It was nearly 50 years ago—back in 1965—that Middlebury College in Vermont offered the first undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies, and since then it has become a staple, like the rise in majors such as Women’s Studies or Computer Science.
But as more colleges and universities have made campus sustainability a priority, so has sustainability become part of their curriculums. So now, though a student may be a mathematics or English major, their lives can still be affected by the college’s efforts. At the University of Oregon in Eugene, when students run on the school’s treadmills, it sends power back to their grid; Tufts University composts nearly a ton of food daily instead of sending it to landfills; the University of New Hampshire uses food from more than 50 local farms in its dining halls; and students everywhere are finding that a professor’s syllabus will have environmental sustainability entwined into aspects of their class. Several years ago, the Middlebury graduating class even left a gift of nearly $100,000 for future green projects on campus.
Pioneers of this growing trend have also aimed at educating the faculty as well: leading the charge are the Northern Arizona University’s Ponderosa Project and the Piedmont Project at Emory University in Atlanta. Faculty members sign up for workshops, classes, and field trips to help them model a strategy and a “greening of the curriculum” designed to change both the future of the school’s sustainability, and help its graduates become leaders in sustainable efforts, regardless of their chosen careers. And now a student job has sprung up alongside the faculty effort: the role of the “eco rep.” Rather than leading campus tours or working in the kitchen, students can opt to be sustainability watchdogs in their dorms and around campus, with an eye towards conserving energy and decreasing waste. Reportedly, more than 30 schools have implemented these programs to date.
The obvious next step is sustainability coordinators on staff. Like the student eco reps, they are a fast-growing presence, they oversee on-campus operations with an eye to greening the college from a business standpoint, and also to involve faculty and students in their efforts. They often even try to incorporate the local community outside the campus walls, with lectures and seminars on improving local environmental issues. In many cases, these schools are among the biggest employers and presences in their town or city, and their influence may put a positive spin on the eternal quest to improve town-and-gown relations.
For more on campus sustainability initiatives, go to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education at www.aashe.org.