Designing and Implementing a Pan-University commitment to Sustainability

MELNICK, Rob

Rob Melnick, Executive Dean of the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) at Arizona State University (ASU), explains how GIOS brings together faculty leaders from multiple disciplines to train the next generation of sustainability leaders, practitioners, and entrepreneurs. Its research collaborations advance both basic and applied knowledge in key areas of renewable energy, rapid urbanization, social transformation, and water management, among others.

Arizona State University (ASU) has an enrolment of 69,000 students on four campuses. The Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) is a practice of leading, supporting and coordinating ASU’s university-wide commitment to sustainability, which is to educate students in sustainability science, conduct research to solve global challenges of sustainability and operate its campuses sustainably. ASU has established the first comprehensive, degree-granting School of Sustainability in the U.S. Only in operation for 3 years, the School already has 589 undergraduate majors and 104 graduate students. Its Office of Sustainability Practices has initiated a carbon neutrality plan, large-scale solar energy installations, and a zero water and solid waste program.

The mission and design of GIOS and the School of Sustainability were established in Temozon, Mexico in 2004. There, ASU President Michael Crow convened renowned experts in sustainability science and practice from around the world and asked this question: How should a large, research university organize and act to address the increasingly fast-paced and daunting social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century? A grant from sustainability philanthropist Julie Ann Wrigley enabled ASU to make a pan-university commitment to sustainability via the design principles establish at the Temozon meeting. The Institute and School were established to transcend conventional academic boundaries by leading and supporting all ASU learning, research and operations units to engage in sustainability. In particular, the Institute began to formulate new ways for these units to connect their knowledge to local, national, and global organizations that were also concerned about sustainability. The focus was on scientists, government officials, business executives and community leaders. The School was launched a year later as part of the Institute. It sought to develop a multidisciplinary faculty and a transdisciplinary curriculum to prepare the next generation to address looming sustainability issues. Because of the original effort at the Temozon retreat, a number of these initial advisors joined the ASU Board of Trustees for Sustainability. They include prominent academic administrators, CEOs of multi-national corporations, presidents of international NGOs and senior public officials. They collectively recognized that a large university’s commitment to sustainability, especially one with an entrepreneurial mindset like ASU’s, could uniquely position it to take on the challenges of sustainability and set a new course for universities worldwide.

GIOS has these objectives:

  • Identify global, grand challenges of sustainability.
  • Educate the next generation of sustainability leaders, practitioners, and entrepreneurs.
  • Advance and apply knowledge to create practical solutions to sustainability challenges.
  • Develop tools to improve decision-making under conditions of uncertainty.
  • Build global research partnerships focused on sustainability.
  • Stimulate university-wide practices in sustainability.
  • Involve the entire ASU community in behaving and operating sustainably.
  • Lead by example in all facets of sustainability.
  • Sstablish ASU as a leader among universities in finding sustainable solutions for a rapidly urbanizing planet.


As far as we know, GIOS is a “good practice” unlike any other university structure in the U.S. It was established to provide leadership and coordination for ASU’s sustainability initiatives university-wide. As a result of this practice, the Institute manages a comprehensive School of Sustainability, promotes sustainability-focused research, helps public decision-makers deal with sustainability challenges, prioritizes university-wide efforts toward sustainable practices, and builds global partnerships. The Institute also works “horizontally” to inspire and infuse sustainability across ASU’S entire curriculum. The Institute’s School of Sustainability offers transdisciplinary bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in sustainability. The School’s transdisciplinary academic program teaches students to analyze sustainability problems so they can develop comprehensive yet realistic solutions via a project-centered curriculum. Core studies include ecology, resource economics, engineering, technology, humanities, sociology and anthropology, among others. The School is currently expanding its reach through a global master’s degree and exchange program in conjunction with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Mexican students will attend the School of Sustainability and ASU students will get field opportunities in sustainability in Mexico.

The Institute’s research collaborations cover renewable energy, rapid urbanization, social transformation, sustainable agriculture, sustainable development and water management. This purview encompasses numerous academic disciplines and partners working to advance both basic and applied knowledge. Research project foci currently are photosynthesis-inspired solar energy, economic valuation of ecosystems, decision-making in circumstances of a pandemic, long-term human effects on land change and urban systems, the role of innovation in society, environmental conservation, water management under climate uncertainty, sustainability indexing of consumer products, and much more. The Institute’s Office of University Sustainability Practices addresses four critical goals: 1) carbon neutrality of university carbon emissions from energy, waste-related sources, refrigerants and transportation; 2) zero water/solid waste strategies and actions to eliminate water waste and divert all solid waste from landfills through reduced consumption, recycling, and reuse; 3) actively engage ASU campuses as living laboratories to provide hands-on learning opportunities and share educational resources; 4) principled practice to ensure that departments across all campuses work together to develop and implement sustainable operations.

The Institute’s global engagement focuses on partnerships with practitioners from business, industry, schools, municipalities, and government to apply university research and to improve communities and ecosystems ranging from local to global. Among our numerous initiatives are the Sustainable Cities Network, an active partnership of cities, counties, and tribal nations to implement sustainability as a core value in planning, development, and operations; partnerships with educators that bring sustainability to elementary and high schools and give students and teachers the opportunity to participate in rigorous scientific research; the Decision Theater, a state-of-the-art 3-D visualization facility that supports applied sustainability research projects; and Advancing Conservation in a Social Context, a project in conjunction with national institutions in countries on three continents to understand and resolve the complex trade-offs between human well-being and biodiversity conservation goals at local, national, and international scales.

  • Only 3 years after inception, GIOS’s School of Sustainability awarded its first degrees in sustainability. It now has 589 undergraduate majors and 104 graduate students.
  • The Institute led the installation of the most solar energy capacity of any U.S. university.
  • GIOS co-directs the Sustainability Consortium, a partnership with the world’s largest manufacturers and retailers to establish scientific standards to measure the sustainability of consumer products.
  • GIOS’s education efforts inspired ASU’s School of Business to launch a B.A. degree in business administration and sustainability that currently has 375 students enrolled. •The School won a U.S. Agency for International Development grant to help Mexican students learn principles of sustainability with which they can implement conservation and community development.
  • The Urbanization and Global Environmental Change project, hosted at the Institute, won a three-year grant to study urban and environmental processes in coordination with the United Nations.
  • Institute researchers won two major grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to create bio-inspired solar fuel production using photosynthetic cyanobacteria.
  • The Sustainable Cities Network works daily with cities, counties and tribes to share best sustainability practices and strategies for communicating sustainability to residents.
  • The Global Institute of Sustainability is structured “horizontally” it is empowered by the university president to work with every university department unlike traditional “vertical” units that concentrate on their own missions.
  • The School of Sustainability is the first comprehensive, degree-granting program in sustainability in the U.S.
  • ASU’s president is the co-founder of the American Colleges and Universities Climate Commitment which now has over 600 member universities.
  • ASU established and convenes an external Board of Trustees for Sustainability to oversee the Institute. The Board has active, prominent, international members from the private, government, NGO and academic sectors.

Based on a 5-year experience of committing and organizing our university to provide leadership in sustainability, ASU recommends that other universities interested in developing a similar experience:

  • Secure a strong, visible commitment to sustainability from central university administrators, especially the president.
  • Provide support services to university units that will conduct sustainability education, research and practice.
  • Budget for investments in sustainable practices that will yield cost and other benefits over many years, such as installing solar energy generation capacity.
  • Provide students with opportunities to either intensely study sustainability through a degree program or through a concentration in sustainability in traditional degree programs.

About the author

Rob Melnick is Executive Dean of the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) at Arizona State University (ASU). From 1987-2008, he served ASU as Director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy and as Associate Vice President for Economic Affairs from 2002-2008. In these roles, Dr. Melnick worked closely with public officials and corporate leaders, advising them on policy issues, conducting evaluations, and developing future studies. He has authored, managed and contributed to nearly 200 funded policy studies on topics such as economic development, education reform, urban growth, quality of life, workforce development and sustainability.

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