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Research Report

Sustainability Action Plans for Colleges and Universities

September 25, 2020 , By Carolyn Murphy, Analyst

Key Insights

Source input from a diverse array of stakeholders to craft impactful sustainability action plans.

The complexity of action plan initiatives requires the input and expertise of the broad population of stakeholders who ultimately need to implement various facets of the action plan. To structure the involvement of diverse stakeholders, administrators at profiled institutions often use formal committees composed of faculty members, staff members, administrators, and students.

To further engage faculty members throughout the development process, administrators at Institution A created an online folder where faculty members could submit ideas for campus sustainability efforts.

Create a sustainability policy to guide all sustainability-related efforts.

Publishing a sustainability policy before beginning any other sustainability-related efforts establishes sustainability as an institutional priority. Policies at Institution AInstitution B and Institution D provide a common and consistent framework for sustainability-related efforts. These policies also define the responsibilities of various stakeholders in these efforts, as well as the various ways that sustainable practices should be embedded into daily practices.

The sustainability policy for the Institution B includes language on leadership in sustainable operations, leadership in teaching and research, and methods to evaluate the plan’s success. It additionally provides direction for action plan renewal.

Delegate oversight over sustainability action plan development and implementation to the institution’s sustainability office.

Within the sustainability office, a sustainability manager uses sustainability-related expertise to provide leadership to the campus community, act as an organizational strategist, and liaise across departments to implement sustainable practices across the campus community.

Some profiled institutions, such as Institution A, rely on the Manager of Campus Sustainability to participate in the action plan’s creation as a member of the planning committee and to assume responsibility for the plan’s progression. Other profiled institutions, including Institution E, operate under a more diffuse model where responsibility for plan creation and program implementation is shared across many members of the sustainability office.

Use external evaluation systems to measure progress toward sustainability-related goals.

It is a challenge to all profiled universities to develop institution-specific assessment methods due to the limited capacity of sustainability offices and the complexity of sustainability efforts. Instead, administrators at all profiled institutions rely, to various extents, on third-party assessment structures to alleviate the burden on sustainability offices and leverage proven assessment methods.

Using a third party, such as the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) benchmarking metrics from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) helps to define sustainability-related goals, benchmark progress against peers, and track progress via concrete KPIs. Since Institution C has an especially small sustainability office, administrators rely heavily on the external resources provided by STARS. The STARS gap analyses identify areas of improvement, and progression toward major goals.

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