Higher Education’s Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action. Canada and USA Regional Report

Tarah Wright

In this article Tarah Wright from Dalhousie University in Canada presents a condensed version of the regional report on Canada and USA included in the GUNi Report Higher Education in the World 4.

Introduction

Canada and the United States of America (USA) both have a rich history and have played pivotal roles in the development of the global movement to inspire higher education institutions (HEIs) to take a lead role in creating a sustainable future. An historic attempt to define and promote sustainability in higher education was made in the creation of the Talloires Declaration in the early 1990s. While the Talloires is an international declaration that now enjoys over 418 signatories worldwide (USA n=163, Canada n=33), the initiative was American-led.

The 1990s also saw the proliferation of not-for-profit organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focused on sustainability in higher education in North America.  University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF) was officially established as the Secretariat for signatories of the Talloires Declaration in the early 1990s.  ULSF became independent of Center for Respect of Life and Environment (CRLE) in 2007, functioning as a virtual organization and continues to maintain its position as Secretariat for signatories of the Talloires Declaration.

Around the same time, the National Wildlife Federation established its Campus Ecology program which has become a leading conservation program in higher education.

In 1991 Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF) was established in Canada by a diverse group of youth, educators, business leaders, government and community members.  LSF is charged with leading the Canadian response to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) through the implementation in Canada.

Second Nature was founded in Boston in 1993.  Since then it has worked with over 4,000 faculty and administrators at more than 500 colleges and universities to help make the principles of sustainability fundamental to every aspect of higher education.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has arguably become the largest organization for university sustainability in North America.  Launched in January 2006, it serves as the first professional higher education association for the campus sustainability community.

Partnerships

Many partnerships have been established as a result of the higher education for sustainability movement.   For example, the Higher Education Association Sustainability Consortium (HEASC) was formed to support and enhance the capacity of higher education to fulfill its critical role in producing an educated and engaged citizenry and the knowledge needed for a thriving and civil society.

Established in 2006, Education for Sustainable Development Canada (ESD Canada) brings together a broad range of stakeholders from across the country to support systemic change toward ESD within the formal, non-formal and informal education systems.

The United States Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development (USPESD) was first conceived in November 2003 and is a response to the call by the UN General Assembly for a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

Major Conferences and Initiatives

The Greening of the Campus Conference (known to many as colloquially as “Ball State”) is perhaps the longest running conference focused on sustainability in higher education in North America.

While a relative newcomer, the biannual AASHE conference has become one of the most popular sustainability in higher education events in North America.

Curriculum and Learning Processes

Stand Alone Programs

According to the Association of University and Colleges of Canada, there are over 200 degree, diploma and certificate programs offered in French and English related to the environment across the country.  However, there are very few programs that contain the term sustainability in the title.  In the USA, there are over 20 universities and colleges with undergraduate programs related to sustainability.  One of the best-known is the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. The School offers flexible, interdisciplinary, and problem-oriented BAs and BSs in Sustainability.

General Education Programs

In the USA, many universities have general education (GE) requirements that students are required to take.  In some cases the general education requirements are set by the state, in others, the general education requirements are set by the individual school.  According to Rowe (2002), a number of colleges and universities have incorporated an in-depth exposure to environmental literacy and/or sustainability in their GE requirements. For example, the Stanford I-Earth curriculum.

Certificates and Diplomas in Sustainability

Some universities in both the United States and Canada have seen the benefit in creating concurrent and post-degree certificates and diplomas in sustainability.  For example, Ryerson University in Toronto has developed a professional development certificate in sustainability for individuals from any disciplinary background.

Integrating Sustainability across the Curriculum

While interdisciplinary programs related specifically to sustainability are most welcome in North America, many feel that sustainability must be integrated into the traditional academic disciplines if we are to create positive sustainable change.  The AASHE offers the Sustainability Across the Curriculum Leadership Workshop for faculty leaders of all disciplines who wish to develop curriculum change programs around sustainability on their campuses.

Institutional Management and Operations

A major step Canadian and US universities have taken to become more sustainable is to establish sustainable practices in campus management and operations, attempting to model sustainable behaviour in the development of buildings, dining services, energy, grounds, transportation, purchasing, waste management, water,  financing, investing and policy development.  Many universities have found campus greening initiatives to be cost-effective in the long run.  AASHE has online records concerning best practices and institutions that are currently implementing projects in a wide variety of operational and management aspects.

In North America, there is a growing trend toward using schools as living laboratories, allowing students to gain hands-on experience while improving their campus or community. For example, the Arizona State University has created the Campus Living Laboratory Network (CLLN) to facilitate work on campus sustainability projects between students, staff and faculty. At the University of British Columbia Farm, students have the opportunity to be involved in various learning and research initiative.

Research

Research is a critical tool in developing a sustainable future, and universities have a responsibility to contribute through their scholarly activities. 

Research Centres

Canada and the United States host a multitude of centres dedicated to sustainability research in general (e.g. the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Canadian Consortium for Sustainable Development Research at the University of British Columbia, the Earth Institute Columbia University, the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University, and the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University).  There are many research centres dedicated to environmental education within HEIs, but few research centres dedicated to sustainability in higher education.  Exceptions are the Centre for Environmental and Sustainability Education at Florida Gulf Coast University, the Robert A. Macoskey Center for Sustainable Systems Education and Research at Slippery Rock University, and the Center for Environmental Sustainability Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Publications

In North America, the majority of the research dedication to sustainability in higher education is disseminated through traditional academic means such as journal articles, books, and newsletters.  In a bibliometric study of English-language journal articles related to education for sustainable development from 1990 to 2005, Wright and Pullen (2007) found that approximately 70% of the manuscripts published resulted from individuals working at a Canadian or US university.  The majority of North American authors published in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education produced and published in Europe.  The only North American journal that focuses almost exclusively on sustainability in higher education is Sustainability: The Journal of Record which began in March 2008.

Analyzing the present and looking to the future

While it is apparent that Canada and the USA have made significant steps toward sustainability in higher education, the challenges and barriers to advancing individual universities toward sustainability (e.g. financial, leadership, communications) as identified by Wright and Filho (2002) are still very real in Canada.  A recent study of twenty-three Canadian university presidents revealed that the most significant constraints to moving toward sustainability in higher education were seen as financial, lack of understanding and awareness of sustainability issues amongst the university population, and a resistance to change (Wright, 2008).  These challenges are ubiquitous as well for the movement in Canada and the USA.  The problems are further exacerbated by the large geography of the two countries, and the relatively recent development of the scholarly field.  Finally, many of the metrics needed to determine the advance of the sustainability in higher education movement are unavailable.  Currently, while the anecdotal information is rich, there are no agencies that officially collect information on the quantity or quality of sustainability curriculum in these countries, the number of and initiatives of sustainability officers and offices on university campuses, the progress of campuses in developing green buildings and modeling sustainability through operations, and the amount of research funding dedicated to sustainability in higher education research.

The following strategies and actions are suggested to advance sustainability in higher education in Canada and the USA:

  1. Develop indicators to assess the progression of sustainability in higher education at national and international levels.
  2. Develop innovative and creative initiatives to engage the university community in discussions about the role the university can play in creating a sustainable future.
  3. Promote a deeper understanding of sustainability amongst societal leaders.
  4. Promote the development of university-wide undergraduate academic programs that allow students to learn for a sustainable future.
  5. Promote the development of active and empowering curriculum focused on creating change for a sustainable future.
  6. Support the development of tenure criteria that acknowledges and honours cross-disciplinary work in sustainability.
  7. Create campus sustainability officer positions at each university in Canada and the USA.
  8. Develop regional, national, and international networks of scholars engaging in research in the field of sustainability in higher education.
  9. Further develop the list of research priorities for the field.

References

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About the author

Tarah Wright is an associate professor at Dalhousie University, Canada, where she has played a pivotal role in   the successful creation of the Environmental Science Program and co-creation of the university’s new and innovative College of   Sustainability. She serves on the editorial boards of the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, and the Encyclopedia of Quality of Life Research, is a Member of the Scientific Advisory Board   for Environmental Management for Sustainable Universities (EMSU), and   is a co-organizer for World Sustainable Development Teach-In Day.

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