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'Sustainability' gains status on US campuses

University programs are focusing research and resources on environmental and social responsibility.

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2006



TEMPE, ARIZ.

Somewhere in the curriculum, most colleges and universities include Henry David Thoreau. Now, many of them are trying to emulate him.

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Yes, sweeping the academic world is Walden Pond 101: the art of living in a sustainable manner. Think environmental and social responsibility.

One of the best examples of the ivory tower's effort to tread lightly on the land is at Arizona State University. Next month, ASU will inaugurate the nation's first School of Sustainability – whose classes will look at everything from water scarcity to urban air quality problems.

It is one of many universities putting its intellect and talents to use in the name of ecology. These institutions are devoting more research to solving global climate problems, and they're redesigning their own campuses to be examples of better ways to use and protect Earth's resources. For some schools, the financial commitment to these issues has started to run into the millions of dollars, as they foot salaries for new specialists and pay the costs of creating green buildings. At the very least, many universities are creating new courses in response to student interest.

"We have always looked to academia to think creatively about the larger problems of our day," says Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. "There is not a more complicated problem than how to survive and flourish with a growing population and finite resources."

Universities are quickly latching onto the issue as several developments show. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has quintupled in size this year, as it went from a West Coast-based organization to a national group. Also, an increasing number of schools, from New York University to the University of Central Oklahoma, are getting 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources. And next month, a group of colleges and universities will launch an effort encouraging 200 universities to develop a plan that would make their schools "climate neutral," meaning the schools wouldn't adversely affect the environment.

Many institutions are proud of their innovations. At the University of Rochester in New York, a new optics lab will have stairwells designed to absorb heat and radiate into the building to reduce heating costs. At Berea College in Kentucky, sewage from an "Ecovillage" is treated in a series of tanks filled with plants and fish. The University of California at San Diego has identified campus rooftops where it can install 500 kilowatts of solar panels, which equals the power needed for 325 homes.

ASU's green efforts

But ASU has ratcheted up the effort with "a holistic approach" that is probably unique in the nation, says Mr. Roberts.

Any new building erected at ASU – a school adding facilities quickly – must be built to exacting environmental standards. Some professors in the university's labs are concentrating on understanding nature and then using the knowledge to solve problems. For example, a team of professors is growing a strain of bacteria that feast on carbon dioxide. The bacteria could then be used to convert emissions from a power plant into bio-fuels.

By the fall, the university hopes to integrate its work so that students in other schools, such as the law school, can minor in sustainability. Some students will come from China as part of an agreement in August to launch a Joint Center on Urban Sustainability.

In October, ASU hosted 650 academics, administrators, and students from AASHE who took part in a conference on the role of higher education in creating a sustainable world. The university is attracting donors and business people, including heiress Julie Ann Wrigley and Rob Walton, chairman of Wal-Mart, who last month agreed to chair the board of ASU's Institute of Sustainability.

Behind the university's efforts is its president, Michael Crow, who arrived at ASU in 2002 after 11 years at Columbia University, where he played a lead role in founding the Earth Institute.

Like many environmentalists, he counts reading Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" as a landmark in his life. However, he says it wasn't until he matured that he realized "all of these 70,000 chemicals and synthetics that we have put in the atmosphere and water were all derived mostly by universities with no thought given to what the other impacts may be to what they are doing."

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