As sustainability becomes increasingly relevant in today’s world, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have played an instrumental role in encouraging sustainable development, whether that be through education, research, operations, community partnerships, and more. Although HEIs will be referred to as “universities” in this chapter, all places of higher education are included in this term, including colleges, universities, technical institutions, community colleges, and law schools. The university’s specific role in the world – a typically credible organization that functions like a smaller version of a society – gives it a special opportunity to integrate sustainable practices into its community and inspire and prepare students, faculty, and visitors to make a difference. Universities can reach these goals through a variety of approaches, but change championed by the administration, students and faculty, or a mix of both, referred to as top-down and bottom-up methods, are most common. Although promoting and advancing sustainability at the university level is important, it does come with its challenges, which are also significant to keep in mind. Overall, sustainable universities play an essential role in sustainable development through their pioneering of new practices, their visible place in society, and their education of future generations, giving them a special ability to create and influence change. 

What is a sustainable university?

Because every university is different and therefore addresses sustainability issues differently, there is not a single, one-size-fits-all definition for a sustainable university. This is similar to the fact that there is not a single solution to sustainability issues, but rather a range of diverse answers. Even though the specific ways people describe a sustainable university differ, a sustainable university can be described as an institution that integrates sustainable practices into various areas in their programs, while also encouraging students, faculty, and visitors to consider and reduce the impacts they have on the world (Celikdemir et al., 2017). Not only does a sustainable university implement these practices, but they also provide education for future generations, support research endeavors, and collaborate with external groups to ensure their community is a place that is environmentally, economically, and socially viable to persist into the future (Sonetti, 2016). Another key characteristic of sustainable universities is that they help support sustainable development in their communities and around the world (Bhowmik, 2018). It is also significant to note that sustainable universities are not only focused on diminishing their negative effects on the environment. Instead, they contribute to practices that lead to higher levels of social and economic well-being, both in their community and in the world (“What is a sustainable campus?”). Overall, sustainable universities are institutes that not only encourage and utilize greener ways of life among their students and faculty, but also advance a more equitable and just community for all.

Why are sustainable universities important?

Universities have become increasingly important institutions worldwide. They serve as centers of community life and are neutral organizations which are often viewed as sources of credible knowledge (Bhowmik, 2018; El-Jardali, 2018; Sonetti, 2016). This is significant because they can use this knowledge to collaborate with other external stakeholders and contribute to the development of new solutions for addressing sustainability challenges, which are often extremely complex and embedded in a variety of different systems (Bhowmik, 2018). In addition, they have become leaders when it comes to the implementation of new and innovative solutions. In the case of universities, innovation can entail enhancing any part of their systems, whether that be improving daily functions of the university to maximize efficiency, making new research discoveries, or employing best practices in educating students (Swanger, 2016). For instance, the University of Washington supported research that helped the Health Minister of Rwanda develop a way to provide her citizens with cleaner cooking stoves. This reduced pollution and illness in citizens’ homes (Cauce, 2016). Research and innovation such as this can serve as examples both for other universities and the community at large (Sonetti, 2016).

Universities are often viewed as having a “moral responsibility” to promote sustainable practices because universities provide education for the next generation of young adults who will enter the workforce (Emanuel, 2011). As sustainability issues become more challenging and deeply embedded in our world each day, graduates with a knowledge of the world they live in, and will be faced with in coming years, become incredibly valuable assets (Celikdemir et. al., 2017). Therefore, universities have a “moral responsibility” not just to strengthen environmentally-friendly practices and economically and socially beneficial systems, but also to ensure that their graduates are educated about sustainability topics and understand how they can take action. Tom Kelly, Executive Director of the Sustainability Institute at UNH, suggests that these sustainability issues, and this generation’s reaction to them, will continue to reframe how students learn and what they are being taught at universities – something that they will use to “continuously assess the responsiveness of a university community” (Kelly, 2009). He also notes that graduates’ abilities to respond to these challenges is incredibly significant, and that effective education plays a strong role in cultivating these capabilities.

Furthermore, one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) championed by the UN is directly related to education and ensuring that today’s citizens are properly prepared to function in the ever-changing world. SDG #4 recognizes “the importance of inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all” (Bhowmik, 2018). Targets 4.7 and 4.7.1 of this SDG highlight how the goal can relate to university-level education. The targets propose that all citizens “acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development” so that they can understand ways to encourage environmentally-friendly practices and equity in their communities (“Sustainable Development Goal 4,” 2019). As a result, the sustainable university plays a huge role in its community and the world, both because it serves as an example for other institutions and community members and because it retains a responsibility for educating future generations about how to live properly in the world. These two characteristics show why the university maintains such an unparalleled place in society, and why sustainable universities are so necessary.

Areas that universities can target to be more sustainable

Many scholars have noted that the university functions as a “microcosm of society” and can therefore help predict which innovations might work at a larger level (Brinkhurst et al., 2011; Owens & Halfacre-Hitchcock, 2006; Stephens et. al, 2008). Universities provide education, housing, food, water, healthcare, and more to its student population as well as some of its faculty members and visitors; are centers of social interaction; and make decisions that impact all of its members. There are four primary avenues in which universities can promote sustainability throughout its physical and social spaces.  These four avenues are education, research, operations, and community partnerships, and each of them can function as the center point of a university’s specific sustainability goals.

1. Education

Education describes the efforts to teach undergraduate and graduate students about sustainability so that they can have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to address sustainability challenges in their lives or careers. This work can be carried out by incorporating sustainability content directly into curriculum and by promoting extracurricular activities that increase students’ awareness of sustainability issues and practices.

Incorporating sustainability into the curriculum

There are several strategies that universities can undertake to incorporate sustainability into curriculum. The first one is creating a sustainability-specific course that increases students’ knowledge of sustainability and what they can do to make an impact. It is also important to increase the availability of these courses to students so that prerequisites or choice of major does not prevent them from enrolling. For example, faculty at the University of British Columbia found that there were not many sustainability courses available for undergraduate freshman or sophomores. The offered courses were limited to juniors or seniors and were often specific to particular majors, with certain prerequisites that students in other majors would not have completed. After conducting this analysis, the university decided to offer SUST 101, a course open to all students regardless of discipline and year in school (Coops et al., 2015).

Another way to integrate sustainability into the curriculum is by incorporating concepts “across the curriculum” and infusing them in all courses at a university, regardless of the discipline. For example, Nottingham Trent University advocates for all of its programs to include at least one Sustainable Development Goal. Additionally, The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has created a new general education requirement so that students must take a sustainability course in order to graduate. To accomplish this, sustainability concepts are incorporated into classes in each department so that all students, regardless of major, will learn and better understand these topics (Beyer, 2010).

Finally, creating a sustainability-related major is another way to increase the representation of sustainability in university curriculum. Between 2006 and 2012, sustainability degree programs in the US increased from 1 to 140.  Arizona State University is one institution that offers specific Sustainability degrees; undergraduates can pursue a BA or BS in Sustainability or an accelerated bachelor and master’s program that allows them to graduate with a Masters in Sustainability Solutions (“Undergraduate Degree Programs”). Furman University also provides a degree in Sustainability Science, the only liberal arts college in the US to do so (“Sustainability”).

Co-curricular ways to increase sustainability education

Co-curricular opportunities to increase sustainability education among students can include promoting relevant volunteer activities, student-run organizations, and dorm-based initiatives. The University of Georgia is one institution that has a wide variety of these activities for students interested in sustainability. One volunteer group is “Dawgs Ditch the Dumpster and Donate,” which allows students to donate unneeded furniture, clothing, and other dorm room items at the end of the year instead of throwing them away. These items are then given to nearby nonprofits like the Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, and the Athens Area Humane Society (“Sustainability: Living Green in University Housing”).  In addition, the university has a wide variety of student organizations focused on building student involvement, awareness, and engagement with sustainability. Some of these organizations include the EcoTones, an a cappella group for those interested in music and the environment; Food2Kids, which holds fundraisers and spreads awareness to better support children affected by food insecurity; and the Palm Oil Project, which builds awareness surrounding palm oil harvesting and the resulting negative impacts. Finally, the university has instituted an EcoReps program in its dormitories. EcoReps are students who serve on their dorm’s hall councils and promote greener ways of living during meetings and events in their halls (“Campus Labs Involvement Network,” 2019).

 Sustainability competencies

Sustainability competencies are the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed for an individual to be able to address sustainability challenges. These competencies include concepts such as systems thinking and ethical thinking (Table 1). Sustainability competencies can be addressed in both curricular and co-curricular efforts, although it is more likely that formal curriculum would be more explicit about doing so.

Table 1. Description of key competencies*


Competency Description Example concepts
Systems thinking Ability to analyze complex systems across different domains (environment, society, economy) and different scales (local to global). Cause and effect & feedback loops.

How decisions affect multiple realms.

Structure and interconnections of subsystems.

Anticipatory (or Temporal) thinking Ability to draw upon and analyze the past in an effort to anticipate possible future societies and environments. Concepts of past, present and future.

Uncertainty and possibility.

Path dependency and inertia.

Extracting lessons from the past.

Normative (or Ethical) thinking Ability to identify, assess and reconcile different values and goals, including a recognition of both personal and societal values. Justice and equity.

Ethical aspects of sustainability issues.

Dissent and power imbalances.

Strategic+ Ability to design and implement transitions to sustainability. Methods of designing, testing and evaluating policies and programs.

Political understanding.

Governmental processes and timelines.

Interpersonal Ability to comprehend, motivate, enable, related to and communicate across diverse individuals, political systems and organizations. Types and dynamics of collaborations.

Strengths and limitations of cooperation.

Communication strategies.

Facilitating exchange across diverse cultures and social groups.

*Drawn from Wiek et al. 2011 and Engle et al. 2017; +From Wiek et al. 2011 only


2. Research

Research refers to the work carried out by faculty and students at higher education institutions that allows them to gain a better understanding of specific environmental, economic, and social concepts that relate to today’s sustainability challenges. These studies are performed by researchers from a variety of departments, including humanities, earth sciences, business, engineering, and health management and policy. Research can expand current knowledge about sustainability issues and contribute toward the development of strategies to mitigate these problems (Bhowmik, 2018). The increase of interdisciplinary work and strong faculty and student engagement with sustainability challenges are crucial elements for advancing sustainability research.

Research surrounding sustainability has increased in recent years; sustainability science has now become its own branch of study. In addition, there has been an increase in the amount of peer-reviewed journals dedicated to sustainability, such as the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education and the Journal of Education for Sustainable Development. The Washington College of Law at American University, for example, has its own student-run journal, Sustainable Development Law and Policy, centered on sustainable development (Calder & Dautremont-Smith, 2009).

One specific way that universities can promote this research among their students and faculty is by supporting interdisciplinary work and real-world sustainability projects (Aktas, 2015; Brundiers & Wiek, 2010). This interdisciplinary research is incredibly important for sustainability issues; different disciplines must be linked during this process, because in reality, sustainability challenges involve the interconnectedness of a variety of different subjects (Waas, 2010). One suggestion for supporting this type of work is through funding small, interdisciplinary faculty research groups, where faculty members collaborate on sustainability research projects. Aber and Wake (2009) suggest that the types of research undertaken at universities depends on faculty members’ passions and backgrounds more than administrative decisions. This differs from the other areas of curriculum content, university operations, and community engagement, which are more often tied to choices made by university officials (Aber & Wake, 2009).

Other strategies that universities can use to advance sustainability research include outlining how university-wide research goals can best align with relevant topics and providing awards and other recognition for those who engage with sustainability content (Bhowmik, 2018). Creating a way to map a university’s contributions to the SDGs, whether through an assessment system like STARS or a self-written one, is one objective that the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology hopes to reach (Junior, 2019). In addition, Whitmer et al. (2010) suggest aligning tenure and promotion evaluation with increased faculty engagement with sustainability research topics (Whitmer et al., 2010).  NC State University is one school that already does this, awarding the Green Brick Award to faculty who incorporate sustainability into their curriculum and promoting the importance of sustainability research through STARS, an assessment system that evaluates a university’s level of sustainability (Late, 2017).

3. Operations

A university’s operations can be defined as the everyday services they provide in order to continue functioning properly. Some of these actions include building construction and management, on-campus transportation, waste disposal, energy and water procurement, food system and vendor selection, and acquisition of materials. Considering where and how the university spends money is also relevant (Razman, 2016). Sustainable universities focus on how they can integrate environmentally, economically, and socially beneficial practices into their everyday tasks. This can be seen by encouraging green building design, greener transportation, recycling, and proper energy and water management (Calder & Dautremont-Smith, 2009; Patrick, 2008). A university’s decisions can also incorporate sustainability practices through their acquisition of items like food and materials from local vendors, which would enrich their town’s economy and create partnerships with nearby farmers or other community members. Making more sustainable choices campus-wide can benefit the entire university population as well as nearby residents; for instance, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making nutritious food choices can have positive impacts on the health of many students, faculty, and visitors (Razman, 2016).

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one important way universities can become more sustainable. Some approaches to accomplish this include creating meters on all types of buildings to track their efficiency in terms of electricity and water. Another strategy is to use renewable energy sources. Finally, universities can reduce emissions from vehicles on campus by incorporating electric vehicles into their on-campus shuttle bus system, implementing bike-share programs, and organizing carpooling programs (Patrick, 2008). The University of New Hampshire is one institution that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They created a combined heat and power (cogeneration) plant in 2005 that is fueled by methane gas emitted from a landfill in Rochester, NH. The plant lowers the campus’s overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, helping UNH environmentally as well as socially allowing it to serve as an example for other universities (Chamberlin & O’Keefe, 2009).

Another significant way to integrate sustainability into a campus’s daily functions is to reduce campus waste generation and contribution to landfills. Many universities hold donation programs at the end of the year, where students can donate unwanted items to nonprofit organizations or to future incoming college students. Other strategies include banning the usage of plastic bags and plastic water bottles on campus, building student awareness of recycling and composting through demonstrations, and placing more recycling bins in buildings and classrooms (O’Connor, 2013; Patrick, 2008). UC Berkeley is one university that is hoping to achieve a zero waste goal by 2020. Currently, the university diverts 54% of waste from the landfill, and use recycling and composting programs to minimize their environmental impacts..

Food systems are also an important way to recognize a university’s commitment to sustainability. Strategies that are commonly used include locally sourcing food, reducing chemical pesticide use, purchasing goods from fair trade organizations, creating organic kitchens, composting food waste, and encouraging diners to avoid using trays (Barlett, 2011; Patrick, 2008). Sterling College incorporates locally-sourced foods and greener farming practices into their campus operations; The Real Food Challenge selected this dining program as the top campus dining system in the United States for three years in a row (“Sustainable Sterling,” 2020). Sterling grows 20% of their food, with students playing a major role in the process, as they help harvest food items at campus gardens and greenhouses. Chemical pesticides are never used, and vending machines and disposable flatware are not found anywhere at the university. The food that Sterling does not produce themselves is locally sourced from nearby farms, making up 54% of their total food supply. Finally, students are heavily involved in every step of the process; besides helping grow the food, they also help prepare it alongside personal chefs (“The Sterling Kitchen,” 2020).

4. Community Partnerships

Community partnerships refers to a university’s collaboration with external partners in their community and society. Strategies for partnering with the community include hosting lectures or events on sustainability topics, collaborating with decision makers and other key stakeholders on specific issues, and engaging with other universities to learn and work with them (Bhowmik, 2018). Working with local stakeholders can come in the form of developing solutions and best practices for improved energy efficiency, the creation of smart grids, and the usage of renewable technology, among others (Trencher et al., 2013). For instance, the University of British Columbia created a partnership between graduate students and the City of Vancouver through their Greenest Scholars program. Students worked with city mentors to achieve sustainability goals, including obtaining funds for the construction of charging stations for electric cars, creating a Tree Keepers program to educate residents about planting more trees, and establishing a focus on the importance of local food in community center kitchens (Munro et al., 2016).

Partnering with community members or organizations is beneficial because sustainability issues require people from a variety of backgrounds to work together to increase the likelihood that a problem will be addressed adequately (Trencher et al., 2013). Because knowledge is more likely to be used if it is relevant and trusted in the community, these university-community partnerships help transform academic knowledge to local action (SMatson, 2016; Schloss, 2009).

Another institution that utilizes community partnerships to help provide solutions for sustainability problems is Penn State. Their program, the Sustainable Communities Collaborative, connects faculty and students from a variety of different disciplines with community members. Together, they collaborate on real-world projects, like solar design applications, compost expansion programs, and stormwater runoff analysis. Community partners include the nearby Bellefonte Area School District, ClearWater Conservancy, and the local YMCA. These partnerships allow students to gain real-world experience while also providing guidance to local community organizations regarding the incorporation of sustainable practices (“Sustainable Communities Collaborative”).

Bottom-up vs. top-down approaches

Sustainability can be advanced at a university through both bottom-up and top-down approaches. Jason Gallup, the Student Programs Director at the Office of Sustainability at University of Wisconsin – Madison, defines the top-down approach as a way to “force behavior change through policy,” while the bottom-up method attempts to “influence policy through behavior” (Gallup, 2018). Policies, regulations, and other top-down decisions come from the administration and leaders at universities, while bottom-up influences come mainly from student-led campaigns. For instance, top-down university policies can come in the form of banning goods like plastic straws and plastic bags from their campuses, like the policy the California State Universities implemented in 2019 (Chapin, 2019). Bottom-up effects can be inspired by student-led action, such as Earth Weeks. At some universities, these engagement opportunities provide films, guest speakers, and other activities focusing on sustainability issues in the hopes of affecting change (Helferty, 2009). Other scholars reflect that the faculty and staff of a university provide a “middle-out” approach to complement these top-down and bottom-up approaches (Brinkhurst et al., 2011).

Many scholars and institutions report the importance of using a combination of both top-down and bottom-up approaches. Student-led campaigns need the administrative support in order to function in the longer term and accomplish the goals they are setting out. On the other hand, administrators and faculty members need a certain amount of student and faculty buy-in and respect in order to create change (Brinkhurst et al., 2011; Filho et al., 2019a; Filho et al., 2019b).

External benchmarks/rating systems

There are numerous external rating systems that help determine how sustainable a university is, which allows universities to track their progress in meeting their sustainability goals and compare their practices with others. These assessments also provide them with the opportunity to share these best practices with key administrators, external partners, and other community members. Analyzing the systems can help them plan where they want to go next and what the best steps could be for achieving their goals (Findler et al., 2019).  These types of assessments have been in place for over ten years, and are used not only in the United States but internationally as well (Sonetti, 2016).

Some tools that are commonly used include GreenMetric, STARS, and the Sierra Club “Cool School” rating:

1. GreenMetric

GreenMetric is based in the University of Indonesia and ranks universities all over the world. This assessment requires universities to answer survey questions about their education, energy, infrastructure, setting, transportation, waste, and water. They also ask universities about their sustainability regulations and communications. This tool is reported to be available and open to universities worldwide, with the opportunity to be consistently updated and revised based on users’ recommendations. However, GreenMetric does not incorporate the social aspect of sustainability very heavily into their criteria, mainly focusing on the environmental pillar (Sonetti, 2016; “Welcome to UI GreenMetric,” 2019).

2. STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System)

The STARS assessment, carried out through the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, allows US and Canadian institutions all around the world to self-report their sustainability efforts (Sonetti, 2016; “STARS: The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System,” 2019). Their Sustainable Campus Index is released annually, focusing on categories such as buildings, campus engagement, energy, food and dining, transportation, waste, water, and more. They award bronze, silver, gold, and platinum seals to universities depending on how many points they receive in various categories of sustainability. This highlights the top universities overall as well as the top ranked institutions in each category. A 2013 study comparing this with three other assessment systems rated STARS as the best tool to recognize and track sustainable practices (Findler et al., 2019). However, STARS does not include any indicators related to the economic pillar of sustainability, and though it has some criteria that reference social sustainability, it fails to address human rights specifically (Bullock & Wilder, 2016).

3. Sierra Club Cool School

The Sierra Club’s Cool School rating targets universities in Canada and the US; they useSTARS scores as a jumping-off point to rank their top schools. They send a second survey to participating schools, asking them what they have done to prevent their campus from using and contributing to fossil fuel usage. Also, their scores give specific categories increased weight, such as air and climate and public engagement, because those factors align directly with the Sierra Club’s values (“Cool Schools 2019 Methodology,” 2019). However, Bullock & Wilder (2016) note that the Sierra Club does not include categories related to research in their scoring process. In addition, the “Cool Schools” rating, while being a recognized source for evaluating higher education institutions nationwide, is one of the least thorough assessment systems (Bullock & Wilder, 2016).


Although it is incredibly beneficial for universities to integrate sustainability into their education, research, operations, and community partnerships, there are nevertheless challenges in doing so. According to student leaders at Canadian universities, the greatest challenge for incorporating sustainability into universities is finances. If there is a minimal availability of funding from the government, then the university’s budget and therefore their capability to invest in more sustainable practices will decrease. For instance, one respondent noted that there was student interest in entirely removing vending machines that sold bottled water from their university campus. However, those vending machines bring the university money, and if funding is an issue, then administrators may be less inclined to remove them (Elliott, 2013).

In addition, some universities do not have particular committees and offices dedicated to pursuing sustainability and monitoring specific progress, which makes it difficult to research and implement sustainable practices.  If there is a specific role for managing sustainable initiatives on campus, it is only useful if the responsibilities and duties are clearly defined, which is not always the case (Avila et al., 2017).

In terms of education, one study found that sustainability and the SDGs were not always incorporated in coursework because it proved difficult to align them with the course content. Many professors did not have training in this field and how they could best include it in their courses (Filho, 2019b). Another potential barrier is the fact that universities often rigidly structure their departments and programs, leaving little room for interdisciplinary work. Even though sustainability research has suggested that interdisciplinary work is necessary in order to properly educate students and prepare them to tackle sustainability issues, some faculty members believe that it is more useful for students to focus on one field of study first (Moore, 2005).

Finally, minimal support from university administrators in terms of prioritizing sustainability initiatives on campus is another major barrier for implementing these practices. A study carried out by Avila et. al (2017) noted that this was the largest barrier according to 172 universities worldwide, suggesting that many key top-level administrators may not understand why sustainability is necessary. This lack of comprehension may make it difficult for them to recognize how their school can use sustainability practices to improve environmental, economic, and social conditions.  Another study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario found that faculty, staff, and other university members thought that green buildings did not make sense financially. A lack of understanding of sustainability issues among university staff and concern about finances can prevent universities from promoting sustainable development on their campuses (Richardson, 2007).

 Case Study – UC Irvine

The University of California, Irvine was named the most sustainable US campus in 2019 by the Sierra Club “Cool School” rating (Vasich, 2019).  Also, UCI is the only university that has scored in the top ten “Cool Schools” for ten years in a row. Unless otherwise noted, all of the information for this section is from UCI’s “Sustainability” page.

1. Education

According to Wendell Brase, UCI’s Associate Chancellor for Sustainability, 85% of departments on campus offer courses that are relevant to sustainability in some way. There are over 200 different faculty members who engage with sustainability challenges, whether through instruction or research (Brase, 2018a). Proposed Sustainability Learning Outcomes also encourage students to recognize sustainability issues and gain a greater comprehension of what they are and how to address them by graduation.

Interdisciplinary work is also promoted at UCI; faculty members have personal connections and knowledge of what faculty in other departments are working on, which helps students understand the interconnectedness present in different disciplines and the world (Brase, 2018b). There are 27 different sustainability-related student organizations on-campus as well, including the ASCUI Food Security Commission, Net Impact, and Students for Global Peacebuilding, so that students can engage with sustainability content outside of the classroom.

2. Research

Sustainability-relevant topics are studied at almost 50 centers and institutes within UCI. Interdisciplinary research is also largely visible there; the Salton Seas Project, for example, allowed students and faculty to examine environmental, economic, and social challenges at the Salton Sea in California as a result of increased saline in the waters. Engineering students studied ways to reduce salt buildup in the sea, social ecology students evaluated the resulting effects on real estate, and business students investigated what the salt market economy looked like (“The Salton Sea Initiative”).

3. Operations

The Smart Lab system is one major way that UCI has incorporated sustainability into its campus operations. Labs require an enormous amount of energy to function, much more so than typical campus buildings. UCI researchers utilize sensors and software to customize how much energy is brought to their labs based on timing, number of people in the space, and current air conditions (Brase, 2018b). These sensors also provide more protection for lab workers, recording whether there is a safety issue such as a chemical leak (Lawhon, 2012). This system has been adopted by the US Department of Energy, and five government labs now have Smart Lab components (Brase, 2018b).

In addition, sustainability is integrated into UCI’s dining programs. Many of their dining locations are zero-waste, and 32% of their food is sustainably sourced. UCI also opened a food pantry on campus, the Fresh Basic Needs Hub, designed to offer free food items to students who need them; the hub provides seeds and recipes as well to inspire students to grow and cook their own food (Pomranz, 2017).

4. Community Partnerships

Finally, UCI creates connections with its local community to provide solutions to a range of sustainability challenges. One of these projects is the ¡Plo NO! Santa Ana project, which connects faculty and students from UCI’s School of Public Health with community leaders to research lead toxins present in Santa Ana soil and what can be done to prevent this. UCI’s Community Resilience Projects also create a variety of opportunities to engage with external partners, including the Climate Refugee Stories. This partnership with the Freedom for Immigrants organization produces interviews, artwork, images, and more that depict the lives of people affected by climate change (Climate Refugee Stories).

Chapter Summary

Universities play a major role in advancing sustainability education and research, as well as pioneering new technologies and creating meaningful community partnerships. Their place in society gives them a special opportunity to not only integrate green practices into their communities, but also contribute positively to their local and regional economy and the lives of nearby populations. Universities worldwide are understanding the need to transition to more sustainable methods of living, and the numerous examples given in this chapter illustrate how these include everything from designing sustainability classes to planting an on-campus garden to source local food from. Moreover, the university plays a key role in society that not many other institutions can replicate; they are responsible for preparing their graduates to live in the world as productive members of society who can contribute positively to the world. As environmental crises grow more complex every day and economic and social systems around the world are struggling, it is even more important for universities to embrace sustainability, both because of their ability to create and inspire change and because of their commitment in sending their students into the world to make a difference.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Why is it important for universities to encourage and promote sustainability?
  2. What are some ways that universities can increase sustainability education for their students?
  3. What is the difference between top-down and bottom-up approaches in implementing sustainable practices?
  4. What is one major barrier that universities face when incorporating sustainability into their campuses?
  5. The University of California at Irvine integrates sustainability into their campus in a variety of ways, and supports the environmental, economic, and social pillars of sustainability. For each of these three categories (environmental, economic, and social), provide one example of a strategy that UCI has adopted. 


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