THE BLOG
11/10/2014 12:54 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Facing One of the Greatest Human Rights Challenges of Our Time

This fall, I joined college presidents from around the country to plan ways to strengthen campus climate action and sustainability initiatives. Our institutions have a central role in preparing new generations to meet the challenges of climate change. Graduates in all fields must be equipped to create systems that meet health, security, and economic needs in harmony with our precious environment. This critical work cannot be done without profound support from more higher education leaders and the great faculty and committed students of our institutions.

Inspirational Wheelock College 2007 Honorary Degree recipient, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, powerfully stated the reality of climate change in September: "The destruction of the earth's environment is the human rights challenge of our time." As the leader of an institution that champions the well-being of all children and families, I am concerned about the impact of environmental degradation on communities around the world, especially in the face of catastrophic events. It is understood that all of Earth's systems are interconnected--we cannot look at them in isolation. What happens in our most developed communities as we use a disproportionate share of nature's resources will impact our developing communities as they strive to compete in our global economy. I am encouraged by our own students and those around the world as they challenge our institutional leaders to do more!

This past October, the Presidential Summit on Climate Leadership conference was convened to demonstrate our commitment to doing more, to discuss ways that colleges can assist in negating the effects of climate change on campuses, and to promote community dialogue. Many of the participants, like Wheelock, are signatories of the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) to recognize the dangers of climate change and commit to heading toward the goal of carbon neutrality. Academia is already demonstrating significant leadership in addressing climate change and is at the forefront of making changes in terms of carbon emissions as the third largest purchaser of Renewable Energy Credits.

At Wheelock, we have made a vital push to integrate sustainable practices on our campus as we attempt to create a healthy, just, and sustainable society, aligning with our mission to improve the lives of children and families. As a small, urban college, we use our creativity to strengthen sustainability on campus through leveraging collaborations with local organizations such as Colleges of the Fenway (COF) and Medical Academic and Scientific Community Organization (MASCO) to encourage alternative transportation methods for our employees and students. The College subsidizes 75% of its employees' public transit (T) passes, whereas the area standard for subsidization is 25-50%. Our new buildings have innovative design features such as light-absorbing windows, local materials, sensor operated lighting, and low-flow fixtures, that reduce the College's energy costs while conserving natural resources and helping the environment. As we renovate and upgrade older buildings, we are doing so using sustainable practices. Additionally, we have worked closely with our food vendor, Sodexo, to develop ways to reduce waste in our dining facilities. For example, removing trays is one way Wheelock and many other schools are minimizing food waste in cafeterias. While Wheelock has made progress towards the goal of carbon neutrality, we have a ways to go and continue to seek funding that can support these changes.

In addition to increasing our campus' sustainability, we are also committed to educating students who will be leaders in environmental advocacy and sustainability in the future. To that end, Wheelock created an undergraduate Environmental Studies Major and a minor in Sustainability though the six-college consortium of the COF to help our students understand the need to protect the world's resources for generations to come. Programs in environmental studies and sustainability are spreading as the growing population increases the demand for energy, water, and food and have become one of eleven hot majors that lead to careers with a future, according to US News and World Report. The Major in Environmental Studies provides students with the foundation required to study environmental issues through an interdisciplinary lens. The Minor in Sustainability seeks to educate students about the interdisciplinary aspects of science/technology, economics/public policy, and social justice that affect the ability of society to manage natural resources (such as clean air, water, energy) in a way in which those resources meet society's present and future needs. These programs are growing in popularity and students point to their interdisciplinary approach as key in helping them to get jobs tackling complex environmental challenges.

Through the COF Center for Sustainability for the Environment, Wheelock collaborates with faculty, staff, and students from the six member colleges to enhance understanding of the complex issues of sustainability as they relate to natural resources and the environment. The center focuses on how improvements in sustainability and urban environmental issues can be viewed as positive change regarding environmental justice.

Students hold tremendous power on college campuses and can have the highest level of influence in terms of making change. For this reason, I am thrilled that our first on campus eco-club, Wheelock Students for Environmental Action, was created. This student-led organization inspires upcoming generations to initiate sustainable lifestyles to prepare for the future. By partnering with faculty and staff, the club promotes environmental awareness, sustainability, and greener lifestyles on, and off-campus. A key component of the organization is collaborating with other environmental clubs within the COF to promote environmental activism across the community and increase outreach.

In facing one of today's most important human rights challenges, it's time that higher education takes a leadership role in responding to climate and sustainability challenges in community, regional, and national contexts. Combined, our campuses have the expertise, the research, and the desire to create real change. I am most confident that higher education leaders will take as many opportunities as possible, including future Presidential Summits on Climate Leadership, for administration, faculty, students, and staff to make visible sustained progress in our efforts to meet the challenges of climate change.