John Robinson has been here before.
As the University of British Columbia’s associate provost for sustainability, Robinson helms the most highly lauded campus in Canada when it comes to sustainability. So, perhaps better than anyone else in the country, he knows what you’re thinking right now.
Last week, Western released Creating a Sustainable Western Experience, a year-long effort representing the university’s clearest statement on environmental sustainability to date. The document calibrates the university’s sustainability compass toward a general heading, but doesn’t offer up any direct routes toward that goal.
For that, university leadership is counting on you. And so, if you want sustainability to exist beyond isolated pockets of True Believers and penny-pinchers (of which I count myself among both), it is time to get started.
Seems like a big job. And it is, Robinson agreed, but not an impossible one.
Like most postsecondary institutions across the globe, Western is beginning – somewhat belatedly – to address its sustainability in a universitywide context. Although many pockets across campus have been concerned about the issue for years, this effort is the first to address our collective footprint. It is our deepest, most meaningful engagement to date.
That deserves pause and applause. The road to this document was not easy.
Understand, we are not far behind the rest of postsecondary education. North American universities have been late to the realization they should be leaders in – and, dare I say, examples for – sustainability. Canadian campuses as a whole, Robinson said, are doing an equally lackluster job.
And that’s a shame. We should be leaders.
“Universities have a unique role to play in this area,” he said. “We can be test beds for things no industry or government would be comfortable trying. In fact, we have a responsibility to do so.”
Robinson stressed commitment to sustainability starts at the top, but must be maintained throughout the entire university community. Any sustainability effort that leans too heavily on administrative direction or too heavily on grassroots effort is doomed to fail.
And don’t forget student support.
UBC is an activist campus, more akin to the fire-brand student bodies of many U.S. West Coast schools, or even Quebec, than to Western’s rather docile lot. It remains to be seen if sustainability will be a challenge Western students will pick up. That may be the biggest wild card of the whole plan, and certainly will make for the most interesting viewing over the next few years.
Robinson also stressed the need to get out of the bubble and invite public and private sector in to help. Sustainability grows when you find joint solutions, and then take those solutions into “the real world” where risk-adverse institutions can put proven successes to work. Win-win, as they say.
Admittedly, no matter who takes the lead, this change won’t come over night.
Heck, UBC hasn’t always been a leader. Robinson said a small group, Friends of Sustainability, was making tiny gains in the area for years and years. But it wasn’t until a “sea change” in 2009, when UBC addressed sustainability as an institution, that those efforts gained real traction and backing.
Today, the institution is hailed as a shining beacon of sustainability thanks in part to widespread concrete efforts – like the fact the university supports a provost-level sustainability position – as well as some clever and aggressive marketing.
It’s a level of engagement I would love to see echoed here.
Like at Western, Robinson said sustainability has tended to be seen from an operation-only standpoint. That’s important, but only a first step. “The chance for transformational change lies in the cultural arena. Programs and investments are good things, but they don’t get you there,” Robinson said. “You’ll get nowhere until every operational decision is a sustainability decision.”
He stressed operational commitment must be mirrored on the teaching and research front as well, if sustainability is to be part of the institution’s DNA. “What I have seen is almost no one is integrating these two. They are separate worlds,” Robinson said.
Western is attempting to do just that, perhaps the boldest move in the entire document. Robinson said UBC’s greatest successes – and greatest stumbles – have come in this arena. If we are building tomorrow’s leaders, this is where it will happen.
All said, this document is the end of one phase, but could be the beginning of a whole new world for Western. But it’s up to us to decide.
“This is a massive strategic opportunity to engage in sustainability,” Robinson concluded. “The upsides to this – the partnerships, funding, recruiting potentials – are huge.”