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Which Came First? A Grassroots or a Top-down Approach to Campus Sustainability

August 26, 2020 Eric University of Central Oklahoma

I’ve been thinking a lot about the minutia of what sustainability professionals (or student affairs professions interested in sustainability) do on campuses. It’s a fairly unique position, I think. Primarily, what I end up spending a lot of time on is the push and pull between two counteracting forces.


The first is what we might call “culture change.” This is a broad concept, but I mostly think about it from the perspective of pushing individuals and groups to be more sustainable while they are on campus (and in their lives). It relies on a grassroots approach and involves a coalition of students, faculty, and staff from all over the campus community pushing their respective areas to incorporate sustainability into classes, living spaces, purchasing habits, event planning, and on and on.


The second is what I think of administrative mandate. A top down approach to sustainability. This could be from the cabinet, dean’s council, the president herself, etc. This more of a grasstops approach. I’ve found that these types of mandates work well on some projects (mandating that all course evaluations should be online instead of paper form, for instance),but tend to get marred in politics more easily than the culture change approach.


I’ve thought a lot about these two approaches and how they interact with one another. Especially in light of covid-19 (you didn’t think we could go an entire post with mentioning it, did you?). I’ve found that there is a balance between the two that works well, but I am not convinced that one or the other is better at achieving results and implementing sustainability into various facets of campus. One way hand, a culture change approach seems to be much slower, and the results more variable because of the amount of buy in necessary for success. On the other hand, the administrative mandate can work on some projects, but ultimately needs to translate to more intrinsic motivations in order to truly last.


As we return to campuses that are both familiar and unfamiliar this Fall, it may be helpful to view the campus push for sustainability through a spectrum, administrative mandate on one end, and cultural change on the other.


Where does your campus fall along this spectrum? How can you push for sustainability utilizing one of these forces?