Writer: Kim Kisner

Educational Institutions Have the Opportunity to Affect the Next Generation in Carrying Sustainability Actions Forward

Published On September 27, 2022

When it comes to sustainability, colleges and universities are in a unique position in that they must approach it from an implementation standpoint, but they also have the opportunity to deeply educate and affect the next generation in carrying sustainability actions forward.

According to Rose Spickler, director of statewide engagement at the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF), which runs the Campus Sustainability Collective, colleges and universities across the state are in various stages of their sustainability journeys.

The WMSBF Campus Sustainability Collective is a collaboration between staff and faculty from campuses across Michigan that share resources to improve their respective sustainability goals. The group consists of representatives from over 20 Michigan campuses, including Eastern Michigan University, Siena Heights University, and Wayne State University.

Eastern Michigan University began formal efforts around sustainability practices ten years ago and has seen continued passion and involvement from students. Five years ago, one student championed the goal of starting a President’s Commission on Sustainability on campus and four years ago, the commission was formed.

Water Fountain 150x150

Wayne State University established an Office of Sustainability in 2011 and has a five-year sustainability action plan in place.

Siena Heights University, in Adrian, formed a Sustainability Committee in 2012 and has made progress in recycling, food choices, and the execution of a campus-wide energy audit. The institution is also incorporating sustainability into its curriculum.

SBND spoke to all three institutions about their challenges, gains, and plans.

Q: What are your main areas of focus and achievements to date when it comes to sustainability?

Thomas Kovacs, Professor, Department of Geography and Geology, Eastern Michigan University

Our President’s Sustainability Commission identified Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS) and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) as governing bodies to help us determine our framework, and we have been working within these guidelines toward sustainability. As such, our focus is academics, engagement, operations, and administration.

On campus, a co-generation heat and power system has been installed to create an annual reduction of 21,305 tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the preservation of 260 acres of forests.

The campus also has a bioswale designed to remove debris and pollution out of surface runoff water. It also serves as a living laboratory for students and staff.

In 2020, Eastern Michigan University was ranked by U.S. News and World Report as 123 in the nation among 389 national universities, and among the top three national universities in Michigan in the social mobility category. We are very proud of this.

Donna Kashian, Director of Environmental Science, and Professor of Biology, Wayne State University

We established our Office of Sustainability in 2011 and it is a collaboration between groups. We have just submitted a new five-year plan that is very robust, and includes these subdivisions:

  • Environmental justice
  • Carbon reduction
  • Built environment
  • Water quality and quantity
  • Energy
  • Transportation/mobility
  • Urban biodiversity
  • Sustainable food practices
  • Waste reduction

We are more intentional now than ever before. Internally we focus on teaching, research, and facilities, and externally we are committed to doing a better job recognizing our place in the community with a larger focus on the greater Detroit area. We also network with leaders at other universities across the world to learn best practices in sustainability.

Thomas Wassmer, Professor of Biology, Siena Heights University

One of the areas we’ve been successful in is our curriculum. Recently we audited all course descriptions and found that 31% cover at least one of the 17 Sustainability Development Goals of the UN. That is a solid start, and we are working to increase this.

One thing we are proud of is our William Issa Endowment Speaker Series where we invite extraordinary speakers in to educate on the environment and sustainability. We also feature an environmental documentary series that’s in its 14th season and is open to the students, staff, and public.

What are your main goals going forward?

Thomas Kovacs, Professor in the Department of Geography and Geology, Eastern Michigan University

Our focus is to improve our STARS score and to work on communicating to the university how we plan to move ahead. I envision in the next two to three years we will greatly improve on our STARS scores.

Donna Kashian, Director of Environmental Sciences, and Professor of Biology, Wayne State University

We are excited about our new five-year plan and expect to move a lot of efforts forward in the upcoming months and years. For this plan, we called on specific people and groups and outlined action items – things they need to do. I expect to see a lot of visible changes on campus.

We are also anticipating a big announcement in October regarding our carbon commitment.

Thomas Wassmer, Associate Professor of Biology, Siena Heights University

Using more renewable energy sources to reduce our carbon footprint, working toward a pesticide-free and chemical-free campus, and increasing its biodiversity. I’m a big advocate of maintaining our vegetative structures


differently. We need to overcome the idea that to look inviting and well taken care of, the campus has to be perfectly manicured and blacktopped. We are working to get there.

What has been most rewarding to you in your journey toward sustainability?

Thomas Kovacs, Professor in the Department of Geography and Geology, Eastern Michigan University

When I dug in, I saw so many people quietly working on campus trying to make things better who nobody knew about. Learning how much individuals care has been the most rewarding thing.

For example, we had one person who was taking care of the grounds and working on recycling efforts and creating composting opportunities. Another person put boxes out at the end of the semesters during move-out times to collect electronics and such to avoid them going into landfills.

These grassroots efforts matter and we are working to formalize plans and gain strength in collaborating.

Donna Kashian, Director of Environmental Sciences, and Professor of Biology, Wayne, State University

It’s been most rewarding seeing the passion of the students and faculty, many of which are volunteering their time on the sustainability efforts. We all recognize we have to do better. It’s rewarding brainstorming with faculty within different disciplines and with the students. It gives us something to feel like we can all make a difference and it’s invigorating. 

Thomas Wassmer, Associate Professor of Biology, Siena Heights University

Having discussions with students who didn’t have any idea these things are going on in the world and seeing their interest and desire to help.

I hope that what they begin to learn here will motivate them throughout their lives. And when these individuals are in positions to decide on things in their lives, they lean into what they have learned regarding sustainability practices and continue putting them in place and championing them in the future.


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