• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


It's Not Easy Being AASHE

Challenges for a sustainability organization for higher ed.

May 16, 2013

For the six years or so that I've been focusing on campus sustainability, I've thought of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) as my professional membership organization.  I haven't spent a whole lot of each business day thinking about the organization, although sometimes I access information from its website or attend its conference.

But, AASHE is going through a bit of a rough patch (declining income leading to decreased staff leading to diminishing service offerings), a number of campus sustainability folk are displeased with how the staff reductions were handled, and the resulting brouhaha has caused me to think more explicitly about the organization.  I've come to realize that AASHE (at least as most campus sustainability folk experience it) isn't really a typical  membership organization, and it's really not about professionalism in the ordinary sense of that term.

AASHE was formed in (arguably, to engender) a ground-swell of support for campus sustainability around the middle of the last decade.  Originating as the Consortium for Environmental Education in Medicine in 2005, it quickly renamed itself and broadened its charter to address implementation of "such programs as ... shall have all professionals understand the relationship of the physical, natural and social environment to human health, prosperity and sustainability and utilize that knowledge in their professional practice".  Looking back from a distance of eight years, that original charge seems remarkably clear, remarkably comprehensive, remarkably ambitious, and only distantly related to the vast majority of AASHE's activities in the intervening period.

  • The focus on "all professionals" has been broadened, and thereby softened, to include all college and university students.  Presumably, folks who become professionals attain that status, in part, by surviving a college/university educational experience, but any time a target audience's scope gets expanded by two or three orders of magnitude, the design of programs to enable understanding of any complex subject becomes much more difficult and so much less likely of success.
  • Explicit reference to human health and prosperity has pretty much disappeared.  The two goals remain, almost exclusively, as elements of the increasingly general term "sustainability".  But "sustainability", itself, remains assertively undefined in AASHE circles.  As a result, the organization's real-world chances of implementing "programs as ... shall have all ... understand the relationship" becomes effectively zero, and the likelihood that such knowledge will inform subsequent professional (or even non-professional) practice in any significant way becomes infinitesimal.
  • My impression, consistent with the impressions of many of the experienced campus sustainability administrators I've spoken to, is that AASHE's primary effective focus has been on creating itself as a sustainable not-for-profit organization (admittedly, no trivial task) rather than on directly addressing its initial charter or significantly professionalizing those at its member institutions who still aspire to its original goal.

How does one create a sustainable 501(c)(3) organization?  By recruiting members and by providing them with a range of services for which they're willing to send you money on a continuing basis.  The members are colleges, universities and (demarked by a seemingly insignficant "associate member" status) government bodies, NGOs and for-profit businesses.  The monies are a combination of annual dues (the only real requirement for membership) and conference fees (but the conference throws off little in the way of net revenue -- membership dues are at the heart of AASHE's business model).  A glance at AASHE's staff directory shows that about a third of employees are charged with performing business operations, another third with providing IT and web support, and the remainder with devising/creating/delivering whatever programs still exist as descendants of those aspired to in the original charter.  The current unrest among still-engaged AASHE members is founded in the fact that, faced with declining revenues and a need to reduce staff, a large majority of positions eliminated were in the Programs area, with Operations and IT staffing only minimally affected.

In a very real sense, AASHE's current troubles are a direct result of its initial success, the decisions that facilitated it, and the (often implicit) decisions that flowed out of it.  Unlike NACUBO, NACUFS, ACUHO-I or APPA, AASHE wasn't created to serve an existing constituency within higher-ed institutions.  Colleges and universities were already performing business operations, providing food and housing, operating campus facilities; organizations to serve/improve/professionalize those constituencies came into existence knowing who their members were, knowing what those members were charged with doing, knowing what "better" meant (albeit with a certain amount of variety), thus knowing that they had a target audience of sufficient size, motivation and willingness to pay.  AASHE knew none of those things, so its initial task was to encourage colleges and universities to value something called "sustainability" enough to be willing to pay money to learn how to achieve it.

When your initial task is to convince folks to send you money in the hope of attaining something which they never previously (at least, in any explicit from) knew they wanted (insert Larry the Cable Guy reference here), you naturally try to erect as few other barriers to participation as possible.  No tough concepts, no tough commitments, no tough standards, nothing that potential members might find off-putting.  And you focus your early efforts on programs and concepts which have potential to deliver early results.  Ideally, financial results because that's what justify financial expenditures like annual dues.  The relatively easy stuff -- lowering energy bills and increasing recycling jump immediately to mind.  Those, understandably, are the things AASHE did.  But they seem to have done them at the expense of virtually eliminating any emphasis on achieving their originally stated goals.  And, unfortunately, on retaining any significant capacity to clarify, objectify, quantify those original goals in hope of addressing them in the near future.

At present, AASHE's Board of Directors is taking a step back, looking at the organization's overall situation and how it developed, and trying to figure out how to address the challenges that exist while living within the constraints that apply.  Some of what they need to resolve relates directly to the organization's failure to address its original charter, and some of it falls into the more general arena of healthy organizational dynamics.

More on each of those, next time.


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