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From Silos to Cultural Integration: The Evolution of Campus Sustainability

Higher education sometimes has been described as an “ivory tower,” with isolated academic “silos.” While these stereotypes contain a grain of truth they are mostly remnants of the past. Cross-disciplinary cooperative work is what makes campuses today such vibrant places. And it is this environment that nurtures the seeds of many of our country’s most positive transformative cultural shifts.

The sustainability movement in higher education is in many ways straining between remnants of the old paradigm and integration into the new. In early planning and implementation sustainability is often broken down into artificially discrete parts for ease of management and communication, with each component perceived as largely independent. One of the objectives of the sustainability field is to transform that perception on a large scale and encourage thinking that explores systems and connections rather than solely isolated components. Reinforcing the illusion that sustainability is a conglomeration of independent initiatives does not encourage the type of thinking that is necessary for us to solve sustainability’s challenges. How do we avoid this tendency?

If integrated, sustainability is managed as a web of interrelated processes within a community that explores not only environmental considerations but also economic and social. In the integrated approach none of these can be considered independently but instead decisions must be balanced across all three. A strong indicator of an integrated approach may increasingly be the method by which sustainability information is shared. Is sustainability information conveyed in isolated fragments? Or, does the information seeker learn about meaningful connections beyond the topic of their original interest?

Most institutions of higher education, out of necessary convenience, organize their sustainability programs and communications by facilities management and academic program areas. A great deal of progress has been made by breaking down sustainability into components like purchasing, dining, waste management, energy, and course offerings. In fact, this reductionist step is very likely a necessary one to practice the basic principles of sustainability within a familiar framework. However, that framework is ultimately limiting in its ability to help us achieve our most ambitious sustainability performance goals.

The biggest challenge we face on campus and as a society is systematic culture change. Princeton has a very strong plan in place for addressing campus infrastructure and academic programs, and we are now beginning to explore pieces of the more difficult social transformation puzzle.

At Princeton one of our explorations is the fledgling Sustainability Ambassador Program. This program will identify and train staff from various departments across campus to initiate programs appropriate for their departments and interests. Another initiative is incorporating student and faculty social science research when developing approaches to communicating sustainability, and to design communication tools that reflect what we learn. In this way we hope to expand our conceptual framework to better mirror the real complexities of the sustainability challenge, and to reinforce in ourselves the type of thinking we need to address those challenges.