Academics Push for Sustainability, But do They Live and Work It?

Academics Push for Sustainability, But do They Live and Work It?

Attend a sustainability-themed conference or peruse through the web, and you will hear from academics who urge for companies to be more transparent in their business practices.  Much of the debate over issues like climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and what happened to global financial markets is due to the research and hard work of university academics.  For that enormous body of work, we should be thankful.  Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a hot topic now, especially after a certain spill in the Gulf.  And corporations’ behavior in the past has spurred this interest.

But when you urge organizations to clean their houses—shouldn’t you start with you own?

The recent controversy of Sarah Palin’s visit to Cal-State Stanislaus is a case in point.  A university can invite whoever it wants, in my view.  Too often universities became Petri dishes of political correctness, so if you do not agree with Sarah Palin, then you do not have to show up at her speech.  But for over a generation, the cost of college tuition has far outpaced inflation and the costs of other goods and services.  Students, faculty, and other stakeholders have the right to know how much they are paying the former governor, as well as the other expenses involved.  To that end, university fundraising deserves scrutiny.  If you are paying someone, say, $150,000 to raise--$175,000, I want to know.  If you are lassoing students to volunteer their time to call alumni for donations—you should disclose it.  So why didn’t the power-that-be at CSS just say how much it cost to have Ms. Palin show up?  And as someone who graduated from a large local private school, I would like to know not only how much money the school raises annually, but how much they spend to obtain it.

Universities are also large consumers of energy and producers of trash.  I know solar projects are expensive and not every campus will open a solar farm like that of New Jersey’s Rutgers-Livingston campus, but nevertheless, if a school is incubating thought leaders on the sustainability front, I would be curious to know if there is any attempt to practice what they preach.  Furthermore, where is all that campus waste going?  How much of it is diverted?  The methodology behind how greenhouse gas emissions are measured fascinates me—but it is not just businesses who are contributing to pollution and other problems that are hurting the planet—a campus of 30,000, or even 2,000 students, does a number on the environment, too.

Finally, as someone who studied the American labor movement in a past life, I want to know whether a university’s labor practices, are fair, equitable, and sustainable.  How many of the university’s employees are on the administrative side?  And if I am going to send a fat check to my alma mater, am I really helping student programs—or am I helping to support an unsustainable pension scheme?  How many temporary workers are doing the work that could be done by full-time staff with benefits?  What is the retirement age and how is the pension fund performing?  Who is cleaning the halls and how are the compensated?  Finally, how many graduate assistants are on campus, and how many hours a week are they really working, and what is their pay?

Few universities disclose this information readily in an easy to find format.  One leader is the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, which uses the Global Reporting Initiative framework.  There are sites that purport to aggregate such data, but they are difficult to take seriously.  Take the College Sustainability Report Card, which supposedly is the leader is campus sustainability reporting, uses questionable metrics in measuring how “green” campuses are—and of the 48 or so benchmarks, a standardized report is not part of its equation.  Dare I say the reports read more like a US News & World Report of college rankings, and knowing how accurate those surveys are, I cannot take it seriously.

Too often business is the bogeyman in the sustainability world.  But CSR starts with those who preach it.  Universities are huge employers and have a large presence in the communities in which they operate—and they are not immune from transparency.


Leon Kaye is editor and principal of, which focuses on CSR and renewable energy issues.  He also writes for  Most recently, he was invited by to report at the Global Reporting Initiative's biennial conference in Amsterdam.  He is an advocate of integrated reporting and his long-term goal is to have a role with a multinational firm's sustainability division.