Community Engagement Beyond Campus Borders: UNU-IAS at AASHE

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Annual Conference and Expo was held in Baltimore, USA, 9-12 October. The theme of this year’s conference Beyond the Campus emphasized the service role higher education institutions play in their local/regional communities and in the global community in the production and dissemination of knowledge.

In a variety of workshops, panels, and presentations different topics were discussed. Examples included undergraduate research on energy efficiency, sustainable food procurement policies, and how campus offices coordinate with municipal governments on sustainable policy.

AASHE continues its role as a higher education network focused on empowering faculty, staff, administrators and students to be change agents for sustainability. The network tracks its members progress towards sustainability in the areas of operations, curriculum, research, and community connection through the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). The system also allows institutions to report on innovations for sustainability. This is the 11th Annual Conference with membership now at almost 1,000 reporting institutions. While membership is still concentrated in North America, new members from Ecuador, Greece, Japan, and the Netherlands are now reporting under the STARS framework.  The other tool under discussion was the SuLiTest (Sustainability Literacy Test) by the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI)[1]. The SuLiTest an international online tool to assess Sustainability Literacy.

The need for academia to be an advocate for sustainability was emphasized in the opening keynote speech by Marc Edwards, Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech. Edwards led the research team that uncovered the water quality problems in Washington DC and in Flint, Michigan. Not only did the researchers collect and disseminate data on water contamination in both cities, but they also challenged the governments delayed response to the results. His work lead to several federal laws being passed in the US, to protect the public from lead in drinking water. He spoke at length about how modern incentive structures in higher education make it difficult for researchers to communicate with the public, and that it was the responsibility of tenured faculty to stand up against this trend.

The final keynote, delivered by Marcia Chatelain, Professor of History at Georgetown University, described the tragic events in Ferguson[2], and discussed her efforts to discuss systemic racism openly and create a crowdsourced syllabus on race, history, civil rights, and policing.

Throughout the conference, the connections between social and environmental sustainability were stressed, putting emphasis on universities’ responsibility beyond the campus.

Kim Smith, coordinator of RCE Greater Portland, organized a workshop on connecting higher education to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Kim emphasized that every faculty should work towards reaching at least one of the 17 goals. Philip Vaughter, researcher at the Education for Sustainable Development Team, UNU-IAS, explained how RCEs themselves, through the multistakeholder approach, provided a mechanism for communities to come together to address sustainability issues.

During the following panel discussion, Philip, Kim and Jean-Christophe Carteron of HESI focussed on how universities can engage with communities, using tangible programmes, networks, assessment tools, and other outreach efforts. Often students wished to engage with communities, but universities struggle to find ways on how to do it. One interesting example was the project ‘From Bird Houses to Tiny Houses: Courage Changes Everything!’ from Linda Pope at Portland Community College. The project of building a small house for a homeless community produced a community-building learning process for students and local residents, with practical, long-lasting benefits for the City of Portland.

Overall the conference and workshops raised much interest in the SDGs and their connection to higher education, as well as the RCE model as a mechanism for engaging beyond campus borders.

[1]HESI is an alliance of United Nations partners (including United Nations University) and higher education institutions and networks (including ProSPER.Net). The organization’s objective is to educate current and future decision makers so that they can play a key role in building more sustainable societies.

[2] The Ferguson unrest involved prostests and riots the day after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014.