The 2014 ACUPCC Climate Leadership Summit: Why It Matters

This originally appeared in Sustainability: A Journal of Record (August, 2014)

The sustainability movement has made great strides in the last ten years, especially in higher education. Yet there is a prevailing sense among many of its proponents (myself included) that we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s necessary and possible. Where do we go next? How do we ramp up our efforts? How do we further enhance the sustainability efforts of higher education?

This conversation is front and center for many of the college and university presidents who are actively engaged with the ACUPCC (American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment). During multiple discussions over the last two years we’ve been thinking carefully about how we can maximize our leadership and leverage, how we can work together, how we can support campus teams and community partners, and how we can support the efforts of our peers and colleagues. Many presidents share a common assumption: we’ve made great progress in launching campus-wide sustainability initiatives, yet there are still many obstacles and challenges. For many campus leaders, sustainability is just one of multiple urgent challenges, including issues of access, affordability and accountability, linked to the increasingly competitive financial outlook.

As a way to confront these challenges, and to provide support for presidents and their sustainability teams who wish to do so, the ACUPCC is organizing the 2014 Climate Leadership Summit, to be held in Boston, Massachusetts, from September 30-October 3rd. What’s unique about this summit is that it has been organized, planned, and designed by a group of over thirty college and university presidents, reflecting their common concerns and interests.

The summit will serve multiple stakeholders, informed by a core message and organized around five major themes. The core message is that higher education has a special and unique opportunity and role in meeting the challenges of climate change, offering sustainable solutions, and developing educational approaches that prepare a new generation of students, faculty, and staff.

The five major sessions will be chaired by a president from the Steering Committee of the ACUPCC who will organize and develop the specific issues inherent in the themes. These tracks will be coordinated with a series of plenary talks, panel discussions, and parallel sessions for discussing specific issues.

In the remainder of this article, I will briefly describe the planning process leading to the summit, followed by a more detailed description of the five major themes. My purpose in doing so is to provide a deeper understanding of what concerns, inspires, and motivates campus leadership. In a future post-summit article I’ll report on the actual summit proceedings.

Bur first I’d like to add a personal note. In my early days as President at Unity College (2006), I would attend all of the typical college president association meetings. They were all helpful but none of them covered what was my abiding concern—how to use sustainability as the basis for a campus transformation. When Dr. Anthony Cortese told me about the ACUPCC (that was in the early days), I was thrilled, not just because I wanted Unity College to be a charter signatory, but I desperately needed a peer group of college and university presidents that shared my interests and concerns. Having that peer group throughout my presidency (2006-2011) was absolutely invaluable and I know that it was similarly helpful for most of the presidents who became active with the organization. When I stepped down from the Unity College position, I immediately joined Second Nature and worked with Tony and then David Hales (and other presidents) to build the strength of the ACUPCC and to insure the vitality, relevance, and leadership of that peer group.

In my role as Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program, I work closely with the Steering Committee of the ACUPCC. Over the last two years I have conducted numerous short interviews with the Steering Committee presidents. What are their concerns and challenges? What have they accomplished on their campus? What are they most proud of? Where can they most use the support of the ACUPCC? What is the next important phase of their sustainability work? What is their approach to climate leadership and how do they move that forward on their campus and in the community? What purpose does an ACUPCC Summit serve and what would make it worth their while to attend one?

We’ve been working on that last question for almost two years. The ACUPCC has a Summit Committee consisting of presidents from a variety of institutions (Portland State University, Ball State University, Gateway Technical College, Portland Community College, Lane Community College, Hampshire College, and Bethany College). The committee solicits input from their peers and I channel the results of my interviews into the mix.

The 2014 Climate Leadership Summit program emerges from the very best thinking of this expanded peer group of college and university presidents. That doesn’t mean that the program is absolutely comprehensive of every issue, or that it reflects the challenges and concerns of all 700 or so ACUPCC signatories, or the many institutions that have made great sustainability progress and haven’t signed the ACUPCC. However, it does provide an interesting bellwether for assessing the presumed priorities of campus leadership. In that regard, it’s a fascinating work in progress. Let’s take a closer look at the five major themes.

Most of the presidents understand that the science of climate change is dynamic and unfolding and they are interested in gaining a synthesis of the most important research. Theme One is New Science and Solutions for a Changing Climate. The main objective of this session is to provide a comprehensive update regarding the implications of new science, new inclusive sustained climate assessment processes from the National Climate assessment, and to look at mitigation, adaptation, and resilience as areas of knowledge development and action. Climate change science is complicated, emergent, and it requires sophisticated interdisciplinary knowledge and information exchange. What are the latest findings, how do we bridge the science-practitioner divide in generating and using scientific knowledge, how can climate resilience help integrate knowledge and what do our campuses need to know? How can presidents be the conveners of this dynamic field? Topics will also include the relationship between mitigation and resilience, the impact on and partnership of campuses and communities, the prospects for civic and regional cooperation, and the science of climate change communication.

How then do we take that knowledge and use it effectively? How does it help us better understand the role of presidential leadership in regional and national settings? Theme Two is Higher Education’s Climate Leadership Imperative. College and university presidents can significantly influence public awareness of climate preparedness, sustainability, and the educational, economic, and political issues that emerge. These sessions will focus on how to maximize that influence and leverage in the national landscape.

Topics also include the role of the university in supporting climate science, conducting interdisciplinary research, the role of the public intellectual, building community and regional partnerships, and convening platforms for deliberating policy solutions, ethical dilemmas, and institutional obligations.

Presidents confront a parallel challenge—how to simultaneously promote a national agenda for higher education while mobilizing sustainability initiatives on their home campus. There are different stakeholders in each case. Theme three is Creating a Campus Culture of Sustainability. Promoting sustainability initiatives has the potential to transform the college and university campus—from curriculum to infrastructure—and can positively enhance many aspects of campus life. But what are the best ways to bring the campus together? How can presidents and their teams most effectively mobilize their stakeholders, especially given the complicated challenges facing higher education?

Topics include discussions of curricular and co-curricular challenges, building a campus sustainability team, educating students, workforce preparation, working in a state wide educational system, rating systems and assessment, working with boards and other constituencies, and the organizational challenges of climate action planning.

In the last few years, one of the hottest campus issues, especially for sustainability proponents is aligning campus mission and values with financial decisions. Theme Four addresses these questions—Investment Strategies and Institutional Values: How, Why, and at What Risk? Many campuses are supporting campus-wide discussions on the relationship between campus investments (including endowments, procurement, and capital projects) and institutional values. To what extent do these investments promote sustainability, climate action planning, and other institutional values? These are complicated discussions that involve multiple stakeholders, community members, students and faculty, and the ramifications of these discussions are gaining national coverage. What role does the president, the chief business officer and the board chair play in organizing these discussions and then coordinating campus-wide approaches?

Topics include how to shift investment strategies to align with financial, environmental, and social goals, how to initiate campus-wide dialogues, the educational opportunities of these discussions, and the philanthropic implications of these decisions.

Simultaneous with the expansion of sustainability initiatives on campus is the growing leadership and awareness of the business community. The fields are ripe with opportunities for higher education partnerships, thus informing Theme Five, Corporate Partnerships for Climate Leadership.

Many corporations are making excellent strides in sustainability infrastructure, research, and operations. What are the ways that they can create supportive partnerships with colleges and universities to promote climate leadership? This session will emphasize how specific corporations are addressing climate leadership. How has such an approach changed business operations, strategic planning, and corporate philosophy? What are the ramifications for partnerships with colleges and universities? What does climate leadership mean in a business environment?

Topics covered may include supply chain management, climate resilience, civic engagement, public awareness, reporting and accountability, and multi-sector relationships.

The summit will cover many other issues as well. There will be a series of “presidents only” conversations to build peer support on issues of common concerns. Some of these expand on the topics covered in inclusive sessions listed above. Here’s a list of some of the proposed presidential conversations—Getting Started at a New Institution, Presidential Engagement in Curriculum, Leadership if Faith-Based Institutions, Sustainability in Conservative Communities, Working in State-Wide University Systems, Insuring Continuity Between Presidencies, Fulfilling the Climate Commitment, Working with the Board of Trustees, and Promoting Student Engagement.

There is a special pre-workshop session for Minority Serving Institutions, including a half-day workshop focused on implementing the ACUPCC on Minority Serving Institution campuses. The workshop will cover how to build a successful sustainability team, how to design a sustainability planning process, how to integrate sustainability outcomes into the campus mission, and using sustainability metrics as decision-making tools.

We are also organizing a Sustainability Showcase, a public portfolio of interesting and notable sustainability initiatives and ideas, including efforts from colleges and universities, corporations, publishers, and other organizations. The showcase includes poster and table displays, publications and other literature, exhibits, and installations. It will bring together diverse and innovative exhibits that engage the conference participants, and present an exciting picture of emerging knowledge and of leading change. 

Finally, a great host committee including fifteen local colleges and universities will be offering a series of tours, workshops, exhibits, videos and simulation games. This will significantly enhance the hands-on atmosphere of the summit.

If all of this interests you and your campus is an ACUPCC signatory, I encourage you to participate and to invite campus leadership to do so. If your campus isn’t an ACUPCC signatory, this might be a great time to promote the possibility. If you are unable to attend the conference, I hope this commentary provides you with a good idea of what we’ll cover and how it corresponds to the issues that you’re addressing wherever you work.

The most important outcome for all of us is to continue to build the social capital of robust and resilient peer groups. That is the best opportunity we have to transform higher education on behalf of climate leadership and sustainable solutions.


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.