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Business Officer Magazine

Student-Led Sustainability

Given the green light, students eagerly work with staff and faculty to manage the business of eco-initiatives.

By Apryl Motley

Student Stars

Emilie Brill-Duisberg, a senior at the University of Arizona, Tucson, focused her institution’s attention on water usage. To address concerns about water scarcity in Arizona’s dry climate, Brill-Duisberg led efforts to create an independent study course with the goal of implementing a rainwater-harvesting project on campus. “Once we had surveyed our site and created a design for the project, we assembled a workforce of students willing to do the manual labor of digging ditches and berm-building.” An unexpectedly high number of committed students came forward to help, demonstrating the substantial student interest in sustainability at the university, says Brill-Duisberg. The student-created course has now been approved as part of the university’s official curriculum.

Similarly, Andrew Robert de Coriolis drove acceptance of alternative transportation practices at Ohio’s Oberlin College where de Coriolis is a senior. He began by conducting extensive research about the institution’s transportation footprint and the potential of using alternatively fueled campus vehicles at a lower ecological, economic, and social cost. His initial research served as the starting point for discussions with the college’s purchasing director about which departments were in the market for new vehicles. Upon learning that the security department needed to purchase a new vehicle, de Coriolis approached key staff about buying a hybrid car for the department’s fleet. The department did so based on his recommendation and later purchased two electric club carts. Such requests by de Coriolis also influenced the purchasing department to hire a full-time intern to research green products. Buoyed by these successes, de Coriolis went on to plan—and launch at Oberlin—Ohio’s first car-sharing program.

At the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon (USS), Saskatchewan, Canada, Jeh Custer, a third-year student, was instrumental in facilitating a baseline sustainability assessment of the institution’s student union. A research project led him to organize various student groups focused on environmental activism under one umbrella—the Campus Sustainability Network (CSN). “I saw the importance of students having a united voice as well as enhancing opportunities to make projects more effective through improved communication and collaboration,” says Custer. Through CSN, Custer served as an advisor to the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union and initiated the ratification of a sustainability policy introducing the concept of a sustainability management system. In the summer of 2006, USSU—which operates as a business independent of the university—hired Custer as a sustainability auditor. His job was to develop an annual reporting structure to internally audit social and environmental sustainability and facilitate an assessment of operations. The assessment involved a requirement that 20 USSU staff members submit annual sustainability progress reports.

As demonstrated by these campus stars—each recognized last fall as student sustainability leaders by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)—students have the energy and commitment required to implement strategies that create results. Here’s how several colleges and universities are galvanizing students’ muscle and mind power and encouraging their eco-initiatives.

Maximizing People Power

Majoring in Sustainability

Opportunities for student and administration leaders to work collaboratively on campus sustainability solutions should become more prevalent as greater numbers of ecology-minded students graduate into professional campus roles. Consider Matthew St. Clair’s path to the University of California’s Office of the President. St. Clair earned a master’s degree in energy and environmental policy from UC Berkeley and now serves as the UC system’s sustainability specialist, a position created for him after he graduated.

Prior to joining the staff, St. Clair helped lead the student campaign for sustainability, which convinced the board of regents to pass a green building and clean energy policy in 2003. Sustainable transportation practices and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions were later incorporated into the policy, which commits the university system to reducing its dependence on nonrenewable energy sources.

While there is still much work to do on UC’s 10 campuses, St. Clair encourages students to give credit where credit is due. “One of the first things that I have to do is explain to students the importance of treating the administration with respect and acknowledging its efforts in this area,” says St. Clair. He believes that staff and administrators want to do more but are limited by time and financial resources. “Students can help address these barriers,” says St. Clair. In one example, UC Berkley’s dining services hired a student intern to research the process for certifying the university’s dining halls as green businesses.

St. Clair’s position is focused on institutionalizing the momentum around sustainability issues. His first strategic goal was to help all UC campuses establish chancellor’s advisory committees on sustainability. All the committees established thus far have student representatives, and UC Berkeley’s committee even has a student cochair. Many more students are active in organized eco-efforts on UC campuses through subcommittees and working groups.

According to St. Clair, “Students really are the drivers of sustainability efforts. They push to get things done.” In fact, St. Clair suggests that this constant pressure from students will require universities to build sustainability into their missions and core practices—and ultimately into their budgets. “Making campuses more sustainable doesn’t have to mean more money. Instead, it may mean the reallocation or reorganization of funds.”

Student success in bringing about positive change also hinges on having an appropriate avenue for requesting change on campus. “Creating positions like mine helps prevent student protests,” says St. Clair. “Students now have a built-in advocate.”

From research and policy implementation to curriculum development and systems audits, initiating a comprehensive eco-strategy takes significant human resources. On campuses where internships and work-study programs are available, students are fulfilling many of the major roles needed to make green policies more than good intentions. In fact, due to the ever-increasing campus interest in these areas, student internships and activism can lead to full-time employment (see sidebar, “Majoring in Sustainability”).

“Using student interns on campus is something that we should all do more of. This is a real untapped opportunity at colleges and universities around the country,” says Sheri J. Tonn, vice president for finance and operations at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, and chair of AASHE’s board of directors. Tonn’s institution uses student interns in dining services to help buy local and organic products.

At the University of Arizona, Brill-Duisberg realized that students would have to provide much of the physical labor needed to launch her university’s rainwater harvesting project. While the project was getting underway, Brill-Duisberg’s typical day began with four hours of physical work at the site with other students. She created weekly work plans and arranged for delivery of the heavy machinery needed to complete the group’s work. Brill-Duisberg was also instrumental in forging an excellent working relationship with facilities management personnel. “Students are driving attention to sustainability issues,” she says, “but it’s not fair to minimize the faculty and staff contributions—because we couldn’t do anything without them.” She attributes the initial effectiveness of her efforts and their ongoing progress to establishing cooperation among faculty, staff, and students. That triumvirate resulted from Brill-Duisberg demonstrating the sincerity of students’ intention to do a good job and from developing a clearly articulated approach for communicating with administration.

Students have most impact when they approach their efforts as a way to help the university provide better services, suggests de Coriolis. “Most staff don’t have the time, background, or resources to address key sustainability issues,” he says. “Students have to be the backbone for the effort.”

As for administrators, it’s important to do what you can to support student leaders and keep the momentum going, says Tonn. “What students want to do is not necessarily what I want to do, but it’s important to gently guide them and continue working toward a comprehensive sustainability strategy.” Tonn stresses the importance of students, faculty, and staff working as equals in this process. Pacific Lutheran’s campus sustainability committee, for example, meets once a month, giving all stakeholders an opportunity to voice concerns and share solutions. Says Tonn, “These are issues that everyone can rally around in a positive way.”

Cashing In

As sustainability efforts are gaining traction on campuses, something else is becoming clear: It takes money to save money and resources. As campuses grow greener, they do operate more cost effectively; however, such efforts take time and require financial investment from students as well as administration. One approach that’s been implemented on several campuses is to increase student activity fees to fund eco-programs. “Use of student funds sends a clear message to everyone on campus that sustainability is a student priority,” says Tonn. “While it’s easier for the administration to come up with big bucks for capital projects, students must commit money up front, too.”

Brill-Duisberg understands the importance of demonstrating financial commitment. University of Arizona students raised money for their project by applying for grants. “Once we were able to show that we were bringing dollars to the table,” she says, “facilities management and other departments were willing to contribute funds as well.” She also secured in-kind donations to supply plants, rock, and gravel. “We approached the donors and explained that our project was federally funded by a grant from the U.S. Geological Survey,” says Brill-Duisberg. To thank contributors, signage at the site will publicly recognize donors.

Going for the Green

In recent years, many student-focused awards, grants, and eco-competitions have been launched to promote the greening of college and university campuses. Funding from these sources can supplement student and institutional financial commitments to sustainability.

  • “Break the Addiction Challenge,” sponsored by the Campus Climate Challenge and thinkMTV, encourages institutions to achieve 100 percent clean energy;
  • Campus Progress Action Grants, sponsored by the Center for American Progress, support students’ education and advocacy campaigns on their campuses or in their communities;
  • Chill Out: Campus Solutions to Global Warming, sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Ecology Program, recognizes innovative ideas for reversing global warming through energy efficiency, clean energy, alternative transportation, and habitat restoration;
  • Ecoimagination Challenge, sponsored by General Electric and mtvU, encourages viable approaches to campus greening and awards the winning institution a grant to bring its green dream to life;
  • P3: People, Prosperity, and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, awards grants to student teams for institution initiatives that address environmental issues while providing economic opportunities;

At Oberlin, de Coriolis developed cost comparisons between standard vehicles and hybrids. “Costs and savings are really about what you value,” he says. “The security department was concerned about the quality and comfort of the [hybrid] vehicle. By making comparisons, I was able to show them savings in up-front costs and fuel costs without sacrificing those elements.” By de Coriolis’s estimates, the department could save between $750 and $1,000 per semester in fuel expenses in addition to taking advantage of a federal tax credit available for hybrid vehicle purchases. However, he acknowledges the difficulty of comparing actual fuel cost savings as the necessary data had not been collected for vehicles purchased previously, and he notes that, moving forward, better data will need to be kept.

At USS, as Custer’s interest in environmentally-friendly practices grew and he became more aware of the “massive purchasing power” of colleges and universities, he believed his biggest impact for the local community would come from influencing practices on his campus. Much of his work at the University of Saskatchewan has focused on developing tools for assessing and measuring campus eco-initiatives. Once annual sustainability progress reports are received from various departments—including operations and finance, food and beverage, human resources, and facilities—they will be consolidated into a comprehensive report and used to develop priorities for an implementation plan. This plan will include feasibility studies to determine costs, savings, marketing potential, and time lines. The institution’s sustainability management system is certain to set a precedent for student unions across North America. Custer, who is now in a paid position for the Sierra Youth Coalition’s Sustainable Campuses Project, is developing a guide for student unions that will be available online as one of the coalition’s sustainable-campus resources.

While students understand the realities of budgeting and are conducting much of the research needed to demonstrate cost savings, their bottom-line demand is that sustainability efforts must go on—somehow, some way. For example, access to local and organic food at campus dining venues is becoming a normal expectation among students across the United States. As Brill-Duisberg points out, students are a university’s clientele. Segments of that clientele who feel strongly about environmental issues may take their business elsewhere if a campus doesn’t make such initiatives a priority.


An important partnership is being forged as students push for action and institutional leaders channel students’ enthusiasm and energy into positive outcomes.

“Students and administrators have a great deal to learn from each other about sustainability,” says Tonn. “As for my peers, I think that we can learn three important lessons from student-led initiatives: Students can be trusted to come up with good ideas; we need to think outside the box; and there are real, honest-to-goodness cost savings.”

As long as both groups are willing to listen to each other and work together, progress will continue, says Brill-Duisberg. “This is a grassroots movement that reflects the motivation and interest of the student body. But we need the effort to work top down as well as bottom up in order to achieve widespread change.” Her advice for chief business officers: “There is value in facilitating student efforts. Work with students to make sure that funding is available, or make sure faculty and staff with relevant expertise are available to them.” Then, she continues, “get the students involved, and run with it.”


What initiatives have your students undertaken in addressing environmental issues? What advice can you give when it comes to providing support and staff collaboration to help build momentum for such projects? E-mail:  

The key for de Coriolis is the evidence of leadership. “Sustainability is not necessarily at odds with the bottom line. At the same time, he continues, campus leaders can’t always make decisions based just on financial implications. “Institutions of higher learning are the role models for a sustainable future.” One difficulty with demonstrating leadership may be that an ecology-minded culture can go against institutional history and practice, says de Coriolis. In his experience, however, staff and administrators have listened to and discussed alternatives to current practices. “Generally, people are very interested in these topics once you explain them in a way that is relevant to their needs,” he says. “Ongoing education through awareness campaigns will be critical to keeping sustainability issues on the minds and in the hearts of students, faculty, and staff.”

For Custer, “sustainability is about strategically designing the community in which we want to live now and in the future.” He acknowledges that students and administrators must work cooperatively for significant progress to be made. “As much as the sustainability movement is student-driven, the greatest successes occur when the university administration takes ownership of these issues,” says Custer. “You have to have the people in place; then you can work on policy, planning, and projects.”

APRYL MOTLEY, Columbia, Maryland, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.