Initiating and Managing a University-wide, Transdisciplinary Commitment to Sustainability at a Large Public Institution

Melnick, Rob

Arizona State University has a university-wide, transdisciplinary commitment to sustainability education, research, and outreach and business operations. All academic, administrative, business and support units are expected to participate in achieving its sustainability goals and are guided by the university’s Global Institute of Sustainability. Achieving these goals at scale in a large public university (2010 enrollment of 71000 students) is challenging, but can be accomplished when visibly supported by the institution’s chief executive officer. 

Arizona State University (ASU) has an enrollment of 71000 students on four separate campuses. The Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University (GIOS) represents a university-wide practice to lead, support and coordinate ASU’s commitment to sustainability education, sustainability science and sustainable business operations.

The Institute actively brings together scholars from nearly every academic discipline to train the next generation of sustainability leaders, practitioners, and entrepreneurs. The research collaborations it fosters advance both basic and applied sustainability knowledge. Its Office of Sustainability Practices has initiated ambitious programs in sustainable operations. Its School of Sustainability (SoS) is a comprehensive, degree-granting school currently enrolling about 500 undergraduate majors and 75 graduate students. The ASU externally funded portfolio of research on economic, social and environmental topics of sustainability was approximately $75 million (U.S.) in 2010.

The fundamental mission of the Institute is to enable and accelerate discovery of solutions for global challenges of sustainability. The mission and design of GIOS and were established in Temozon, Mexico in 2004, by a group international experts in sustainability science from around the world convened to answer this question: “How should a large, research university organise and act to address the increasingly fast-paced and daunting social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century?”

A grant from philanthropist Julie Ann Wrigley enabled ASU to make a pan-university commitment to sustainability that utilised design principles established at the Temozon meeting. The Institute and its School were established to transcend conventional academic boundaries by leading and supporting all ASU learning, not just that which takes place in the School and to formulate ways ASU units can connect their knowledge to local, national, and global organisations concerned about sustainability.

GIOS is advised by the ASU Board of Trustees for Sustainability. Board members include CEOs of large multi-national corporations, prominent academic administrators, presidents of international NGOs and senior public officials. They collectively help guide the university’s commitment to sustainability, especially focusing on solutions sets that address global challenges of sustainability.

The primary objectives of the Global Institute of Sustainability are:

  • Identify global 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 future uncertainty.
  • Stimulate university-wide practices in sustainability.
  • Lead by example in all facets of sustainability.

Operations and Scale
The Global Institute is a good practice “at scale” that can be replicated by other universities. However, because its mandate covers four separate campuses, all academic units, university business operations and community outreach, it is a bold commitment. As such, GIOS was established, in part, to learn and export information about how a public institution of substantial size can model good practices in sustainability and provide leadership. In effect, the Institute works “horisontally” to inspire and infuse sustainability across ASU’s entire curriculum, business operations, research and outreach. To carry out its expansive mission, GIOS is organised, staffed and managed by a directorate (a director, dean and executive dean) according to these operational functions:

  • Education (the School of Sustainability)
  • University Business Practices
  • Research Development
  • Communications and Marketing
  • Events and Community Engagement
  • Decision Theater (a visualisation facility that supports applied sustainability research projects)
  • Fiscal Management

The Institute’s School of Sustainability offers bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in sustainability. The School’s transdisciplinary curriculum teaches students how to analyse sustainability problems so they can develop solutions via “real world experiences”. Core studies include ecology, resource economics, technology, humanities, sociology, anthropology, sustainable development, and philosophy. The School is currently expanding its reach through a master’s degree and exchange program in conjunction with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), a professional masters degree program for in-service professionals and an on-line certificate program for military personnel. Instructors for SoS programs include faculty whose tenure homes are the School of Sustainability, who have appointments in the School but whose tenure lies in other departments and a group of 218 ASU faculty and researchers appointed as “sustainability scientists” or “sustainability scholars” by the Global Institute.

Institute-managed research collaborations and ASU’s larger portfolio of sustainability-related research includes renewable energy, rapid urbanisation, economic valuation of ecosystems, social transformation, resilience, sustainable agriculture, sustainable development, water management, long-term human effects on land change and urban systems, the role of innovation in society, environmental conservation, climate adaptation and sustainability indexing of consumer products.

1) The Institute’s Office of University Sustainability Practices addresses three critical goals: carbon neutrality to mitigate 100 percent of university carbon emissions;
2) zero water/solid waste;
3) actively engaging ASU campuses as living laboratories of sustainable operations and principled practices.

Key Results
Three years after inception, GIOS’ School of Sustainability awarded its first degrees in sustainability. It now has 507 undergraduate majors and 79 graduate students. Since there has been increasing enrollment demand for courses in the School, ASU’s WP Cary School of Business launched a B.A. degree in business administration and sustainability that currently has almost 400 students enrolled.

The Institute has led ASU to having the most installed solar energy capacity of any U.S. university. By 2011, this will reach a capacity of more than 14MW per year, including a campus whose solar energy production can supply greater than 100 percent of its electrical demand, thereby enabling that campus to sell power back to the commercial electrical grid. The long-term goal is for the 4 campuses to have sufficient solar energy generating capacity to supply about 30 percent of all energy needs.

The Institute oversees the following notable, externally-funded research projects: Advancing Conservation in a Social Context (funded by the MacArthur Foundation), works in conjunction with national institutions in countries on three continents to understand and resolve complex trade-offs between human well-being and biodiversity conservation goals; CAP-LTER (funded by the National Science Foundation, NSF), studies the long-term effects of humans on urban ecology; Decision Center for a Desert City (NSF-funded), provides robust data and analysis of projected water availability to water decision-makers throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area; Energize Phoenix (funded by the U.S. Department of Energy), is creating novel ways and identifying best practices for creating energy efficient buildings, both commercial and residential; Sustainability Consortium (funded by membership dues), is co-led by GIOS and the University of Arkansas and is a partnership with large manufacturers and retailers to establish scientific standards to measure the sustainability of consumer products. Its members include Walmart, Henkel, Best Buy, Dell, Intel, Safeway, Pepsico, 3M, Marks and Spencer and BASF among many other companies.

GIOS is host to The Urbanization and Global Environmental Change (UGEC) project that enjoys a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study urban and environmental processes in coordination with the United Nations. The Institute also has numerous partnerships that bring sustainability curriculum to elementary and high schools and give students and teachers the opportunity to participate in scientific research.

Innovations and Best Practices

  • The Global Institute of Sustainability is structured “horisontally” –it is empowered by the university president to work with every university department unlike traditional “vertical” units that concentrate on their own mission.
  • The School of Sustainability was 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 almost 700 member universities.
  • The Institute’s Sustainable Cities Network works daily with 25 cities, counties and tribes to share best sustainability practices and strategies for communicating sustainability to residents.


Based on a 5-year experience, it is clear that success in achieving sustainability goals at scale in a large university requires, first and foremost, a widely-articulated commitment to sustainability from central university administrators, especially the president. Further, this commitment must be backed by support services that can help individual units contribute to the attainment of transdisciplinary, university-wide goals. Investments in sustainable practices must be able to demonstrate cost savings and not just sustainability outcomes. Above all, the most important commitment a university can make to sustainability is providing its students with numerous opportunities for a rigorous, experiential education focused on local and global challenges of sustainability.

More information about this good practice can be found at GUNI.HEiOBS

About the author

Rob Melnick, Ph.D. is Executive Dean of the Global Institute of Sustainability and its School of Sustainability. He also has an appointment as Presidential Professor of Practice in the School.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government