Higher Education Can Do More for Climate and Sustainability
Never in recent history has an interdisciplinary approach to the natural world and the humans who call it home been more important or necessary. The global pandemic, economic crisis, social injustice, and the climate crisis have strained our world and its resources, yet higher education institutions must continue to advance their missions with ever more competing priorities and often fewer resources. I believe higher education must prioritize accelerating climate action while addressing the intertwined issues of social and economic inequality and public health.
While many colleges and universities teach courses and offer degrees in environmental science and sustainability, higher education could do more. Ultimately, institutions need to stay focused on their core values and mission: to educate students to think creatively and analytically and to produce and apply knowledge. But fundamentally we should also be creating opportunities for our students, faculty, and local communities to learn, to act, and to affect change, which necessitates an interdisciplinary approach through multiple perspectives to complex, intertwined challenges.
The last business trip I took before the shutdown was in February 2020 to Atlanta to attend Second Nature’s Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit, when COVID-19 was still just a possible looming threat. The irony that hundreds of us spent three days focused on the intersection of climate challenges with those of poverty, social justice, global health, and more as the pandemic was about to upend all of our lives is not lost on me. At that conference, Allegheny College was recognized as a Carbon Neutral Campus, the first college in Pennsylvania and only the eighth in the nation to be recognized as such in the Second Nature framework, in spite of our relatively small endowment (the smallest of the eight), our location in rural Northwest Pennsylvania, and the relatively limited monetary investment the college has been able to devote to its efforts. Our faculty, staff, and students pride themselves on working together to craft a more environmentally sound, equitable, just, and sustainable society. We don’t just study the environment—we improve it—and we believe this recognition comes with the responsibility to put ourselves forward as leaders.
Climate action and sustainability are more than recycling
To the credit of my colleagues in our Office of Sustainability, our Department of Environmental Science and Sustainability, our colleagues in the Physical Plant Department, our current and past trustees, my presidential predecessors, and many others, much of the hard work toward achieving carbon neutrality on our campus was done by the time I arrived as president in 2019. Now the opportunity ahead lies in sharing what we have learned with the higher education community and our local and regional community. The goal is to leverage our successes in sustainability and carbon neutrality and use them as a lens for understanding and resolving bigger social and economic challenges facing our campus, our community, and our world.
One of the predicaments facing higher education today, and presidents in particular, is deciding where their voices truly matter. Cataclysmic events—environmental, political, economic, geophysical, industrial, medical—happen seemingly daily, and our students, faculty, and alumni often seek an institutional response to these.
For many campuses, climate action begins with a quest to ensure carbon neutrality, and a commitment to achieve community resilience comes next. Climate action is not only about preserving natural spaces, protecting endangered species, and reducing global emissions. It’s also about improving rural and urban environments and ensuring equity and participation for communities that climate change has disproportionately affected. As our scholars and students have researched, studied, and written about, higher education can demonstrate how to achieve meaningful sustainability. We need to go further and engage in a robust plan of action with both short- and long-term steps to simultaneously confront societal issues. One initiative Allegheny College has launched to move beyond campus-based climate action is our recent creation of a new Office for Economic, Civic and Community Engagement through which we will partner across our region to leverage the broad networks, resources, and research expertise of the College to support sustainable economic growth for the local region.
Delivering climate action through academic, community engagement, and campus operations
Allegheny College has developed seven action items we hope other institutions of higher learning—to the extent that their resources, governance, and structure allow—will join us in embracing. Many of the areas that need our attention are integral to campus operations, faculty and student research and engagement, and inclusion of groups that have traditionally been marginalized on our campuses and in our surrounding communities. As we found during Allegheny’s journey toward carbon neutrality, a great deal of these efforts have no cost. Some even create cost-saving opportunities, and many provide engagement opportunities for students, faculty, staff, and trustees while also creating opportunity, stability, and resilience among the local community. Here are some ways to get started.
- We invite any higher education leader to join us and other colleges and universities by partnering with organizations such as We Are Still In, Second Nature, and the Better Buildings initiative.
- We encourage institutions to create opportunities for students to participate in climate action through internships and research projects with businesses, community groups, governments, nonprofits and agencies around the region, the country, and the world in areas such as community organizing, sustainable agriculture, ocean plastics, carbon offset development, and solar energy.
- We recommend working across your institution, including with trustees involved with institutional endowments or investments, to align, to the greatest extent possible, investment portfolios with institutional goals around sustainability and related social justice issues.
- Become carbon neutral sooner rather than later, while simultaneously decarbonizing your campus by transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
- Purchase 100 percent of electricity from renewable sources. Educate future environmental and business leaders to create and implement sound, participatory, long-term solutions that help develop new local and regional renewable resources.
Creative problem solving
- Review and reflect on historical institutional policies and practices that may affect present-day decisions. Educate yourselves to be able to have the hard conversations and take action to change them in ways that are interrelated with climate security, which may improve quality of life for marginalized communities and threatened ecosystems.
- Focus on resilience. Design solutions that are inclusive and equitable—for instance, housing and transportation that reduce carbon emissions, increase a sense of community, and improve mental and physical health.
With the multitude of great institutions and minds in this field, there are many more themes and activities that would greatly contribute. Allegheny College has long embraced the belief that the best thinkers and future leaders are ones who can embrace ambiguity, see issues from multiple perspectives, “dance across disciplines” (Epstein, 2019, p. 49), and solve problems by employing a variety of analytical, writing, and creative tools. This approach is reflected in the college’s nationally recognized Department of Environmental Science and Sustainability, which is interdisciplinary at its core, focusing on “the study of the interrelationship between human activities and the environment . . . the means by which policies, regulations, and decisions influence human actions . . . [the] human behavioral, cultural, and sociological interactions that affect the environment.”
I believe that if we all commit and work together, higher education can and will be at the forefront of accelerating ambitious, measurable climate and sustainability initiatives that lead to an inclusive, just, zero-emission, and community-resilient future while educating and preparing graduates to be engaged citizens and change agents in their careers and lives.
Epstein, D. (2019). Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialized world. Riverhead Books.
Hilary L. Link, PhD, is the president of Allegheny College and an interdisciplinary scholar of Italian literature. She also serves on Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Steering Committee and the board of directors of Kallion, a nonprofit dedicated to improving leadership through the study of the humanities.