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  • Getting to Green

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

Getting engaged
February 23, 2011 - 9:00pm

For a while now, I've been noticing that the schools which seem to be making the most progress at becoming more sustainable are the schools that do the best job of engaging their students in general. Or, more accurately, I've noticed that the schools that don't engage their students don't make progress.

Now, student engagement is a topic that's been studied a fair amount. The National Survey of Student Engagement is widely known, widely respected. Students who are actively engaged with (and in) their institutions tend to be more successful. They're more likely to be retained at the end of the first year, more likely to graduate within any defined timeframe, more likely to be employed or in grad school six months after graduation.

But the benefits of engagement don't accrue exclusively to the students. And the institution benefits not just in terms of the numbers in its Common Data Set. It's become apparent to me that the schools that do the best job of engagement are the ones that have the easiest time changing their institutional cultures, and changing institutional culture (and the behavior that stems from it) is key to becoming less unsustainable.

When you walk onto an unfamiliar campus, it's pretty easy to determine the level of student engagement. Oh, not to the number of decimal places that NSSE calculates, but at a ballpark level. On some campuses, the students commune; on others, they just coexist.

But I'm thinking that there's more to the community being able to shape its own culture than just a sense of shared identity. Some schools have identities that coalesce around traditions. Others coalesce around sports teams. The traditionalists aren't interested in cultural change, and the sports fanatics really aren't either (unless we're talking about the change that's necessary to snap out of a slump).

I could be wrong here, but it seems likely that the schools which are best at communal management of institutional culture are the ones where the students are engaged with the curriculum. In today's environment (educational as primarily an individual good), that often means schools where the students know that they're in school in order to prepare to do a job. To have a vocation. Polytechnics, but also good small liberal arts colleges. Not so much the multiversities.

Some institutions seem offer both knowledge and the freedom to wrestle with it. Discussion is more likely to be animated within the classroom, and more likely to extend beyond it. Students, both individually and in groups, feel a sense of involvement in their institution and in the education which they're gaining from it. Even a visitor can tell this, because it's expressed in the air, and on the walls, and chalked on the sidewalk.

So here's an hypothesis: schools with a whole lot of chalk on their sidewalks/walls may not be effective in reshaping their institutional cultures towards more sustainable behaviors, but schools with little or no chalk won't be. Seattle (where there's no sense in chalking the sidewalks -- the rain will wash it away before you're finished) is an exception.

Of course, I could be wrong.


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