Higher education can help build sustainable future, expert says

Students, faculty, administration and community members packed the Native American Student and Community Center on Wednesday night to listen to Dr. Anthony Cortese speak about the intersection of sustainability and higher education.

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Students, faculty, administration and community members packed the Native American Student and Community Center on Wednesday night to listen to Dr. Anthony Cortese speak about the intersection of sustainability and higher education.

Cortese, who was invited to Portland State by the university’s Institute of Sustainable Solutions and PSU President Wim Wiewel, is a renowned advocate of uniting higher education and sustainability. Along with then-Sen. John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry, he co-founded Second Nature, an organization dedicated to promoting sustainability.

Wiewel certainly celebrates Cortese’s work.

“He has been a real leader in the area of sustainability for more years than most of us have known the word,” Wiewel said.

Cortese’s presentation was inspired by a complex question: What is the role of higher education in helping create a healthy, just and sustainable society?

His answer, put simply, was that higher education is in a unique position to provide leadership that other institutions are not.

A common thread throughout the evening was the idea that sustainability is more than just environmental jargon—it also includes economic and societal issues. When all three are considered and addressed, he contended, societies can ensure that they thrive for the long term. In higher education Cortese identifies the perfect petri dish for fostering the sort of thinking necessary to produce community-oriented individuals.

Wiewel identified higher education as a good medium because it is “a great way to influence policy and practice long into the future,” referring to the faculty’s and university’s ability to communicate the importance of sustainability to their students.

Cortese said the greatest challenge to sustainability is the values a society holds, and he praised PSU and Wiewel for efforts on campus, including “the orientation that PSU has toward making sure the city of Portland is a vibrant and strong community. You don’t often get that at other colleges and universities—they pay lip service. PSU practices what they preach.”

Wiewel credited coming to PSU and Portland with opening his eyes to a broader definition of sustainability.

“I came here as somebody who cared deeply about cities, but I’ve learned as much about sustainability in the past five years now than I ever knew before,” he said.

Cortese also highlighted the success of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, or ACUPCC.

Wiewel is a member of the ACUPCC’s steering committee and was the cornerstone of their Second Nature initiative to bring higher education into a greater position of leadership on the issue of climate change. By encouraging universities to begin thinking about carbon footprints, they began a process of getting those universities to start researching and gaining the experience in climate initiatives that would someday be necessary for communities to adopt.

The ACUPCC has been a success, with nearly 700 universities across the U.S. taking part voluntarily since 2006. Cortese was especially proud to point out that since its inception only 6 percent of participating schools have dropped out of the commitment. Many schools have saved millions of dollars thanks to sustainability initiatives such as replacing old energy sources with wind, solar or geothermal energy.

Wiewel was especially proud of the fact that the ACUPCC is entirely voluntary, calling it a “quintessentially American way of going about it.”

Cortese was adamant that the future of success for sustainability in higher education relies on several factors: making sustainability integral to the university’s mission and master plan; creating measurements for sustainability; building a system of rewards and incentives for faculty; developing and prioritizing alumni relationships; communicating and marketing these ideas; and collaborating with other sectors of the community.

In addition, Cortese said the next step for sustainability and higher education is to accelerate climate action plans as climate change continues to snowball and to influence faculty to include sustainability in their everyday curricula.

Wiewel said that the next initiative to come out of the ACUPCC will be one of “resilience and adaptability.” Specifically, while universities have been very focused on climate change, they must now turn their experience to leadership and get “cities and regions to think about adaptation to climate change.”

Cortese may have best summed up his, Wiewel’s, and the ACUPCC’s continued efforts in sustainability: “The question is not whether or not we will get there, but whether or not we will try.”