Home American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment Sustainability in Higher Education: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

Sustainability in Higher Education: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

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In celebration of Earth Day, and in the spirit of giving more than just one day to the consideration of our planet and our impact on it, this is the first in a series of articles which I’ll post this week and into next related to sustainability in higher education.

In September 1962 Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking work, Silent Spring, documenting the negative impact of pesticides on the environment, specifically on birds. The book received nationwide acclaim and landed on the New York Times best-seller list where it stayed for 31 weeks. In 1962, the New York Times wrote of Carson and Silent Spring, “’She tries to scare the living daylights out of us and, in large measure, succeeds.’” The editors of Discover Magazine recently included Silent Spring among its list of the 25 greatest science books of all time. Prior to Carson’s book, environmentalism and sustainability were lofty ideals that had very little concrete application and brought even less sense of collective urgency. As a result of Carson’s book, however, tangible actions were taken (the banning of the harmful pesticide DDT). Carson proved to us all that even the voice of one individual can make a difference and with her voice, given to us through her work, Silent Spring, the modern environmental movement was born.

Through various fits and starts, the American environmental movement has continued to gain momentum. The passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970 was a promising step in the right direction and represented the world’s first national policy on the environment. The NEPA met with resistance in the United States, however, but sparked a larger movement and environmentalism as a discipline and practice began to spread across the globe. National efforts to address environmental problems including climate change became more commonplace and the United Nations established its Environment Programme in 1972 as a result of the UN Conference on the Human Environment. In recent years, despite international criticism regarding the United States’ stance on several international environmental treaties (most notably the Kyoto Protocol) Americans are beginning to see sustainability featured more prominently in their daily lives. Addressing what is arguably the world’s most pressing collective issue will take more than a conscious recycling effort. We must realize that negative changes to the environment impact every aspect of our lives and must be addressed in a holistic and comprehensive fashion. One sector of American life is taking sustainability very seriously – American higher education is leading the march toward promoting sustainability.

As colleges and universities began to consider the impact of their own operations on the environment, they also began to disseminate information about sustainability to their students, either formally or informally. In 2006, as a result of planning sessions among a group of college and university presidents and a representatives from a variety of environmental organizations (including Second Nature and ecoAmerica) held at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference at Arizona State University, 12 devoted college and university presidents outlined what would later become known as the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). By March 2007, 152 college and university presidents (I was one of them) signed the precedent-setting commitment aimed at providing a framework for addressing sustainability in higher education. Today, nearly 700 institutions of higher education have signed the commitment. Each of them has committed to reducing their environmental impact and working toward eventually achieving complete carbon neutrality by a date of their individual choosing based on their specific circumstances (based on our location in West Virginia and the limited fuel mix available to us at this point, APUS has chosen 2050). While the goal is ambitious, I am convinced that if there is any collective group capable of addressing such a pressing issue, it is higher education.

Colleges and universities have served as the nursery for nurturing social movements in America for decades. As with the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement, the growing movement to address our collective issue of global environmental change is being fostered on college and university campuses across the country. It makes sense that these settings would nurture such movements – college campuses are packed with great minds eager to learn and understand, eager to make a difference in the world. Though the ACUPCC provides a logical and effective framework for implementing sustainability into operations and curricula, many schools who have not signed that specific commitment are taking the issue of environmental change very seriously, as well.

As students graduate from colleges and universities that recognize the critical nature of and are working to address the issues of global changes in the environment, they will enter the workplace more prepared than any previous generation to tackle these issues on an even grander scale. As with other social movements whose sparks were ignited on college campuses and eventually spilled into our larger society, so too will be the path of the sustainability movement. Colleges and universities are realizing that it is no longer enough to discuss lofty ideals in a theoretical setting. We all must take collective action to address the world’s most pressing problems. I applaud those schools that are working to address the issues related to environmental change and feel confident that this is just the first wave of a movement that will continue to grow.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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