Sustainability studies in higher education

Authored by: Teresa Sabol Spezio

Routledge Handbook of the History of Sustainability

Print publication date:  October  2017
Online publication date:  October  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138685796
eBook ISBN: 9781315543017
Adobe ISBN:


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The study and institutionalization of sustainability in colleges and universities evolved out of environmental studies (ES) programs, increasing corporate thought in academic decision-making, and the desire for colleges to meet sustainability goals that minimize costs, promote social justice, and attract students. 1 There are many other factors that drove the study of sustainability, but these three factors assist in explaining the reasons for sustainability’s sometime incoherent definition and presence on campus. Beginning with the Brundtland Report’s (1987) definition of sustainable development, which empowered non-profit organizations and other organizations to consider their own impacts and the ability to incorporate non-monetary methods for considering development successes, to John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line (TBL), which gave corporations and other managed entities a way to integrate sustainability into their operations, the term sustainability gave institutions of higher education a subject that most academic disciplines could use as a framework for curriculum. 2 Sustainability related to just about everything and therefore found a home in diverse faculties and departments. Moreover, just as many researchers have adopted sustainability as a prism through which to view their own research, the bureaucracies within universities also turned to sustainability, hence the near-universal presence of “offices of sustainability” on university campuses. But these linkages complicate the means and methods used by universities and colleges to incorporate sustainability into their respective curricula. The complicated concept has not slowed down the growth of sustainability as a field of study; if anything it has increased the spread of sustainability, as “sustainability studies” has now become, in some places, its own interdisciplinary department or program. Many colleges and universities have created schools, programs, minors, and certificates in sustainability studies. Sustainability certificates, minors, and degrees can be earned in disciplines as disparate as gender and women studies and engineering programs.

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