Do sustainable college campuses mean a more sustainable society?

Feb 5, 2013

Solar panels near WMU's Miller Auditorium
Credit WMUK

Can transforming the nation’s college campuses create a more sustainable society? Former college president Mitchell Thomashow says it can. He’ll bring that message to Western Michigan University during a public presentation Thursday, February 7th. Thomashow says universities and colleges should remake themselves into sustainable institutions to help their communities and their students

Thomashow is now the director of the Presidential Fellows Program at Second Nature, a group dedicated to helping colleges and universities become more sustainable. While he was president of Unity College in Maine, Thomashow guided the small, private college through several sustainability initiatives.

Next year, the MIT Press will publish Thomashow’s latest book: The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Culture. He says those elements fall into three groups: infrastructure, community, and learning. The first involves energy, food, and materials, while the second includes governance, investment, and wellness. Thomashow says the learning category covers curriculum, interpretation (explaining sustainability to the wider community), and aesthetics.

Sustainability makes a lot of sense. We want to understand how we can help students get the life skills and the job skills they need so they will be successful. We want to understand how the campus can serve a vital economic role in its community. So I see the campus really as a laboratory for sustainability initiatives.

Thomashow says colleges and universities owe it to their communities and their students to lead the way in the area of sustainability. But he says they should try to do so in a “frugal” way. While he was at Unity College, Thomashow says it found that finding ways to have less impact on the environment also helped save money. He says that meant that Unity’s students “got more for their educational dollar” as it coped with a small endowment and modest tuition rates.

Mitchell Thomashow

Thomashow says he’s “staggered” by the progress that U.S. colleges and universities have made in the sustainability arena. Since 2006, more than 700 schools, including Western Michigan University, have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. It pledges them to achieve “climate neutrality” over a certain period of time. The institutions covered by the document have 40 percent of the nation’s post-secondary students.

Thomashow says he’s also impressed by the number of schools that are working sustainability into the classroom. He says that includes a number of business schools and colleges. Thomashow sees Michigan’s higher education communities as especially active in promoting greater sustainability.

Thomashow will give a public presentation on campus sustainability Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Room 1910 of Sangren Hall on WMU’s main campus. It’s sponsored by Western’s Office for Sustainability.