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A Sustainable AASHE (?)
May 23, 2013 - 5:45pm

To begin, let me correct an error in my previous post.  I stated that the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) had grown out of an earlier and more specialized organization called the Consortium for Environmental Education in Medicine.  I thought that to be true based on governing documents published on the AASHE website, but the actual history is somewhat different.  I've been told by One Who Was There that, functionally and operationally, AASHE started out as a grant-funded regional effort -- EfS West.  When a decision was made to expand to national scale, conversion of the approved-but-inoperative CEEM charter was decided upon as likely easier and less expensive than starting a whole new non-profit application from scratch.  Thus, the paper trail indicates one history but reality lies somewhere else.

That historical misunderstanding aside, AASHE does currently face significant challenges including, but not limited to, those mentioned earlier.  I don't want to kick a well-intentioned organization when it's down.  Rather, I'd like to offer some thoughts and suggestions about how AASHE -- still the best candidate we've got for a higher ed sustainability professional membership organization -- can reshape itself for future success.

  1. First and foremost, AASHE needs to find a way to make absolutely clear what it's trying to achieve.  The term "sustainability" is almost as broad as the term "virtue".  I'm pretty much in favor of each, but saying that an organization is trying to promote either doesn't really tell me very much.  It's OK for an organization like AASHE to chase a goal which evolves somewhat over time -- refining its vision of the end state it's trying to attain can be evidence of learning and growth.  But it's not OK to avoid stating, as best it can, what the organization is striving to accomplish, at least in qualitative terms.  The more precisely a goal can be expressed, the more effectively it can be promoted and justified.  Other organizations (e.g., The Natural Step, ICLEI, the Global Reporting Initiative) have been more explicit in defining sustainability than has AASHE to date -- it's not easy, but it's not impossible.
  2. AASHE needs to be clear about just who it's trying to organize.  Right now, the target audience seems to include sustainability staff, faculty who want (or should want) to teach about sustainability, leaders of educational institutions, directors and managers of administrative and auxiliary operations with sustainability implications, students, alumni, athletics departments, campus contractors and suppliers, and pretty much everybody else in town.  Trying to communicate to such a diverse audience means that the message gets softened; soft messaging ne'er won anything.
  3. If AASHE determines to engage seriously with society's range of sustainability problems, its role will be far different from that of most higher ed professional membership organizations.  The typical such organization focuses on standardizing, improving, promoting, fine-tuning the performance of an established organizational role which is likely to continue well into the future.  AASHE, on the other hand, needs to position and organize itself to focus on creating, enabling, evolving, and empowering the performance of a nascent organizational role the purpose of which is to change the future.  Significantly.  Using higher ed as a lever.
  4. Promoting change is an inherently creative process.  Creative processes can't be managed bureaucratically, nor can they succeed if they just muddle along.  Dave Newport at UC-Boulder has a good blog post that describes (about half-way down) how AASHE has suffered from a management structure based on the generally messy and muddle-filled leadership pattern of higher ed itself.  That's probably pretty accurate, and it's led to a situation where a lot of smart, motivated hard-working people have been engaged with an organization that's less than the sum of its parts.  Dave's calls for a more democratic organizational process seem generally appropriate, although how that process is shaped will prove critical to its success.
  5. One key component of AASHE's target membership needs to be sustainability staff.  I'm tempted to say that it's the key component, but that may be true only in the short term.  If the lever that is higher education is to succeed in moving Western society towards a more sustainable future, the real key membership will become faculty and disciplinary associations.  What sustainability staff are key to is the creation of a campus environment in which serious academic engagement with sustainability problems, sustainable practices, sustainable technologies (or the need for such) is both expected and facilitated.  Staff can't directly motivate changes in curriculum, but we can ease the path for faculty who decide to make such changes, and we can foment expectation of (demand for) such changes within the student body.  This will be a significant cultural change for many campus operational departments, whose traditionally duty has been to protect faculty and students from outside reality, rather than help engage them with it.
  6. As regards organizational dynamics, I'd suggest that AASHE think about a two-dimensional structure to actively engage its membership.  One dimension should be geographic, because the simple truth is that different regions of the USA and the world will experience different sustainability challenges -- Portland, ME and Phoenix, AZ are already both experiencing climate change, but they're experiencing it quite differently.  A second dimension might resemble the Special Interest Groups that exist within many technology user groups and professional membership organizations -- perhaps framed on a taxonomy of practice or focus areas such as energy conservation, energy supply, water supply, waste/resource stream management, procurement, transit, creation of sustainability learning environments/labs, etc.  The specific mix of interest groups will vary regionally, and it will evolve over time.
  7. It seems important that AASHE's senior management be elected by its general membership, and that its structure represent all regions and all significant SIG's.  (Perhaps newly-formed SIG's should exhibit a certain constituency or durability before being granted a seat at the table, but that's a design detail.)  By allowing members to select both regionally-based and interest-group-based representatives,  AASHE can rekindle and (I hope) sustain membership interest, involvement and ownership.  The management structure which results will almost certainly be more unwieldy and unruly than AASHE's current self-perpetuating board, but I see that as a good thing.  Sometimes "ruly" isn't energetic.  It's not engaged.  It's not creative.
  8. It also seems important that the role of "associate members" (governments, NGOs, foundations, associations, for-profit corporations) be addressed.  If AASHE is to thrive, colleges and universities have to feel engaged and energized.  They need to feel ownership of the organization.  They need support (technical and financial) from the government and private sectors, but higher ed needs to feel it's in charge.  Associate members should have a voice at the governance table, but I question whether they should have a vote.  The not-for-profit sector will want to support AASHE if AASHE shows itself capable of enabling substantial beneficial change.  The for-profit sector will want to support and engage AASHE if AASHE demonstrates an ability to motivate substantial change-implementing projects and practices.  Both types of associate members will remain engaged if AASHE is demonstrably effective, and AASHE seems most likely to be truly effective if it's able to fully involve its core membership.

This list is far from complete.  Achieving these changes won't suffice, but I suspect that failure to achieve at least the majority of these changes will leave AASHE still on a downward spiral.  The good news is that AASHE's board is now awake, it's made significant senior management changes already, it describes itself as poised for an extended period of questioning, listening, analyzing, and decision-making.  The bad news is that AASHE's board has been divided, risk-averse, and fairly passive in the past; whether the same people operating (at least formally) in the same self-perpetuating structure can reinvent what's been their organization to the point that it's no longer "theirs" remains to be seen.

One can only hope.

 

 

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