Sustainability in Higher Education

with Meghan Fay Zahniser of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

American colleges and universities are increasingly prioritizing environmental sustainability on campus.

Meghan Fay Zahniser of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education discusses academia’s role in driving sustainable development.

Posted on:

March 31, 2020

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, creating a healthy planet where we can all thrive. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. To move toward a sustainable planet, everyone must do their part. And many colleges and universities are leading the charge. Here with me to discuss higher education's role in sustainable development is Meghan Fay Zahniser. She is the executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Meghan, welcome.

Zahniser: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

Anderson: So, the first question -- What is the definition of "sustainability"?

Zahniser: Simply put, because I think that makes sense for everybody, sustainability is really about a healthy planet and healthy people, 'cause we can't have one without the other.

Anderson: So the whole idea here is that the children are our future. And I know that your organization is really using a lot of these tools to teach them to help them help us win the sustainability battle. What are you doing?

Zahniser: You got it. So my organization, AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, is really helping anyone in colleges and universities provide them tools to help their institution advance sustainability. So what that means is that, of course, colleges and universities are known for being hubs of innovation, creativity, and it's where students are becoming informed about not only what's happening in the world but how they might be able to be great leaders into the future. So, AASHE, our organization, really believes we need to be prioritizing students learning about sustainability while they're in university or college so they can go out into the world not only informed about the sustainability challenges that we're facing, but also equipped with solutions to address those challenges.

Anderson: So what are some of those solutions? I mean, what are the innovative things that these students are doing as a result of your work?

Zahniser: I mean, absolutely incredible work. There's hundreds of institutions, really, around the globe that are involved in our organization that are using our STARS Rating System to report their sustainability performance. And that goes across not just the built environment, like the operational lens of sustainability, like waste, water, energy, but also thinking about the curriculum and academics, how researchers and faculty are integrating sustainability into the curriculum. So there are examples of students around the country, if not around the globe, that are leading the fight against climate change, that are pushing for renewable energy, that are encouraging their institutions to divest from fossil fuels. They're doing exemplary work. And there's also thousands of change agents that are directors of sustainability, that are sustainability faculty that have been working at these institutions, again, around the globe, really trying to prioritize their institution's role in creating a more sustainable society.

Anderson: So when it comes to these colleges and universities and their role, are we talking about places that are doing this on an operational level, that this is part of their curriculum for students? Is this a combo?

Zahniser: A combo. Exactly right. And, you know, sustainability lives in different places on different campuses. And what I mean by that is, on some college campuses, students are leading everything, in terms of progressive change on those campuses. At other institutions, sustainability has become such an important part of the fabric of the institution. And therefore, faculty, staff, and students are working together to prioritize sustainability. So there are different people at different institutions around the globe that really have different opportunities for advancing sustainability in higher education.

Anderson: And what are you hearing at the student level, after they participate and create their own innovative tools and ideas, what are they saying to you about what they took away from what it was that you gave them?

Zahniser: I mean, students have -- Basically, they have transformative experiences in higher education. And so many of them participate within AASHE. They come to our annual conference. They participate in our educational offerings. Their eyes are open to the challenges that our world are facing, and then they're going out seeking job opportunities where they can really advance sustainability solutions. And we've heard from so many that are now on a path of not only being sustainable consumers and sustainable leaders in their own communities, but they are encouraging their companies that they're working for to take a more sustainable path.

Anderson: So, last question. You're sort of an example of this. You've worked in sustainability, I think, since you graduated college.

Zahniser: Exactly.

Anderson: How valuable is it to have that sort of insight from the very beginning? What does that do to you?

Zahniser: I mean, you're exactly right. I am sort of a product of what an organization like AASHE really -- the impact that we can have, because, as a student in my undergraduate institution, that's when I first learned about sustainability. It's when I first learned about the challenges that our society was facing in terms of social as well as environmental. And that's where I became incredibly motivated and inspired to be a part of that solution. So now, 20 years later, here I am still a part of supporting change agents that, again, are using the platform that is higher education to inspire the next generation to, again, advance sustainability and create a more sustainable society.

Anderson: And hopefully you'll be doing this for many more years. Meghan, thank you for joining us.

Zahniser: Thank you so much, Tetiana.

Anderson: And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and around the nation, be sure to visit I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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