The Campus as Living Laboratory

This blog is part of our Inspired Ethonomics series. It’s co-authored by Second Nature President Anthony Cortese and Senior Fellow Georges Dyer. Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.Chinese Proverb


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

Campus Laboratory

Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.Chinese Proverb

In Part 2 of this series, we pointed to innovative examples of formal education for sustainability at colleges and universities nationwide. Here, we look at how moving towards sustainability in campus operations is making institutions more efficient, saving money, and opening up new opportunities for research and education.

Like all organizations, colleges and universities need to eliminate their direct contributions to unsustainable practices. More importantly, students must experience sustainable living first hand and be involved in helping their schools become powerful role models of sustainable practices for the rest of society. As Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University (ASU), has said of the U.S. higher education sector: “We may only have 2% of the carbon footprint, but we have 100% of the education footprint.”

ASU, a ‘city’ unto itself of 81,000 people, is going carbon neutral by 2025, and they’re already taking great strides with conservation, efficiency, solar power and edible landscapes as this news clip shows. That sends students a strong message.

While campuses are places for learning and experimentation, too often their operations are inefficient and archaic. U.S. campuses have an estimated $36 billion in deferred maintenance–the postponement of upgrades and repairs to buildings and infrastructure. This approach reduces current capital costs but drains operating budgets, and steadily applies pressure to tuition rates and the financial security of the institution. Last April, the Clinton Climate Initiative and the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) made the Case for Investing in Improved Energy Performance on Campus (PDF file).


Many campuses are increasingly seeing the value in thinking longer term, integrating sustainability principles into master plans–a necessary step for remaining competitive and viable. The 667 signatories to the ACUPCC are committed to moving towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in their operations–over 230 have already publicly submitted their climate action plans for doing so.

In November, the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) released a report based on a year’s worth of collaboration with twelve institutions, including Furman University, Lakeshore Technical College, and Yale University, showing how campuses can Accelerate Campus Climate Initiatives and save money in the process by taking a whole-systems approach.

Second Nature’s Advancing Green Building in Higher Education program provides awards to train under-resourced and minority-serving institutions in green building practices, and our Web portal – – focuses on supporting these efforts. Historically Black Colleges & Universities are working with the United Negro College Fund to train staff in green building. Tribal Colleges are active as well–the College of Menominee Nation’s new library, built to LEED Gold standards, has a high-efficiency geothermal HVAC system and a bioswale stormwater retention system.

Community colleges are training students for green collar careers by providing opportunities for real-world, hands-on experience on campus. Cape Cod Community College offers a degree in environmental technology and is aiming for climate neutrality by 2020. Iowa Lakes Community College offers a degree in wind turbine operation and maintenance and is also aiming for net-zero by 2020. Los Angeles Community College District has a $6-billion Sustainable Building Program, which will be responsible for about 90 green buildings across the district’s nine campuses.

These schools are also teaching students the softer skills that go beyond the necessary technical know-how, and are critical for moving towards sustainability. Students who completed the greenhouse gas emissions inventories at Allegheny, Agnes Scott, Middlebury, and Warren Wilson Colleges learned as much about organizational dynamics, diplomacy and politics as they did about emissions coefficients and carbon dioxide equivalency calculations.

The pursuit of climate neutrality by 2011 at Green Mountain College has inspired a new certificate program in green building and renewable energy technology and opened up opportunities for collaboration with the local community in Poultney, Vermont, where faculty and students will research potential for solar, hydro, wind, and geothermal power and help create an energy plan for the town.


By experiencing firsthand the challenges, solutions, and opportunities associated with creating a sustainable campus, tomorrows graduates will be well prepared to help future employers do the same, providing the basis for an economy that will be sustainable for a long time into the future.

Anthony D. CorteseAnthony 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.

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