Sustainability Education

“How do you define sustainability?”

If you’re a sustainability officer at a college you get asked this question all the time. “Does your institution have an agreed upon definition of sustainability or a campus-wide sustainability policy statement?” is the version we see from various ranking and rating agencies. “What, you mean like, recycling?” from some of our students. And, “Yeah, but what do you do here?” from some of their parents. It can be a useful exercise, for sure, to sharpen your message and your operational focus. But I’m guessing most of us, even if we have a sustainability definition, find it difficult to sum up what we do in a succinct statement.

If you’re anything like me, you fumble through the Brundtland Commission or the triple bottom line for key phrases that connect to the work you do to decrease emissions, build community, and save money.  Too often, however, we fail to connect this good work to the central aim of the institution – educating our students.  We talk about energy conservation, green building, waste reduction, local food, and transportation alternatives with little mention of learning outcomes. Of course, learning outcomes are the purview of our faculty and academic administrators, but education is the goal of the institution. In the current issue of Sustainability: The Journal of Record, I moderate a “Roundtable” discussion among campus sustainability officers who understand that our work demands great attention to education.

At Unity, our sustainability office team is focused on developing the infrastructure to deliver that education to all of our students, whatever their course of study. That infrastructure certainly includes buildings and grounds, but it also means partnerships, policies, positions. We put more than a dozen students to work on our crew, we influence campus governance on various planning committees, we sit on boards at area agencies, we write grants, we grow food, we lead classes, and yes, we sort through your trash. These efforts aren’t ends in themselves. We’re not tied to our own special sustainability agenda. Rather, we do this work to engage Unity students in the best sustainability science education they can get.

So we come to my confession . . . I’m not in this to save the planet (though I’m really glad some of you are).  I think of myself as an educator; if I’m an advocate or activist it’s for the student experience first.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a real personal interest in the sustainability agenda and the health of natural systems.  Professionally, however, my aim is to support a meaningful education for our students. I happen to believe that campus sustainability work provides the best opportunity for a meaningful education.

Notes on Campus Planning

 The Campus Master Plan, Unity 2020 (8MB .pdf), is a guide.  Developed with considerable community input, it serves as a snapshot of our values, and a projection of those values into the future as we undertake campus construction, renovation, and changes in land use.  Much of the Master Plan expresses our institution-wide emphasis on sustainability, so it’s not surprising that I receive frequent inquiries about campus developments related to planning.

In fact, that’s a good enough reason for your Sustainability Coordinator to sit on the Planning Committee — a group led by a Board of Trustees member, which also includes student and faculty representatives, our Director of Facilities, and the whole slate of senior campus administrators.  It’s important to note that our campus planning does not take an “either/or” approach; we plan for new academic space and new residential buildings, we plan for major renovation of existing buildings and major alterations to the landscape. As funding allows, we implement major campus projects in accordance with the Master Plan — not a strict replication of the Master Plan drawing, but a firm adherence to the values and goals that informed the creation of our Master Plan.

Yesterday’s Leadership Council meeting — open to the entire campus community — focused exclusively on updates from this Planning Committee.  In brief, this is what we learned about upcoming and recent campus projects:

  • Wet Pond – We’ll create sediment and water retention ponds near the maintenance buildings this summer in order to naturally treat storm water runoff from the entire campus.
  • Student Passive House – With significant external funding, construction of this super-efficient, passive solar residence will begin in May and is intended to replace two current cottages with space for ten students.
  • Academic Expansion – A new lab facility with two classrooms, prep space, and three faculty offices will be located uphill of Koons Hall.
  • Student Activities Building — Though we are pursuing significant renovations for the Student Activities Building down the road, this year we will focus on upgrading heating controls, sound proofing, and some cosmetic improvements to increase occupant comfort.
  • Community Trail – Nearly ten years ago, Unity College contracted to partner with the Department of Transportation to provide this path between campus and downtown Unity.  The College contributed about ten percent of the construction costs, but could not justify committing additional financial resources for lighting and winter maintenance.  Every effort will be made to encourage safe, seasonal use of the trail.
  • Library Boiler – Unity College received nearly $75,000 in federal and private funding to replace the inefficient fuel oil boiler in the library with a new pellet boiler system.

Look for full minutes from this Leadership Council meeting to be distributed by campus email.


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