Institutionalizing Sustainability: Shifting Gears, Shifting Culture

March 8, 2011

By Wim Wiewel, President, Portland State University

(This article appears in the March, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

RIGHT - PSU President Wim Wiewel (r) and Portland Mayor Sam Adams (l) bike to work

On my first day at Portland State University back in August 2008, I rode my bike to work alongside Portland Mayor-elect Sam Adams. The ride symbolized Portland State University’s partnership with the city, and both Portland and PSU’s commitment to sustainability. I haven’t stopped pedaling since.

How we think about and implement sustainability at Portland State University reflects that ride. Our region provides more than just background and scenery—it gives us a context for the work that we do, as well as a broad array of public, private, and nonprofit partners willing to tackle our common challenges.

As a young university of 30,000 students in the heart of a young city, Portland State has built its reputation on a forward-thinking program of urban studies and planning, an interdisciplinary approach, and purposeful engagement with the community.More recently, that list has grown to include our commitment to sustainability, which has gradually emerged from years and even decades of efforts by our faculty, students, and staff. In the last few years we’ve seen those efforts coalesce around a few guiding themes that today are marshalling broader, deeper, and more substantive efforts campus wide.

My role as president cannot just be to say, “Let there be sustainability.” I’d like to have a Midas touch that renders all things green, but executive level leadership has to be more proactive. As president, I see three steps to leadership: vision, commitment, and participation.

Vision means having the right idea at the right time and the right place. Any university can add “sustainability” to its mission, vision, and values statement, but the shape that this vision takes must draw on the culture and community from which it emerges.

At Portland State University, we have the advantage of a political, civic, social, and environmental climate well suited to sustainability. The region’s land use policies and transportation infrastructure accommodate smart growth and a vibrant urban core. In fact, three out of four students, faculty and staff travel to campus by streetcar, light rail, bus, bike, carpool, skateboard, or on foot.

Commitment means developing the processes, structures, metrics, and resources to effectively pursue that vision. To harness the energy around sustainability on campus, we brought in Robert Costanza, a leading environmental economist, to lead our Institute for Sustainable Solutions, and a talented group of new faculty who’ve integrated sustainability into their fields of research. We’ve given research and travel grants to faculty and students and have made sustainability one of eight learning outcomes required of our undergrads. We are in the process of adjusting incentives and creating policies that align business practices with our vision for carbon neutrality.

Participation means leveraging our strengths in community engagement to build stronger partnerships. Through broad-based engagement with our stakeholders, we’ve been able to better articulate our sustainability vision, and better execute our commitment. Examples include:

These three steps apply on a personal as well as organizational level. I carrymy own vision of a successful, vibrant urban university of the 21st century. That vision provides a North Star for this commitment as we’re confronted with challenges and setbacks, such as the inevitable funding crises that plague our state system. And when it comes to participation, I subscribe to Woody Allen’s assertion that 80 percent of success is showing up.  Nothing signals commitment like the president’s presence.

Leadership from the president assures the campus that sustainability is indeed a priority for the university as a whole. At PSU, that has elicited valuable participation and unique perspectives from less likely suspects, such as social work and the humanities. Recently I attended a fascinating roundtable on sustainability that was sponsored by our music department, better known for jazz studies and opera (and recent Grammy Award winner Esperanza Spalding).

Showing up helps. So does having money to spend when you get there. In 2008, we received a ten-year, $25 million matching grant from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation. The Miller Foundation wanted to support PSU’s capacity as a major civic organization in the community. But it was Portland State that designated these funds to support sustainability.

That investment has catalyzed our efforts. An early research focus on green roofs has evolved to green neighborhoods, pulling together architecture, engineering, and urban studies faculty. We’re working with public and private partners to establish a new EcoDistrict around campus, anchored by the world’s largest high-rise “living building.” We’ve provided grants to students with good ideas and energy for transforming our community. The result has been initiatives like Take Back the Tap, raising awareness about the environmental costs of bottled water and installing bottle-filling stations in our academic buildings.

Portland State was a charter institution and 2008 pilot participant in the AASHE Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS). Upon reviewing our completed STARS report, which we submitted in February 2011, I’m struck by having earned a Gold rating—even while we continue to face incredible challenges to integrating sustainability into our operations and curricula.

Portland State is growing. We’re building new housing and facilities. We have an aggressive research agenda and an increasingly global profile. As we set our course for the future, we also try to be mindful of the environmental costs of these decisions and goals.

We need to move more employees into a mindset of resource stewardship, and to an understanding that all jobs are “green” jobs. Currently Portland State has an active Green Teams program that trains faculty and staff to become champions for energy conservation, waste reduction, greener purchasing policies, and more in their own departments. While a volunteer program is not the same as a mandate, I feel that only the active involvement of a large number of people throughout the institution can help identify the myriad of ways that we can make the campus truly sustainable.

We are working out a local solution to offsetting carbon-intensive activities. Portland State established a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2010. We accomplished that in part by purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECs)—which end up funding big wind energy projects in other states. I think our dollars would be better invested closer to home.

We adopt and we adapt, staying the course while shifting gears to meet the changing terrain. Becoming more sustainable requires that we continue to do what we do best, bringing excellence in teaching and research to partnerships that span disciplines, industry, government, and communities. In short, to live our motto of “Let Knowledge Serve the City.”

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