WHY CHOOSE A SUSTAINABLE CAMPUS?

This article appeared as a blog post from College Express (June 2014)

I’ve participated in the college recruitment process from every conceivable angle. Most recently, when I was a college president, I would study our admissions numbers, assess our marketing and branding, and think about all of the ways that we could attract appropriate students to Unity College. Before that, as a parent, I went on numerous college tours and tried to offer the best advice to my daughter and son. Many years ago, almost fifty (gasp!) I was a high school student trying to figure out where to go.

Now, I travel the country far and wide, visiting numerous campuses, consulting about sustainability leadership. I write with great confidence that every campus I visit has distinguishing qualities, excellent staff and faculty, and a community that aspires to serve its students. Colleges and universities have different cultures, histories, missions, and specialties. Most of the time, a student will choose an institution based on finances (where can I afford to go?), location (where do I want to be?) identity (who am I and who do I want to be around?), program (what to I want to study?), and prospects (will my program lead to a job?)

If you are trying to figure out where you should attend college, I’d like to offer another factor that might help shape your choice. To what extent does a campus embody the principles of sustainability? I’ll start by explaining what sustainability is, and then explain why it’s essential for a twenty-first century education. Then I’ll provide some ways that you can determine whether it’s a campus priority.

Sustainability is ultimately a community vision, an aspiration that emphasizes meaningful work, reasonable comfort and security, a clean and safe environment, good health, and opportunities for personal growth. A sustainability ethos is an approach to living and learning that links these qualities to ecological awareness. It seeks to make those connections by calling attention to how personal actions and community practices affect the natural world. The concept of sustainability projects the good life and couples it to ecological conscience.

Increasingly, college and university campuses are embracing sustainability because it improves the quality of campus life. It’s a forward looking approach to energy, economics, community well-being, and technological innovation. A campus that takes sustainability seriously, both in its academic programs and in its master planning, is more likely to be a vibrant, caring, innovative, creative, and resilient place to live, work, and study.

When you attend college, you are exposed to countless ideas and opportunities. The so-called “co-curriculum” represents all of the learning that takes place outside the classroom—what you learn about living in a community, the people you meet and the relationships you develop, the food you eat, the clubs you join, the internships and jobs you experience. These are more than intangible benefits. They represent the heart and soul of living in a campus environment. When a campus has a rich portfolio of sustainability initiatives, you are more likely to be exposed to healthier food, community service opportunities, and a creative approach to lifestyle behaviors. In the twenty-first century, personal success will be measured by the extent to which you live a meaningful life in a sustainable community. Look for a campus that emphasizes these qualities, because it will prepare you for the experiences that will most matter in your future.

Increasingly, the sustainability ethos is permeating the standard curriculum. Business schools now have “green” MBA programs. Colleges of architecture, design, and planning promote sustainable approaches to their professions. Many undergraduate programs have required sustainability courses, or they are incorporated into traditional majors. You don’t have to major in sustainability studies to learn how to live a good life, or to get a great job. But a campus that emphasizes sustainability will have a curriculum that reflects those values, and it will better prepare you for the many challenges that lie ahead.

When you visit a campus, check out the extent to which sustainability initiatives are visible. Are there renewable energy installations? Is recycling evident? Does the cafeteria offer health and/or local choices? Is there an efficient transportation system? Are lots of folks riding bicycles? Do the buildings reflect the principles of sustainable design? Are there signs and exhibits that depict campus sustainability initiatives? Does the curriculum offer courses and programs that highlight sustainability?

There are many criteria that will ultimately determine where you choose to attend college. Hopefully, you will choose a campus that is preparing you for a great life and career, an institution that can change with the times, and equips you with the life skills to be a contributing community member. In my experience, one of the best ways to assess campus vitality, creativity, and excellence, is to observe whether its sustainability initiatives are woven into the fabric of campus life. Please keep that in mind as you think about your educational future.

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Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.