Reflections on the 2014 Presidential Summit on Climate Leadership

October 23, 2014

by Timothy Carter, President, Second Nature

One month ago I began a new chapter in my career, accepting the challenging and thrilling opportunity to join Second Nature as its third president. As someone working on environmental issues in higher education for the past 13 years, I have been aware of the rich legacy and commitment of the organization to lead and accelerate bold commitments to sustainability in higher education that transform society.

The network generated by the ACUPCC is arguably the strongest collection of presidential leadership in higher education relating to sustainability anywhere in the world. Since 2007, these leaders gather regularly at the Presidential Summit on Climate Leadership to hear from expert speakers, share experiences with each other, and discuss the sustainability issues that are most pressing on their campuses. This conference has ranged in scope, size, and focus throughout the years but every Summit has had at its core a commitment to serve the members of the network in the best ways possible. On October 1-3, 2014 we held the seventh of these summits in Boston, and we are incredibly grateful for the time the more than 300 participants took to meaningfully engage with content and each other.

At the welcome reception and as attendees began filling up the room for the opening session, the anticipation and excitement in the audience was palpable. This was clearly an event that held great value for the members of the network who shared a common vision—that sustainability in higher education can be a leading catalyst for broader social change. As we listened to the plenary given by Brian Swett—Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space for the City of Boston—the importance of this network to transform cities, regions, and other sectors in the broader economy became crystal clear. This issue of scaling efforts of the network became an overarching theme for me throughout the three days we were gathered together. We had an entire session dedicated to working across statewide systems as diverse as California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii. Conversations targeted opportunities for infusing sustainability leadership through existing professional organizations. The partnerships between higher education and the communities where they are located were also frequent topics of discussion. And the use of scaling data analytics to produce new insights and feedback for network members holds great potential.

The repeated focus on scale had me thinking about the role of the network itself. The great power of networks is in their emergent properties—characteristics that you wouldn’t simply find by breaking the network down into individual parts. At Second Nature, one of our roles is to identify and facilitate this emergence so that the network membership is truly transformational. In many ways, the Summit was a forum for these properties to gain traction and articulation so that we, as network staff, can provide appropriate services in response. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, we wanted this conference not just be an opportunity for the network members to consume, but also to produce—ideas, relationships, feedback – that will help advance the collective work moving forward. As we synthesize the three days filled with expert speakers, panelists, listening sessions, and town hall style events, our strategic direction forward will reflect many of the themes discussed at the event, with a particular eye towards greater network integration and leveraging.

In ACUPCC Steering Committee Chair Wim Weiwel’s closing remarks, he noted the great energy and spirit of hope at this year’s gathering. I think everyone who was there would reflect this same sentiment. We were inspired to think about a vibrant era in the sustainability movement as we explore new solutions, new criteria for success, and new frames of understanding our complex and dynamic relationship with the planet’s life-supporting systems.

-Summit photos: © Jennifer White Photography