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Preparing the Next Generation of Sustainability Leaders: Insights from the Fifth World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities

Leadership and Management Students

Preparing the Next Generation of Sustainability Leaders: Insights from the Fifth World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities

This June, delegates from institutions of higher education around the world gathered at Allegheny College for the Fifth World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities (WSSD-U-2022) to focus on educating the sustainability leaders of the future and on how to use community-engaged learning to train students to tackle the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). The 17 UN SDGs provide a global framework to address the climate and equity crisis by exploring not only what needs to happen to make change but also how individuals, communities, countries, and public and private-sector institutions can contribute.

We were proud to host this important symposium at Allegheny College for a variety of reasons. As the first four symposia were held at large research institutions around the globe, having Allegheny College recognized on the international stage demonstrates the college’s significant role in sustainability education. Allegheny College’s Environmental Science and Sustainability Department has, for the past five years, been listed among the top five in the US for its interdisciplinary, experiential approach, acknowledging and understanding the mutually dependent relationship between the environment, economy, and justice.

Delegates from the college’s ESS program have participated in all five symposiums, sharing their expertise, showcasing student-faculty research, and building partnerships across the globe.

At the heart of the symposium was and continues to be the work of educating and inspiring sustainability leaders of the future. Preparing young people as environmental stewards has never been more important than it is at this critical moment for the future of our planet.

Higher ed must take the lead

Institutions of higher education are in a unique position to both be change agents and create them. Colleges and universities are uniquely equipped with faculty, staff and students dedicated to researching, monitoring, and seeking solutions for these overwhelming challenges. They affect their own communities and regions, prepare environmental leaders to directly policy, organizations, and practices to mitigate and prevent environmental crises. They may reach leaders in government, business, and the nonprofit sector with their ideas and generate discussion and foster collaborations. Why is this necessary right now? Because the earth is facing its sixth mass extinction as the planet continues to warm and the weather becomes more and more severe. Carbon dioxide levels are at record highs—and rising. We need to build a truly global coalition for carbon neutrality. That is a tremendous amount of responsibility, but it is also one that I firmly believe we must together embrace for the sake of humanity and our shared future.

There is significant research showing that colleges are good models for cities, towns, and local regions to figure out what works and what doesn’t—because of their size and the wide array of sustainability projects they are often engaged with. The 70-plus academic leaders at the symposium represented eight different countries; all are dedicated to preparing students to develop integrated approaches toward sustainable development and to contributing to the implementation of the UN SDGs. This remarkably supportive community is an extraordinary model for others who want to move substantive change forward.

Never 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 emergency have strained our world and its resources, and yet higher education institutions must continue to advance their missions with even 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 even 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 create opportunities for our students, faculty, and local communities to learn, to act, and to effect change, which necessitates an interdisciplinary approach through multiple perspectives to complex, intertwined challenges.

For many campuses, climate action begins with a quest to ensure carbon neutrality; a commitment to achieve community resilience often follows. 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 have been disproportionately affected by climate change. As our scholars and students have researched, studied, and written about, higher education can demonstrate the possibilities and necessities that bring meaningful sustainability. We need to go further and educate, demonstrate, and engage in a robust and thoughtful vision with both short- and long-term steps to simultaneously confront societal issues.

Allegheny College is calling on the higher education community to join our commitment to climate action. None of us can do this alone. Our goal is to join forces to dramatically address the impact of our environmental footprints on our campuses and surrounding communities and to educate future environmental and business leaders to create and implement sound, participatory, long-term solutions that help develop new local and regional renewable resources.

Some ways to get started

Allegheny College has developed six action items we urge other institutions of higher learning to join us in embracing to the extent that their resources, governance, and structure allow. Many of the areas that need our attention are integral to campus operations, faculty and student research and engagement, and inclusion of communities that have traditionally been marginalized on our campuses and in our surrounding communities.

We invite any higher education leader to join us and other colleges and universities by partnering with organizations such as We Are Still In, a joint declaration of support for climate action signed by more than 3,900 CEOs, mayors, governors, tribal leaders, college presidents, faith leaders, health care executives, among others; Second Nature, which is committed to accelerating climate action in and through higher education; and the US Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge.

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 other social justice issues.

In the area of operations, you can work toward decarbonizing your campus and becoming carbon neutral sooner rather than later while simultaneously transitioning to campus operations that are carbon free by shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

Allegheny College was the first college in Pennsylvania and the eighth institution of higher education in the US to achieve carbon neutrality. We did so in 10 years without a substantial endowment, a large staff, or a big budget. As we found during Allegheny College’s journey toward carbon neutrality, a great many 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.

Looking at your campus and local community with a focus on resilience can bring design solutions that are inclusive and equitable—for example, housing and transportation that reduce carbon emissions, increase a sense of community, and improve mental and physical health. We have sought to honor our college’s history of more than two centuries while advancing our commitment to sustainability. For example, we recently completed a renovation of the college’s oldest building, which was originally constructed in the 1820s. The renovated building was designed to meet LEED certification standards, including geothermal heating and cooling, even while preserving its historic integrity and incorporating modern technology.

Opportunity for global collaboration

Now the opportunity ahead lies in sharing lessons learned in the symposium with our students, the higher education community, and our local and regional communities. The goal is simple yet ambitious: to leverage our successes in sustainability and carbon neutrality and use them as a lens for understanding and resolving even bigger social and economic challenges facing our world.

One of the biggest takeaways from the symposium is that students need to be prepared to work with communities in ways that are highly collaborative and where academic institutions are not seen as imposing their solutions. Given where we live and work and the communities we serve, we likely have different ideas about how to educate and engage students so they can move the UN SDG goals forward. As environmental and sustainability issues are ever changing, we need to continue learning and evolving as educators to understand the problems, prepare students for new and different sustainability challenges through research projects and internship opportunities, and get students off their campuses and into local communities to engage in these issues.

We think of Allegheny College as a living laboratory that brings to life our values and commitment to sustainability—so it’s not just the Environmental Science and Sustainability Department; it’s the entire institution. That is why we are so passionate about encouraging other higher education institutions and in turn learning from what they are doing.

To paraphrase the great Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti from his treatise on painting, if an artist wants to see something new, he should change where he stands. It sounds simple, but it’s profound. One little change in perspective can change everything. Or, as I am fond of saying, change where you stand and you change what you see. We believe in this approach to education because it encourages and challenges students to examine issues from multiple perspectives. That, in our estimation, is the best way to prepare students to develop novel, innovative solutions to society’s most complex problems.

By bringing together talented minds from across the globe, the WSSD-U conference provided a remarkable opportunity for us to see the world from different perspectives and appreciate the value of different lived experiences. Indeed, the challenge of our generation and of our lifetimes requires global cooperation. If we aren’t collaborating, we become stagnant in envisioning how we can move forward most creatively and effectively. When we do collaborate, we are doing our part to prepare and mobilize a diverse new generation of sustainability leaders to act on the bold climate commitments and solutions our world desperately needs.

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.


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