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Sustainability Webinar “Environmental Sustainability as a Strategic Policy Issue: What Governing Boards Need to Know” February 11, 2009


Association of Governing Boards and Society for College and University Planning hosted a webinar to collaborate on sustainable victories and bring these ideas back home to their board of trustees in hopes of pushing more sustainability initiatives nationwide.


The world of academia is pressured to practice what it preaches, on topics such as green buildings, operations, purchasing, investing, and curriculum.  As we enter rough economic times, boards of trustees are going to need convincing cost effective information to be swayed toward sustainability initiatives.  Boards need to understand how to set benchmarks to see the positive effects.


Anthony Cortese, President of Second Nature, spoke first and proposed the question “What is sustainability?” He answered with “The ability of current generations to meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their needs” UN Commission on Environment & Development, 1987.  This original definition has evolved into the Triple Bottom Line.  The idea of becoming sustainable is the greatest moral dilemma our civilization has ever faced.  We cannot just draw a line in the sand and say, “from this point forward we will only build green buildings”; because this is not fixing the problem, this is only making the situation a little less bad.


Boards of trustees should see the benefits beyond short and long-term cost savings.  They need to do it for their students; students are the ones who will be battling the worst global climate disruption.  Higher education can better prepare their students to be better citizens and have successful careers.  Businesses will need people to be educated on sustainable practices; currently, companies cannot do it on their own.  Universities will gain external respect, attracting more students, faculty, and funding.  Presidents that have signed sustainable initiatives have never seen as much cooperation and satisfaction across an entire university. 


Kathleen Crum McKinney, Chair Board of Trustees Furman University, showed how Furman’s success is directly related to implementing sustainability into its strategic plan.  In February 2008, Furman’s board of trustees adopted a green meeting policy where all documents will be circulated electronically, saving $20,000 annually.  Kathleen’s university has gained a tremendous amount of additional funding through government grants and individual donors because of their significant sustainability efforts.  Furman’s student body is becoming more knowledgeable about the green economy, and seeing more summer internships based around sustainability.  “Colleges are founded to last forever”.


Thomas Hass, President Grand Valley State University, spoke about how Grand Valley State University is using its 590 million dollar annual economic impact to help push western Michigan to be sustainable in its practices.  Grand Valley now offers sustainability opportunities including a new minor, an emphasis, and certificates.  There is also a new ‘Green Chemistry’ course, which Thomas said he was interested in teaching. 


Students are seeking out universities who are on the leading edge of sustainability.  Students are willing to pay a higher price to attend a university that is more environmentally friendly.  Why would a university want to become more sustainable?  The operational cost benefits are immediate and long-term benefits grow exponentially.  The initial cost savings is what will get boards to start listening, the social factors they will realize later.


If higher education does not take the lead who will?