Higher Education’s Purpose: A Healthy, Just, and Sustainable Society

At colleges and universities, tomorrow’s business leaders, architects, product designers, policy-makers, schoolteachers, economists, etc. learn about how the world works and how things get done. To date, they’ve learned how to do this in an unsustainable way.

This blog is part of our Inspired Ethonomics series. It’s co-authored by Second Nature President Anthony Cortese and Senior Fellow Georges Dyer.


At colleges and universities, tomorrow’s business leaders, architects, product designers, policy-makers, schoolteachers, economists, etc. learn about how the world works and how things get done. To date, they’ve learned how to do this in an unsustainable way. But a change is coming, with hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities transforming the way they teach and the choices they pursue in research and operations. Simply put, they are preparing students for 21st century citizenship.

The presidents of more than 665 colleges and universities in all 50 states, representing a student population of over 5.6 million, have signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC)–an institutional pledge to integrate climate and sustainability into education and research, and to pursue climate neutrality in campus operations. Green MBAs are proliferating. There has been an explosion of green job programs at community colleges. And even that dismal ‘science’ of economics is getting a fresh look as the financial meltdown has people questioning old assumptions and giving ecological economics the serious consideration it deserves. (See Fast Company‘s Definition of Ethonomics [eth-uh-nom-iks])

Students and businesses alike see the need for education for sustainability. Sixty-six percent of the nearly 16,000 college applicants and parents surveyed by the Princeton Review last year said they would value having information about a college’s commitment to the environment in making their decision. Seventy-eight percent of businesses surveyed by the National Environmental Education Foundation said the value of environmental and sustainability knowledge as a hiring factor will increase over the next five years.

This is no fad.

We’re facing huge social and health challenges worldwide. Twenty-five percent of the world’s population consumes 70% to 80% of the world’s resources. Even before Wall Street imploded, 3.14 billion people lacked safe sanitation and lived on less than $2.50 per day. Humanity’s greatest challenge is figuring out how all people will have thriving communities and economic opportunity in a world that will grow to nine billion people and to increase economic output four to five times by 2050.


To get there, we need to redesign an economy that operates on renewable energy, cradle-to-cradle production (where the concept of ‘waste’ is eliminated), and natural resources that do not outpace their ability to self-regenerate. More than mere environmentalism, it’s about investing in innovation to create an economy that works for everyone without systematically undermining anyone. A growing consensus of business, government, labor, and NGOs agree that a clean, green economy is the only way to restore American economic leadership, create millions of jobs, and deter global health, security, and environmental threats.

Over 200 of the 660+ ACUPCC institutions have already reported climate action plans that are open to public scrutiny. They show how campuses are ramping down energy demand through green building, conservation, and efficiency and creating markets for clean, renewable energy. The ACUPCC is setting precedent and serving as a model for the regional, national, and international climate agreements we need.

Higher education must rapidly accelerate this trend by making a healthy, just, and sustainable society an overarching goal of higher education. Frank Rhodes, former president of Cornell University, suggests that the concept of sustainability offers “a new foundation for the liberal arts and sciences.” Higher education has risen to great challenges before and must do so again–now at great speed..

[Image via alyak / CC BY-SA 2.0]

Anthony D. Cortese is the Founder and President of Second Nature, a national nonprofit organization working to accelerate movement toward a sustainable future by serving and supporting senior college and university leaders in making healthy, just, and sustainable living the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education. Second Nature is the lead supporting organization and Dr. Cortese is the Organizer of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which more than 665 schools have joined as they pursue climate neutrality in their campus operations and educate their students to address climate change upon graduation. Second Nature also runs the Higher Education Associations in Sustainability Consortium as well as the Advancing Green Building in Higher Education initiative, which helps under-resourced and minority-serving colleges and universities to build and renovate sustainably on campus. Dr. Cortese has spent the past four decades working for sustainability and environmental protection, including his time as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection as a Dean at Tufts University.

Georges Dyer is a Senior Fellow at Second Nature, where he focuses on the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and other leadership initiatives. He holds a Master’s in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability from Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden, and a BA from Dartmouth College.