Chapter 4: The Case for Sustainability: Challenges and Opportunities

by David Finegold, D.Phil.

Posted on December 06, 2018

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Given all of the challenges university presidents face today, focusing on sustainability might seem like a luxury few have time for.

There are several reasons, however, why sustainability will continue to grow in importance for higher education leaders: 

  • Student Demands – 94% of Generation Z indicate that environmental issues are something they view as very important (Cone Communications, 2017); this emphasis will likely intensify along with the accelerating effects of climate change. Colleges that want to attract these students will need to demonstrate they share their commitment to addressing these challenges. 
  • Mission Fit – As global warming’s impact intensifies, sustainability will need to assume an even more central place in a university’s educational, research, and community outreach missions. This begins with ensuring all graduates are well-informed citizens who understand the basic science underlying these issues. Universities also have a vital role to play in partnering with industry and government to develop potential solutions to these planetary challenges. 
  • Bottomline Benefits – Because universities are committed to improving society and evaluate decisions over decades, not just quarters, they have a different perspective than the private sector on sustainable investing. Energy efficiency and renewable power, for example, can offer major long-term reductions in operating costs. 

This chapter will provide a definition of sustainability, explore some of the key strategies that leading universities are taking to become more sustainable, and conclude by looking at some of the emerging issues in the field. It will illustrate these points using Chatham University as a case study. Chatham is one of the top-ranked universities in the world for sustainability (AASHE, 2018), carrying on the legacy of its most famous alum, scientist, author, and environmental activist, Rachel Carson, by establishing the Falk School, the first school devoted to sustainability in a private U.S. university on its new nearly 400-acre campus on the outskirts of Pittsburgh that is purpose-built as a sustainable living-learning community. 

What is Sustainability?
The United Nations’ seminal Brundtland Report (named for its lead author, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland) defined sustainability in a way that aligns closely with how many university presidents see their role as stewards of their own institutions: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN, 1987). The UN has turned this broad statement into a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals that many governments, global corporations, and leading universities have signed on to support. These include commitments on core environmental issues—such as reduction of greenhouse gases, a shift toward renewable energy, and improving the quality of air, water, and land stewardship—along with a set of social justice commitments (reducing poverty, hunger, and income inequality and providing universal education). It is important to note the strong connections among these goals—i.e., ensuring all young women have access to quality education is likely one of the most effective ways to improve the environment, as this is strongly associated with lower birth rates and improved standards of living (Hawken, 2017). 

Perhaps the highest impact area for universities to consider in their sustainability strategy is their approach to energy sources and usage. For many institutions, energy expenses are one of their largest budget items after labor costs, so finding ways to reduce energy demand and switch from fossil fuels to renewables offers exciting potential for a win-win that helps the institution and the planet. The costs of wind and solar power have been falling dramatically (for example, solar fell from over $79/watt in 1976 to $0.41/watt in 2016), with a consequent sharp increase in their rates of adoption (Gore, 2017). As battery costs and storage capacity also continue to improve, the potential for fully renewable electricity solutions is rapidly becoming a reality. 

For many institutions, energy expenses are one of their largest budget items after labor costs, so finding ways to reduce energy demand and switch from fossil fuels to renewables offers exciting potential for a win-win that helps the institution and the planet.  

More than 500 colleges and universities have signed on to Second Nature’s Presidential Climate Commitment to become carbon neutral by 2050 (Chatham was one of the original 50 signatories), with 40 committing to do it by 2020 and four already having met this milestone. Higher education was the first sector to make this collective commitment, and the institutions that have done so produce 47% less carbon pollution and use 27% less energy than non-signatory institutions (Roberts, 2018). Many are doing this with the aid of revolving funds, where the institution has a pool of resources to invest in energy efficiency projects, and then repays the annual costs savings into the fund to be re-invested in future projects (an attractive giving opportunity to donors focused on sustainability). A few, such as Yale and Swarthmore, have gone further, adopting the model that most economists advocate as the most efficient way to address global warming—creating an internal price for carbon that is used to encourage all operating units to conserve energy and serve as a small-scale experiment in the impact of creating a market for carbon emissions. 

At Chatham, we have taken a number of steps to meet our climate commitment: 

  • Installing more than 400 large solar panels that generate 126,000 kilowatt hours annually, enough to power 14 homes for a year. Energy that does not get used feeds back into the public electric grid, and Chatham gets an energy credit for the future. 
  • Creating a geothermal loop system at Eden Hall, consisting of 48 wells that take advantage of the constant temperature of the earth below the surface to provide cooling in the summer and heat in the winter, thus dramatically reducing the energy costs for our buildings. 
  • Solar thermal panels heat the water for both our historic and new Eden Hall campuses, as well as heating a hoop house to enable us to grow all year round. 
  • Replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs that are up to 90% more efficient. 
  • Constructing all new buildings at Eden Hall to LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) Platinum standard, including one of the greenest kitchens in the U.S., where the use of induction heating for cooking (as is more common in Europe) enables much greater energy efficiency. 

Food & Agriculture
Another opportunity for colleges and universities to have a set of win-win outcomes is in their approach to food. For example, promoting vegetarian and vegan dining options, ideally sourced locally, can encourage healthy lifetime eating habits for students and staff, help improve health outcomes, reduce catering costs, and have a positive impact on reducing global warming, since cattle require far more energy inputs than plants and are major producers of methane. Another very simple yet effective step is to eliminate food trays, having individuals instead carry their plates and glasses; by doing so, Chatham saw an immediate 25% reduction in food consumption and waste, which translated into cost-savings and benefits for the environment. Major additional reductions in food waste have been achieved through a partnership that one of our students spearheaded with an innovative local non-profit: 412 Rescue (412 is the Pittsburgh area code). The student recognized that a large amount of prepared food was being disposed of daily while thousands of people in Pittsburgh were short of healthy food. By utilizing the 412 app and leveraging a partnership with Zip car, student or community volunteers are able to take the freshly prepared food to those who need it. The partnership proved so successful that it has been extended to the other local universities, reducing their waste while combatting hunger. 

By eliminating food trays, Chatham saw an immediate 25% reduction in food consumption and waste.  

Chatham has been able to go even further with initiatives in the food area because, like a number of other universities, we are fortunate to have our own fully certified organic farm and solar-heated greenhouses. This allows faculty and students to produce healthy food for the campus and community while experimenting with different sustainable agricultural practices, including: 

  • Growing food hydroponically year-round. 
  • A range of closed-loop aquaculture systems, capable of growing up to 1,000 trout at a time while using the fish waste to fertilize plant growth. Aquaculture is widely seen as the most efficient way to provide protein for the rapidly growing global population, slated to reach over 10 billion people by 2050. 
  • Small-scale mushroom, honey, and maple syrup production expands research areas for students and opportunities for community engagement. 

Air & Soil Quality
Given the legacy of Rachel Carson and her seminal work on DDT, another key sustainability issue that Chatham and other universities are tackling is enhancing soil and air quality. Using proactive soil management, we have been able to eliminate chemical-based pesticides and herbicides since 2000. And composting of campus food waste has both reduced trash going to landfills and enhanced soil quality. We are in the process of introducing other regenerative agricultural practices (e.g. no till, biochar, crop rotations) that can convert CO2 into plant material and soil organic matter, measuring how much potential “carbon farming” has to contribute to greenhouse gas reductions. 

Despite major reductions by Pittsburgh in pollution over the last three decades, poor air and water quality remain two of the biggest environmental challenges the area faces. Our students and faculty have formed a local Climate Reality Chapter (part of Al Gore’s global climate initiative) to work with other local universities and non-profits to monitor the problem, identify the health consequences (such as major increases in asthma in Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods), and advocate for regulations to address the issues. 

Emerging Issues
Along with improvements in these core areas of sustainability, there are a number of related issues that are likely to demand increasing presidential attention in the future. 

There is a growing national student movement advocating that colleges and universities invest their endowments in ways that support a more sustainable future for the planet. Just as divesting from South Africa was seen in an earlier era as a way to put pressure for change on the apartheid regime, the move to remove fossil fuel companies from university portfolios is seen as a way to align the University’s endowment with its core values and to put pressure on greenhouse gas producers and emitters to shift toward more renewable energy sources. As this movement has expanded, it has also broadened its focus to include a range of other indicators under the broad umbrella of sustainability, such as environmental impact, employment practices, health effects (e.g. tobacco firms), or ESG (Environmental, Social Justice, and Corporate Governance). 

The move to remove fossil fuel companies from university portfolios is seen as a way to align the University’s endowment with its core values and to put pressure on greenhouse gas producers and emitters to shift toward more renewable energy sources.  

This pressure may be resisted by some members of the investment committee, who will argue that their primary responsibility as trustees is to produce the highest long-term investment returns to support the University, not to use the endowment to address societal issues. Both Harvard and Stanford, two of the world’s largest endowments, recently made the decision not to divest from fossil fuel companies. For those institutions that do wish to reflect their commitment to sustainability in their endowment, the good news is that there is growing evidence that there is no need for a trade-off between financial and environmental objectives, with socially responsible investment funds matching or exceeding the returns of the wider stock market (see The Intentional Endowment Network ( for excellent resources on sustainable investment strategies and results). 

At Chatham, we have approached this issue in three ways: 1) shifting some equity investments into sustainable funds that have matching risk and return profiles; 2) investing proactively in new, alternative investment vehicles that see opportunities to generate good returns from green investments (i.e. long-term contracts for wind energy supply), and 3) treating it as an educational opportunity to engage with our students to help them understand the complexities of these issues— such as the fact that we don’t own any individual stocks in our portfolio to divest, or the potential benefits of exercising a voice, rather than exit option, to encourage firms to change their behaviors. 

Perhaps the greatest responsibility of college presidents and their boards is ensuring that their institutions are in a position to continue to fulfill their mission to their students and other stakeholders. As Tulane University experienced, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina can pose a sudden and catastrophic threat to a university’s ability to continue to operate. With global warming resulting in more extreme weather events, it becomes imperative that institutions work with their local leaders to plan proactively for how they can help mitigate and respond to these events. 

Perhaps the greatest responsibility of college presidents and their boards is ensuring that their institutions are in a position to continue to fulfill their mission to their students and other stakeholders.  

In the Pittsburgh area, our greatest threat is flooding, as the aging sewage and water infrastructure is unable to cope with extreme rainfall. Chatham has two campuses that are at the top of their local watersheds. We are partnering with local government to come up with greener solutions to the flooding issue, adding more than 70,000 square feet of rain gardens and permeable paving, including those built into parking lots and an outdoor amphitheater, that can capture the water and then release it more slowly to avoid overloading the waste treatment system. Students have also designed a system for rainwater capture that harvests up to 35,000 gallons each year to irrigate the hoop houses and other land on campus. And at Eden Hall we have created man-made wetlands that mimic nature, using a six-step process to treat all of the campus’s wastewater. 

Based on current trends in greenhouse gas emissions, it looks unlikely that the world will make the target of limiting global warming to under the two-degree threshold set at the Paris Accords to try to avoid catastrophic shifts in the climate without significant new innovation and societal-level changes in behavior. Colleges and universities, in partnership with industry and governments, have a crucial role to play in bringing about these changes by developing new technologies—reducing the costs of direct air CO2 capture, perfecting the development of smart grids and clean, autonomous vehicles (Hawken, 2017, 192-3, 30-1 184-6), and helping to educate about, adopt, and disseminate proven existing approaches to reducing CO2 levels, such as smart building technologies, renewable energy, and biochar (ibid, 84-5/96-99, 2-37, 64-5). 

Cone Communications (2017), Gen Z CSR Study: How to Speak Z, Cone Communications, Boston MA, September. 

Gore, A. (2017), The Climate Reality Project Keynote Presentation, Pittsburgh, PA. 

Hawken, P. (ed.) (2017), Drawdown, New York: Penguin Books. 

Roberts, T. (2018), Personal communication with author. 

The United Nations (1987), Our Common Future, Report of the World Commission on Environment & Development (The Brundtland Report), Oxford: Oxford University Press.