Anyone remember seeing this movie, Wall Street, in the late 80s? I saw it as a junior in college. Back then, my professors didnt have a clue. About sustainability that is, the word didnt yet exist. As a business student at Northern Illinois University, I remember watching this movie in a crowded lecture hall. Many of my Reagan-era peers were captivated by the powerful investor Gordon Gecco that won Michael Douglas an Oscar. Meanwhile, my preoccupation with environmental protection and corporate social responsibility made me an outlier. I wanted to make a positive difference in the world, but the academic offerings didnt quite match my aspirations. Lucky for me, my path took off outside of the classroom, helping manage the student-run recycling center and landing an internship that started my career as an environmental consultant. For most students, however, there were few roads to eco-stewardship through higher learning.
Times have changed. Twenty years later, another Oscar winning film came out. Like Al Gore or not, An Inconvenient Truth raised international awareness about climate change. This movie inspired my environmental activism and philanthropy, and became a critical turning point for the sustainability movement in higher education.
Students today are eager to creatively solve the world’s most pressing problems from climate change to poverty. This generation seeks holistic solutions that promote economic gain, environmental protection and social equity. And they are keenly aware that environmental threats also present vast economic opportunities. This rising interest has fueled a national green campus movement. In 2006, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) was launched to transform practices and curriculum in higher ed and now 673 colleges are members. Since 2006, 685 college presidents signed a climate commitment, pledging to zero out greenhouse-gas emissions and boost climate education and research efforts. Its now common for colleges to have sustainability plans and coordinators steering these efforts. They spotlight their green credentials to attract students and now college guides include green ratings. For example, The Princeton Review presents the top green colleges. This has all happened in just eight years – imagine what can happen in the next 8 years.
Yet we still have work to do. As someone actively engaged in environmental advocacy and philanthropy, I decided to head back to school and sharpen my sustainability skill set a few years ago. So I entered the prestigious Northwestern University. And, now, I am a certified grad school drop out. I’m actually a good student. The problem was academic barriers stood in my way. While Northwestern offers solid coursework on public policy, social entrepreneurship, environmental science, journalism and so on, I could not pursue this combination in my fixed program. So I lost interest. The reality is, for many students today, sustainability education is out of reach. Too often its compartmentalized by science, engineering or law – with no crossing allowed. As Joel Makowers recent op-ed points out, graduate programs are not keeping pace with student interest.
This isnt how it should be. Gamechanging environmental solutions will require unprecedented collaboration across all disciplines and sectors. The world needs more broad-based sustainability webs, and fewer isolated silos and detached students. We need to better equip future leaders of every stripe to work together in tackling climate change and other global challenges.
Over the years, Ive become familiar with the University of Dayton’s forward vision and commitment to sustainability, rooted in its Catholic and Marianist traditions of stewardship and social justice. My husband, George, is a proud alum and trustee. Born out of my frustration and his history with the university, weve come together to create the Hanley Sustainability Institute. This hub will weave together and enhance interdisciplinary sustainability education across the campus. Our greatest hope is more colleges will follow this integrated approach that allows every student to better understand the interconnection of energy, the environment, the economy and social well-being. Let me review how the Hanley Institute intends to make a deeper impact.
When it comes to academics, cross-disciplinary curricula will be paramount to the Hanley Institute. UD currently offers a variety of courses, minors, undergraduate and graduate degrees that relate to sustainability. As examples, I’d like to introduce some UD students. Nate is a business major and minor in Sustainability, Energy and Environment, otherwise known as the SEE minor. Currently every student can take this minor regardless of their major and is now the largest most popular minor at UD. For a career, Nate plans to focus on operations and supply chain strategy with sustainability in mind. Right now he’s working with a team that includes biology major and an engineering major on an aquaponic urban farm project. Alex is a graduate student in the popular Renewable and Clean Energy master program, where demand is 3x more than enrollment, attracting students from around the word including 4 Fullbright scholars. She’s working on the Industrial Assessment Center team and helping perform industrial energy audits. Mackenzie is an International Studies major and SEE minor. Shes interested in how environmental issues impact human rights and plans to join the Peace Corps after graduating. Many more bright, engaged students are in the pipeline. The Institute will develop new sustainability undergraduate and graduate degrees which will connect across departments. It will also fund endowed faculty, scholars in residence and research fellows. It will also host a biennial conference on sustainability education to convene thought leaders.
As a a top-tier research university – faculty, students and corporate partners are collaborating on a variety of clean energy projects. For example, the UD’s Research Institute has been studying algae and algae-growing systems for pollution control and biofuels since 2009 with funding from the Air Force. Emerson Climate Technologies will open a new $35 million innovation center on campus late next year to research increased energy efficiency and sustainability in the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration industry. UD also dominates energy efficiency research. They are a Department of Energy Industrial Assessment Center that has conducted over 1,000 energy audits with small to medium manufacturers. The center has saved Ohio industry an estimated $500 million over the past 15 years. Building off that, they are successfully developing large-scale energy efficiency assessment tools.
When it comes to sustainability, students are learning by doing. Typical UD students participate with multiple internships and service learning projects. Through this outreach, they are plugging their sustainable knowledge into systems in the surrounding region. As examples, River Institute volunteers teach urban school kids about local ecology. Coming soon, the Hanley Institute will launch an urban agriculture project with local partners. UDs ETHOS program has worked on humanitarian projects with partners around the world. For example, engineering students helped build solar ovens with a women-run business in a Nicaragua. The University of Dayton China Institute opened in 2012 in the Suzhou Industrial Park. Faculty and students work with Chinese companies to integrate energy efficient manufacturing and environmental design.
Finally, the Hanley Sustainability Institute will work to demonstrate best sustainability practices throughout campus operations. The University of Dayton has attained a Silver AASHE rating and is listed in The Princeton Reviews Guide to 332 Green Colleges in recognition of their efforts to date. Examples include retrofitting lighting and HVAC (that has saved over $600,000), constructing new LEED buildings, composting dining hall waste, supplying bikes to avoid cars, installing an electric vehicle charging station, and divesting it’s endowment from fossil fuels. Students are sent utility report cards of gas and electric use with tips to conserve energy. It works, this has saved UD $50,000 a year. A student-led sustainability club is also quite active, they just hosted a whole week of talks and workshops for students and the wider Dayton community. The Institute will spur further initiatives to reduce the Universitys carbon footprint and achieve Gold AASHE status. A new innovation fund will support continued improvements, primarily through student-initiated projects.
Universities have a tremendous role to play in advancing the sustainability movement, driving innovation and practicing stewardship at a deeper level. Students are seeking green opportunities to learn, lead and serve. My dream is that sustainability education will soar on every campus, permeate every discipline, engage every faculty member, and imprint every student. We hope the Hanley Sustainability Institute will become a prototype for higher education, inspiring other universities to extend sustainability across the curriculum, campus culture and community networks. Beyond preparing graduates for a wide range of careers, this full spectrum learning will accelerate critically needed environmental and social solutions.
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This post is an expert from a keynote speech I gave to the Ohio Advanced Energy Economy on November 6. See the full Ohio Higher Ed: Pushing the Advanced Energy Envelope powerpoint here.