer and carry out living laboratory projects on sustainability: you need the space, ongoing coordination, and the program/context within which to develop a living lab. These points were supplemented in a presentation by faculty from the University of Worcester (United Kingdom), who more explicitly spoke to the value of experiential learning through case studies (on- or off-campus) as a way of building student skill sets and offering them exposure to real world problems.

Some conference presentations offered useful methods with which to improve existing and more commonplace programs. Carolyn Hayles’ presentation about a sustainability internship program at the University of Wales (United Kingdom) discussed the value of keeping students on projects over the course of multiple years, and structuring internships in such a way as to allow mentorship not just between program coordinators and students, but also between more senior students and younger students just starting the program. The internship program also often employed surveys to solicit feedback not just from the campus community but also from the interns themselves. The mix of internal and external feedback enables the program to constantly evolve and address campus issues as they emerge, and it also builds investment from both the university and the students in the program.

The only unfortunate aspect of the conference was that there were so many presentations that many had to run concurrently, and presenters were also not given much time to present and answer questions. This limited the depth with which we could converse on different ideas, but in exchange there was a wide breadth of topics throughout the two days of the conference. Some presentations covered waste management on different campuses, which provided interesting perspective on how municipalities in other parts of the world manage waste (e.g., different waste streams and more effective communication around sorting to residents). Others discussed how courses and research could be developed by using the Sustainable Development Goals as both a foundation and a subject. Some universities emphasized that sustainability research and programs on their campus were inspired by a lack of adequate action on a national level to address climate change – I recall a presentation from the University of Limerick in Ireland, where students worked on comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions inventories in hopes that would inspire other universities and the country as a whole to take the issue of climate change more seriously.

Overall, the conference provided valuable exposure to a variety of perspectives on addressing campus sustainability. I was left with some reassurance that regardless of country and situation, many universities are dealing with similar challenges in meaningfully integrating sustainability into campus life and operations. Additionally, these efforts also emerge out of new or small departments, offices of sustainability, or academic centers tasked with carrying out this task and having to inspire change both from the bottom up and from the top down. The struggle, so to speak, is a shared one that cuts across country borders and academic reputation, and thus makes conferences like SSUC valuable in that they provide venues for universities around the world to gather and share best practices. I view conferences like SSUC as a microcosm of the international and collaborative effort required to address the global threats presented by climate change and other environmental issues. I sincerely appreciated the opportunity to be a part of it; an indelible component of my visit to the beautiful city of Florence.

Though, I’ll admit, the food was pretty good too.