Executive Director, Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) 

From his first job as a high school science teacher to his current role as Executive Director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), Paul Rowland has devoted his nearly 36-year career to the melding of education and sustainability.

Before taking on his current role at AASHE, Paul served as Dean of the College of Education at the University of Idaho. He also served as Dean of the School of Education at The University of Montana and as the Director of the Center for Environmental Sciences and Education and Coordinator of Environmental Education and Director of Academic Assessment at Northern Arizona University.

While at Northern Arizona University, Paul was one of the founders of the Ponderosa Project, a faculty development project focused on integrating sustainability throughout the curriculum. He has written numerous articles and book chapters on science and environmental education particularly as they related to diverse populations. Paul has served on the boards of the Arizona Natural History Association, Education for Sustainability – West, The Arboretum at Flagstaff, and the Global Network of Environmental Education Centers.  He holds a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, a master’s degree in ecology from Rutgers University and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from New Mexico State University.

Tell me about your early experience as an environmental educator and how you ultimately became to be the Executive Director of AASHE.

I grew up on a diary farm in upstate New York, so obviously I had a lot of connection to the land – as a person who had lived off the land and a person who spent a lot of time outdoors. As a result, I majored in Biology in college. I was interested in becoming a biology teacher. My favorite courses were those centered on the field of ecology. That’s when I really honed in on the ecological sciences.

Years later, when I was a high school science teacher, I started an environmental sciences course. After spending years developing that course, I earned my Masters in ecology from Rutgers. I then headed off to New Mexico and spent some time at New Mexico University where, for several years, I worked with the Mexico Solar Energy Institute as their school and public educator. In that job, I developed a set of workshops called “The Self-Sufficient Solar Home,” which I distributed throughout the state of New Mexico. Through that experience, I developed a strong background in working with schools on a number of areas related to sustainability.

I then went on to earn my doctorate degree, which was in curriculum instruction with a focus on energy education. When I got to Northern Arizona University, I was named Coordinator of Environmental Education as the Center for Environmental Science and Education was being formed. I did a lot of environmental education work in that role – both with undergraduate students as well as with some of the organizations on the area – and developed quite a bit of background in environmental education. While I was at Northern Arizona University (NAU), I worked with Geoffrey Chase  and others on the faculty to develop what became the Ponderosa Project – workshops help faculty fuse sustainability into their curriculum. That process went on for a number of years. We provided workshops for well over 100 faculty members, conducted forums for discussion about sustainability in the curriculum and across the university and continued to stay connected to the sustainability work that I moved into other forms of administration.

From NAU, I went to Montana, where I was Dean of the School of Education but also served on the university sustainability committee. I also served on the board of Education for Sustainability (EFS) West. It turns out that EFS West was a precursor to AASHE’s formation. EFS West morphed into AASHE just about the same time that I moved from Montana to Idaho to become the Dean of the College of Education at the University of Idaho. At Idaho, I had the opportunity to work with other faculty members on the Palouse Project, which was modeled on the Ponderosa Project. The Palouse Project did the same kind of thing. I supported faculty in going through the same kind of workshops. When I left my position there this summer, we had two teams named to develop curriculum on sustainability. That was a real plus for the college. After making a presentation at last fall’s AASHE conference, I was asked to put my name into the hat for the Executive Director position, and here I am today.

Tell me about the ways AASHE helps universities and those working with universities.

The most important thing that AASHE does is provide forums for sharing of information so people can find the best practices for a wide variety of sustainability initiatives and ideas about curriculum. Through our bulletin  that is sent out weekly to several thousand people, our digest, which is available for free on line and our conference, we try to get information from one institution to another so they can find examples of best practices and network to move forward in sustainability. We also offer workshops to help faculty develop sustainability curriculum. We will soon be rolling out the new version of STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Ranking System), which will help institutions track how well they’re doing but also connect institutions. I would probably characterize it all as an opportunity to help connect people with good ideas and with each other.

I read that AASHE’s membership doubled in the last year. Can you describe that membership?

As of the end of July, we had 891 members. Members are institutions, not individuals, so all of the members of an institution are members of AASHE. That includes administration, faculty, students and staff.

Of those 891 members, 499 are four-year plus institutions. There are 180 two-year institutions, which includes a growing number of community colleges. There are 14 systems office members. (e.g., the CaliforniaStateUniversity system). We have 139 business partners, 47 NGOs, two government agencies and ten K-12 schools. Among the U.S. higher education institution members, 61.5% are public; 37.8% are private non-profit and .6% are private for-profit.

What motivates institutions to join AASHE?

A couple of things motivate them. One is the opportunity to learn from each other. [Joining AASHE also provides] the opportunity for an institution to show that it has a commitment to sustainability.

What does showing a commitment to sustainability do for an institution?

Sometimes it’s students who are pushing the administrations, or even faculty, to become more involved in sustainability. So part of what it does is allow the leadership of an institution to say to its students, “We are indeed interested in sustainability and this membership is one of the ways we show that we’re paying attention to it. We are getting more resources available to you through our membership in AASHE.” It shows a commitment to the students who are on the campus and gives those students the sense that the institution is paying attention to what they’re looking for.

One of the other areas where it has significant impact is in recruitment. There have been some recent surveys that have confirmed that students are looking for sustainability in the institutions they attend. One of the questions [students] will ask is, “What kind of programs and practices do you have that show a commitment to sustainability?”

How does AASHE define sustainability?

I’ll give you our official, web site definition: AASHE defines sustainability in an inclusive way encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods and a better world for all generations. This is one of those definitions that everyone asks us about. We probably are, like most organizations that use the word “sustainability,” still trying to figure out what we’re talking about. We have a pretty good feel for it. We know what it is when we see it. But defining the term sometimes gives us a cumbersome set of definitions.

In a recent presentation I made at Georgia Southern’s convocation, I talked about sustainability in terms of opportunity. Really, sustainability is about ensuring opportunity – opportunities to live in a healthy environment; opportunities to have a good job; opportunities to have strong social systems; opportunities to participate in a solid economic system – for current and future generations.

Do you find that AASHE members adhere to this definition of sustainability as they go back to work on their campuses?

I’ll say there is a growing understanding of the breadth of sustainability. Going back to the early to mid-nineties, when I was first really getting going in this, the word “sustainability” had more to do with environmental sustainability.

One of the things we’ve seen over time is that it has come to be more about people. What we do socially and economically has impacts on the environment. What we do to the environment has impacts on our health. What has emerged over the last decade and a half is a greater understanding of how all of these discussions about sustainability are really about interconnectedness and wishes for outstanding opportunities for everybody, now and into the future.

There seem to be several different sustainability rating and raking programs and reports. How does AASHE’s STARS program compare to some of these other methods of assessing sustainability on college campuses?

The STARS program was developed by AASHE in response to a call by the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium (HEASC) to develop a campus sustainability rating system. As a member of the consortium, AASHE agreed to move forward on that. For more than a year, we’ve been working on developing this system that would provide institutions with ways to rate their sustainability. The model we looked to was the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program.   We thought that what U.S. GBC did for buildings could be a good model for what could be done on campuses. Rather than getting into rankings, we were more interested in ratings. How could people rate themselves? How could people earn credits that would move them forward on a rating scale so they could make claims of being a bronze or platinum level campus?

STARS is really about helping institutions understand where their strengths and weaknesses are. What is unique about STARS is that it really is a comprehensive, transparent rating system. It covers much of the breadth of our definition of sustainability. It is very transparent in that the vast majority of the information that an institution will submit to us will be made available for others to see. STARS will also be the kind of system that enable institutions to track their progress over time.

Many of our readers are involved in conservation planning and ecological restoration. They are going to be very interested in aspects of the STARS system that pertain to the kind of work we do, such as landscape and natural resources master planning and innovative stormwater management. Does STARS address these components of sustainability?

I’ll give you a brief overview of the components of STARS.  In the STARS program, there are general areas. The first of those is education and research, which looks at co-curricular education, the curricula, faculty and staff development and training, and research that is being conducted at the institution. The second big category is operations, which is broken down to buildings, dining services, energy and climate, grounds (which I think addresses some of the issues you raise), materials recycling and waste minimization, purchasing and transportation.

The third area is administration and finance. That looks at investment, planning, sustainability infrastructure (Is there a recognized part of the university charged with addressing sustainability?), community relations and partnerships, diversity access and affordability, human resources and trademark licensing. There are pieces of pretty much everything in there. When you look at grounds, we’ve been looking this week at credits for the organic campus and what they’d look like.

Did the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) impact the development of STARS?

The Commitment and STARS developed in concert with each other. Some of the people who were working on STARS were also working on ACUPCC reporting tools. That’s actually the strongest connection. A lot of the ACUPCC signatories were also pilot campuses for STARS last year. We have people who work on both projects, so the two initiatives have cross fertilized in a lot of ways.

When will STARS be officially released?

Let me give you a time line. What we’ve been doing up to now is going through a pilot program. We piloted what we call STARS Version 0.5 with about 70 institutions. We’ve received information back on that. The results of the pilot are posted on our web site.

We are now putting on the final touches of Version 1.0, which is the version that will go out for real world consumption. We will announce its availability and begin a pre-registration process at the Greening of the Campus VIII  conference we’re co-sponsoring with BallState. Through the fall, we’ll be doing the pre-registration and making the credits documents available to campuses so they can start working on putting together what they need for the reporting. In January, we intend to do the formal roll out, and at that time we’ll have our on-line reporting tool ready for campuses to start using.

Since beginning the STARS pilot in 2007, what are some of the things you have learned – both about the system itself and about sustainability in higher education?

One of the biggest issues has been trying to find that balance between complexity and simplicity that allows campuses to really get a handle on what they’re doing and not doing, but at the same time not overwhelm them with collecting incredible amounts of information and causing them to become paralyzed in that process.  That has been a big lesson.

How about things you’ve learned about the schools themselves and their efforts to move toward sustainability?

One of the things we’ve learned is the importance of paying attention to the regional differences so that a campus that is located in the Coastal Plain isn’t trying to meet a credit the same way as someone who is located in a high desert area; or a campus that is in an area with lots of wind resources has a different way to meet energy requirements than a campus that is in a place that has high solar availability. That has been part of it – just learning about the regional differences that exist within this country and trying to translate that into something that is understandable broadly.

I know that AASHE’s intention with STARS is to provide your members with an assessment tool, but I’m curious to know if the pilot phase revealed any interesting findings about the way pilot participants have or haven’t integrated sustainability into their curricula and research programs.

What we’ve learned in that area is that there is a huge amount of variability. It’s impossible to make any strong conclusions in that area. We’re finding that it’s really quite a mix and depending on who is collecting the information, it’s really not that easy to collect. Answering the question, “How much of the curriculum is focused on sustainability?” is not an easy process. Some institutions are having trouble figuring out how many sustainability-focused and related courses they have. What has been most surprising to us is how many of the institutions had trouble figuring out how to even respond to those types of credits and come up with their own internal ratings of how they’re doing.

I can say that based on our early data from the pilot programs, it’s probably at a lower level than we had hoped for, but on the other hand, I think it’s very difficult at this point for, say, a sustainability officer to collect that information. We are now spending a lot of time looking at how we can make that section easier to work on.

What about in the area of investments? Did STARS reveal anything about the degree to which institutions are managing endowments to support sustainable industries?

Where information came in, we were finding reasonably high levels of investment transparency, but there also seemed to be institutions that were not doing much screening at all. They were leaving it to investment offices. With respect to the major credit of positive sustainability investment, we’re not finding a lot of institutions that are able to provide us with evidence that they are making specific investments in sustainability.

Has the work on STARS shifted AASHE’s mission, focus and/or priorities?

One of the things that AASHE is quite proud of is that we integrate all of our programs.  As we work with STARS, we’re also looking at how the information gathered from STARS can feed into our resources center and how it can become part of our conference work. The connections between STARS and the ACUPCC work is pretty straightforward. It’s a key part of serving our membership.

Although I’d agree that we put a lot of effort and resources into the development of STARS over the past year or so, we are seeing that it is more than just an instrument for assessment. It is also triggering institutions to do different things and it’s providing us with information that we can share with other institutions, which gets back to our core mission of serving as a site for networking among the institutions.

How does AASHE work with other, like-minded organizations, such as Second Nature, the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium and the U.S. Partnership for Education in Sustainable Development and how is AASHE different?

Part of it is sorting out where we can support each other. As a member of HEASC, we participate and share information about what we’re doing. We do build a number of partnerships with all types of organizations. Some focus specifically on higher education sustainability like Second Nature, with whom we have a good working relationship. Second Nature tends to focus primarily on high level administrators, while AASHE tends to have a broader set of constituents within our member institutions. We’re a member institution and they’re not. But we often have healthy, candid conversations to ask, “So, what is it you do, and what is it we do?” so that we’re not tripping over each other. There is so much work to be done, and so much urgency to getting that work done, that I don’t think we ever feel we’re competing with each other. It’s more making sure we’re not duplicating our efforts.

How many of the STARS pilot participants have designated sustainability staff?

Of the 60 institutions that responded. Seven did not earn any credit; 19 earned one credit, which means any percentage of a paid staff member’s time is dedicated toward sustainability initiatives; 13 institutions (21%) earned two credits, meaning they have a full-time, paid sustainability person. 35% earned all three credits, which means they have a sustainability officer with both academic and operational purview who report to a president or vice president. So 56% [of pilot participants who responded] reported a full-time person, and 31% reported at least a part time person.

AASHE’s web site includes profiles  of members who have entered your Campus Sustainability Leadership Awards. Is there one standout in your mind? One institution you see as leading the way in terms of all-around sustainability?

There really are so many outstanding examples. A year from now, after we get the STARS ratings in, I’d be interested to see if I can better answer that question.

What about outside of North America? Are there any great models out there?

There are some interesting, AASHE-like networks that have been established in Scotland. But I cannot think of a particular institution that I’d point to. I think it’s like here in the U.S.; there are some institutions that have done phenomenal things with energy, some that have done great things with their curriculum and others that have paid more attention to their waste streams.

In working on a university stormwater and landscape management master plan, one of my colleagues recently made the following observation:

Over the last five years, many colleges and universities have placed an emphasis on establishing sustainability programs and signing on to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. Most of these programs focus on energy conservation and efficiency, transportation, waste management, and water conservation.  Fewer institutions are doing great work in innovative stormwater management and integrated regenerative landscape design and planning. As a general observation, higher education campuses have yet to exhibit a broader systems thinking on landscape planning, incorporating green infrastructure connections in the campus and environmental connectivity potential across the campus landscape.  Furthermore, there is little or no integration of sustainability program elements and sustainable stormwater and landscape management.

What is your reaction to this observation? Do you agree? Disagree?

I think it’s true on a lot of campuses, but there are some campuses where there is certainly some activity going on with respect to groundwater control and landscaping. I’m not sure it has gotten the level of attention as, say, greenhouse gas emissions. That is probably because the issue of greenhouse gas emissions has gotten a lot of attention in the national media. There are some areas of sustainability that get emphasized at different times and this is probably the time where energy and greenhouse gas emissions are getting a lot of the emphasis.

One of the things we hope STARS will help institutions do is recognize that there are areas that they’re not moving forward on. They’ll be able to see that they’re not getting credits in a certain area and realize that they should integrate into their sustainability programs. I don’t think it’s an unfair observation. I just think there are campuses where that is not true.

What advice would you offer ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design professionals who are involved in university campus design and planning projects and want to get institutions thinking about the landscape, natural resources and innovative stormwater management early on, rather than as an afterthought.

What we’re really talking about is getting people connected. That’s really the key – getting in on the early levels of planning. Have a presence with planning organizations. Planning organizations really do begin drawing the lines as to what might or might not be done. If you’re interested in innovative stormwater management, for example, you really have to work with the planners to get involved. You have to get that issue in front of the planners and the university early on. These are not easy issues, because this usually involves a fair amount of training that has to be provided to the decision makers. That’s the complexity. You first have to determine, in a given setting, who the decision maker is and how you’re going to be able to provide them with background and information that will help them understand that certain decisions could lead to a more sustainable campus infrastructure.

You mentioned that many institutions join AASHE because they want to show that they are responsive to students and they know it matters with regard to recruitment, so I guess it always has to come back to that.

Yes. I’d throw in another piece. If you’re really interested in emphasizing [natural resources management, innovative stormwater management] you have to figure out how to get students involved. There is an incredible resource in students. On every campus, they make up the bulk of the population. They have quite a bit of influence as to what does or doesn’t get done.

I’m thinking of a project that was initiated at the University of Idaho, just before I left there. There is a stream that runs through the campus. The president, along with one of the local environmental organizations launched a stream restoration project which, in addition to being an on-the-ground restoration project, is also an academic/research project studying the effects on water quality and aquatic habitat. I think there are a lot of ways to try to pull these kinds of efforts into the educational system so it’s not just a facilities decision but it has some educational value that can tap into the academic side of the institution.

Generally speaking, what role do students seem to play in the sustainability movement on college campuses?

Their role has been, and will continue to be huge. I think their role is high in motivating some of us from an older generation to really make decisions that take into account sustainability. They have been quite impressive in moving the curriculum forward and asking for more coursework on sustainability. On a number of campuses, they have taxed themselves, increasing student fees designated for sustainability, and then used those fees to develop sustainability offices from which they carry out projects, provide internships, etc. Students are heavily involved. If it weren’t for students, we probably wouldn’t be doing the sustainability work we are doing today.

How does AASHE interact with the business community?

AASHE has business affiliates. We provide them the opportunity to become a member. A lot of our members participate in the conferences. We have some sponsorship of our bulletin and digest by some of our business partners. That’s our main interaction. We don’t do endorsements or push products, but we do try to provide opportunities for our membership to interact with business members at our conferences.

What are some of the common challenges faced by colleges striving toward sustainability?

The most important challenge they face is probably their funding mechanisms. Most colleges and universities are funded – and budget – on an annual or biennial basis. When you’re working in the realm of sustainability, it’s really important to be able to look out over multiple years. Sometimes a particular activity may not have an economic payback time of less than a year or two, so that sometimes discourages people from engaging in that activity. The financing of institutions works against sustainability because it’s done on such a short term basis. It doesn’t look out into multiple years or generations.

Another barrier is that, in some ways, higher education is probably one of the institutions that is slowest to change. It has a very conservative nature to it and at times that has probably been good. But when you face the kinds of issues we’re facing in sustainability, that conservative nature tends to make people like me kind of impatient.

Going back to the challenge of financing, and thinking about long-term return on investment…do colleges and universities consider natural capital valuation as part of the sustainability portfolio?

I think that is just starting to be used. I do not think that’s been a part of how they have looked at their budgets, particularly when you’re thinking of public institutions. I don’t think they’ve had any incentive from their funders to think that way.

Do you see any major differences in the way different types (e.g., 4-year vs. community college; public vs. private) of schools approach sustainability?

There have been differences, but I think it has had more to do with the individuals who have been involved at the institutions than anything else. Some institutions have put a lot of energy into looking at sustainability in the curriculum while others have put a lot of their energy into looking at sustainability in operations. Recycling operations.jpg There have been some almost dichotomous approaches. Some institutions came into sustainability looking for the low-hanging fruit such as energy management systems that could provide rapid paybacks; whereas other institutions realized that they were going to have to get involved in long-term changes.

I would say, though, that there are some small, private institutions that have been able to make huge strides forward, simply because they were able to make a full commitment to sustainability. Examples include College of the Atlantic  and Unity College. Some of these schools have been able to embrace sustainability at a level that is really difficult for some of the national research universities with tens of thousands of students to achieve. So there is that difference in terms of type. Smaller institutions can sometimes move things a lot faster than larger institutions.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

The most important thing I’d like to leave you with is the idea that AASHE is here trying to support higher education in moving forward in sustainability. As a supporter of the institutions moving forward, we want to do what the institutions need. What we do at AASHE is a function of what the institutions need at a given time, and that will probably change over time. We look forward to being nimble enough to make those kinds of changes.

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