The Greatest Obstacle to Campus Sustainability

Early in my tenure as sustainability manager at Towson University, I noticed that there were no recycling bins in the main dining hall at the Student Union. In order to address this problem, I first went to the individual responsible for recycling and waste management on campus. “Oh no, that’s not our problem,” she said, “dining is managed by Auxiliary Services, you’ll have to go to them about that.” So I trotted off to Dining to try to figure out a solution. The response I got was essentially, Dining Services is contracted out to Chartwells, so we are not responsible for the recycling practices of your university. Since I am not in the line of report to the Vice President of Auxiliary Services, in order for a message from me to reach him, I had to speak with my manager, the Director of Planning, to speak to his manager, the AVP of Facilities Management, to speak to his manager, who could speak to the VP of Auxiliary Services, and could then instruct the Dining Services manager.

The situation at the Union dining hall led to an investigation of recycling on campus more broadly. I discovered that recycling was spotty at other dining halls on campus, the bins were totally inconsistent and signage nonexistent, there were no recycling bins in any classrooms, and there were way too many outdoor trash cans. What was a small problem turned out to be symptomatic of a huge problem; which led to a recycling inventory that took an entire summer to complete, and an 80 page report/proposal that required an executive summary to be digestible to the decision makers four levels removed from me that I was not allowed to communicate directly with. A solution as simple as putting a recycling bin in a dining hall turned into this huge ordeal that could not be implemented even a year later.

Fast forward to AASHE Conference 2014. I am sitting in a presentation by Leith Sharp, and she is saying that the obstacle to campus sustainability is not the lack of a business case– sustainability has a strong business case–it is the siloed and hierarchical management structure that sustainability managers are up against in higher education. Ideas get stuck in the multiple layers of decision making that they have to go through, or change agents end up having to exert an inordinate amount of effort to get buy-in from everyone for even the smallest of initiatives.

In the traditional management system, employees are discouraged from being change agents because the decision makers sit at the top of the pyramid and those at the bottom are tasked with implementing those decisions, not to question them or to come up with new ideas. No wonder more than 90% of the American workforce feel like cogs in the machinery, waiting for 5pm or the weekend. While those at the top who are saddled with all the decision making are stressed out, overworked, and disconnected from the work their employees do.

On a Powerpoint slide in a crowded conference room, Leith Sharp displays the visual for two management structures, a traditional hierarchical one that looks like a pyramid, and an “Emergent Operating System” that looks like the diagram for a complex molecule, rings connected to each other in a complex network of relationships. Leith explained that change is most effective in an Emergent Operating System where ideas can come from any part of the organization, and individuals, regardless of where they sit, can mobilize around an idea and are empowered to make it happen. In a traditional management system, change is only effective when it comes from the top, and grassroots efforts often fail for the lack of a high level champion. Or else change only happens in the grassroots individual’s domain and rarely have the effect of systematic change for the whole institution.

Leith argued that the Emergent Operating System can seem quite subversive to those in the hierarchical management system, but in fact the two can co-exist and complement each other. Each has its own advantages and are more appropriate for certain situations than others. One attendee pointed out that the Emergent Operating System is more like nature’s operating system, which values diversity and encourages innovation and experimentation. I was thinking that rather than shifting to the Emergent Operating System all together, it would be a huge improvement if the lines of communication and influence in the traditional management system could be drawn sideways and diagonally sometimes, and (god forbid) between departments, instead of always up and down.

Because this is what’s radical about sustainability, and why it is so challenging and even threatening to the status quo. It is not about greening operations, but a fundamental change in the way we manage our organizations. Sustainability demands that a problem be approached from many different facets, instead of in the strict siloes that we are used to. It calls for collaboration between departments and levels. Under the current structure, investments made in one department that pay back into another destroy the business case for change. And one short sighted individual can impede progress desired by everyone else. And the attitude that it’s somebody else’s job to care makes us all takers instead of stewards of our resources. Sustainability means allowing the best ideas to come forward, and empowering the individuals best equipped to implement change the mandate to do so. It means activating everyone’s sense of responsibility for the commons, rather than incentivizing each for his own.

In Marcelo Bonta’ AASHE speech on Monday evening, he talked about how the environmental movement must embrace diversity in order for it to succeed. As an idealistic Yale graduate and person of color, he found employment with his dream environmental organization after graduation. But after years of working in the movement, he described himself as being “chewed up and spit out by the movement that he had hoped would accept him as one of its own.” He soon found out that his experience wasn’t unique to minorities, but white people also experienced “not being able to bring their whole selves to work.” But the real issue is not white vs color, it’s the suppression of diverse modes of being in all our institutions. Higher education, with its hierarchical management structure, is notoriously bad at changing quickly to respond to new circumstances.

In nature, an ecosystem is most resilient when it is most diverse. Diversity and equity are not just civil right issues to make everyone feel more comfortable, but fundamental to the change we need to have a planet that is inhabitable by future generations.


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