Linking Top-Down to Bottom-Up for Sustainability

By Rick Reibstein and Sarah Brylinski

It is now a commonplace to assert that education institutions have some responsibility to contribute to the effort to remake our world so civilization will be sustainable into the future. A history of this idea would capture the many programs of environmental research and teaching that have taken place at universities and colleges, going back centuries, but would certainly also note the founding in 1993 of the Boston-based group Second Nature to promote the concept and practice of education for sustainability.
Second Nature is best known for overseeing the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which focuses on reducing the climate impact of campus facilities and activities, and currently boasts more than 660 member institutions. ACUPCC uses a top-down approach: Get the president of the institution to commit to ensure that climate and sustainability are seen as institutional priorities, rather than a passing “grassroots philosophy.”

But Second Nature has also been supporting a strategy to link the top-down to a bottom-up approach, led by a little-known office of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that serves as a model for any college or university interested in how to maintain quality of life and mission into the future in the face of threats of disastrous climate change, toxic poisoning, unmanageable quantities of waste, the exhaustion of resources and the destruction of natural beauty and wildlife. The linking of top-down to bottom-up is embodied in an event called a Convocation of Students Working With Sustainability Coordinators.

The convocation can be described in three steps. The first is for the presidents or other suitable leaders to call for sustainability coordinators or other staff or faculty to invite students with whom they are working (on any aspect of sustainability, from recycling to clean energy) to submit a proposal to present on an idea that would advance the cause of sustainability on campus or the university’s role in promoting sustainability in society.

The relevant faculty or staff would have to sign off on any presentation proposal for it to be accepted: That provides some assurance that the presentations are pragmatically related to the sustainability effort and of some quality. (Ideally, the sustainability coordinator will select the students doing the best work and help them prepare a submission). The second step is for the leaders to review the submitted proposals and select a certain number to hear (the “President’s Pick”). The third step is to meet on a certain date and watch the students present.

The basic idea is that students have a chance to talk directly to the leadership. It gives leadership a chance to hear directly from students and dialogue with them. If the event is recorded, or the presentations shared, the ideas can be spread. When presentations are selected by presidents, that can be of great help to the students who wish to find work in the field of sustainability. If the convocation brings together students and sustainability coordinators, staff, faculty and leaders of different institutions, it promotes coordination of efforts, boosts information-sharing, and synergizes independent efforts.

The first spring convocation was held last April at Hampshire College, in Amherst Mass. The event was organized by the Massachusetts Office of Technical Assistance (OTA), and hosted by Second Nature and Hampshire College’s new president, Jonathan Lash, who had just come from the presidency of the World Resources Institute.

OTA is a small office that is part of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and was established by the state’s Toxics Use Reduction Act in 1989 to provide free and confidential assistance on reducing the use of toxic chemicals. In 2006, this mission was legislatively expanded to include helping companies and others reduce the use of energy and water, and the generation of wastes not classed as toxic. Because OTA has only nine staff, and must concentrate primarily on manufacturing firms that use many kinds of dangerous chemicals, it has had to develop efficient means of reaching out.

In 2010, OTA took note of the fact that many institutions of higher education had hired sustainability coordinators, and formed the Massachusetts School Sustainability Coordinators Roundtable (MSSCoR) to assist this new professional class. Second Nature has been an active partner since that time and hosts the MSSCoR webpage, where information about the meetings is archived, including presentations and video of the first spring convocation.

At the first convocation, students from Emerson, Bunker Hill Community, UMass Amherst, Suffolk, Worcester State, Hampshire, Lasell and Boston University presented on issues including transitioning from bottled water to tap water, “frugal flushing,” signage, making biodiesel from fryolater oil, and institutional planning and resources necessary for maintaining the sustainability effort over time. After the first convocation, several colleges contacted Emerson for further information on installing bottle-filling stations to promote reuseable instead of disposable water bottles.

It may make sense to combine useful presentations with the student presentations, or to have interactive discussion or working sessions. At the first convocation, students received information about Clean Energy internships and the president of Building Green presented on the information resource Building Green Suite, which is made available to campuses at very low cost. Participants in a working session drafted a letter to college presidents concerning the sustainability effort, which included the request: “We ask that you let your students know that their initiatives have institutional support.”

Second Nature’s President David Hales said, “The First Spring Convocation was a perfect synergy of curriculum and practice, of faculty expertise and sustainability application. Students who work with sustainability coordinators get a chance to demonstrate valuable practical knowledge that will make them more effective in the real world, while making our communities more sustainable. Calling them together, hearing their ideas and encouraging their contribution has value that institutions of higher education should not fail to recognize.”

The second spring convocation will be held at Hampshire on April 9, 2013. (Please note that the deadline for abstract submissions has been extended to March 15.) MSSCoR hopes that additional institutions will be eager to host such events in the future. Sustainability coordinators are invited to encourage students to submit, and college presidents in Massachusetts are being invited to participate in reviewing and selecting the presentations. Hampshire President Lash states that he is hosting the event for the second time because, “In our present age of over-consumption and rapid climate change, recognizing and encouraging the students, faculty and staff who are using efforts to reduce the impacts of campus operations to teach and learn is an important opportunity. Learning how to implement recycling programs, achieve new energy efficiencies and foster water-conservation measures is essential knowledge that will enhance our students’ abilities to lead change and make lasting contributions to society. Hampshire is hosting the Second Spring Convocation in hopes of encouraging that work.”

Note that although this event is co-hosted by Second Nature, the primary organizer is the state, and the event and the behind it are in the public domain. What that means is that any educational institution or combination of institutions in the world may organize their own convocation, and follow the exact same formula if they wish to. (There is no reason, however, that a student outside of Massachusetts could not submit.)

The top-down approach is a great way to get things started. It has led to the hiring of sustainability coordinators and the campuses that have signed up to the climate commitment are estimated to have already reduced gross greenhouse gas emissions by 25% since 2007. But as BU student Nairika Murphy asked at the first convocation, “How do you make the sustainability effort sustainable?

Second Nature President Hales noted there are six million students at the institutions that have signed on to the Climate Change Commitment. Surely, it is critical to recognize and encourage those students who contribute so much to the efforts of the overworked and often-overwhelmed staff charged with sustainability efforts.

We look forward to ways to increase inter-campus coordination.

Rick Reibstein is director of Outreach and Policy, Massachusetts Office of Technical Assistance and Technology and co-founder with Erica Mattison of Suffolk University of the Massachusetts School Sustainability Coordinators Roundtable. Sarah Brylinski is director of Climate Resilience & Educational Programs at Second Nature.


Related Posts:

After Five Warm and Stormy Years, Higher Ed Leaders Keep Commitment to Confront Climate Change

David Levy Comments on the Challenge of Climate Change  (video)

NEJHE’s Coverage of the Environment


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