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Business Officer Magazine

Making Sustainability a Value

In these sessions, attendees examined how they can guarantee long-term financial sustainability of the institution, increase efficiency of operations, avoid risks, and generate cost savings.

Big Deal

Climate change and continued strain on the planet's resources could not only drive up the operational costs of colleges and universities, but could threaten human civilization if, as a society, we don't collectively act soon. How can higher education take responsibility for shaping a more sustainability-minded business culture? Several environmental leadership sessions addressed this theme.

In the featured session, "Business Officers and Governing Boards: Leading Innovations for Sustainability in Finance, Operations, and Education," Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said higher education has a chance to play a significant leadership role, though not without broad policy support. Boards must consider the financial and reputational risk of inaction-and this is where chief business officers can provide the necessary data to help trustees understand the scope of these complex issues and the impact of various trade-offs, Legon said. "This must be seen as essential policy making for our time. We don't have time to waste."

Second Nature President Anthony Cortese urged shifting the conversation from a pure focus on environmental concerns to a broader discussion of what we can do to ensure the capacity of the Earth to support a growing human population. "This is really about how 9 billion people can thrive in healthy and strong communities with access to decent living conditions and productive jobs. And higher education most certainly has a role to play in that." One of the biggest challenges ahead is to develop sustainable business models that facilitate and enhance attainment of broader institution goals in ways that transform the entire institution, Cortese said.

Sustainability as Campus Culture

Several other sessions showcased transformational changes already afoot. At the University of Washington, sustainability is quickly becoming ingrained in the UW brand. In the session, "Transformational Infrastructure Planning: The Keystone of Sustainability," copresenters Charles Kennedy, associate vice president of facilities services, and Kirk Pawlowski, assistant vice provost of capital resource planning, outlined UW's comprehensive approach to infrastructure planning not only to leverage available financial resources but also to maximize use of surrounding natural resources, open spaces, and technology applications to integrate building energy systems and utility grids.

Similarly, Arizona State University has embraced an all-inclusive sustainability mind-set as a core value of the institution. In the session, "Embedding Sustainable Business Practices in the Academic Experience," presenters detailed a variety of ASU projects, programs, and activities, including sustainability literacy training for new employees. Organizationally, ASU leadership includes a university sustainability operations officer in addition to a university sustainability practices office of four full-time staff and five interns, a sustainability practices network of more than 150 individuals throughout the university, an oversight council, leadership team, eight thematic working groups, four resource groups, and a working group on carbon neutrality.

At the University of Chicago, a concerted effort is under way to make outcomes of actions evident and instill sustainability as a campuswide value. In the session, "Using Causal Measurement to Connect Sustainability Initiatives With Outcomes," sustainability director Ilsa Flanagan outlined nine performance measures the institution tracks to quantify progress in key areas. Attached to each performance measure is a specific vision and a table of metrics that are routinely tracked and updated. Wherever possible, connections are made among performance measures.

"If we can tie our progress in environmentally preferable purchasing with our progress in waste reduction, we help
others understand the connections between consumption, cost, and waste," Flanagan said. "Ultimately, we want to push beyond the sole goal of saving money to embed sustainability into our broader university values," noted Flanagan.

Return to the conference's main page.