Community colleges and sustainability


Faced with the aftermath of the “great recession,” increasing concern about the environment and dwindling family wage jobs, we have some very important choices to make about our future.

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Faced with the aftermath of the “great recession,” increasing concern about the environment and dwindling family wage jobs, we have some very important choices to make about our future. It is both a crisis and an opportunity. As we rebuild we must make decisions based on the triple bottom line – the inter-connection of economic viability, social justice and environmental soundness. Strong and immediate action is essential. One segment of higher education, community colleges, boldly embraces that challenge.

Spurred by a developing green economy and the notion of “Think Globally, Act Locally,” community colleges are in an ideal position to make a real difference. Many are actively engaged in sustainability and green workforce development. They are stepping up to the plate to meet their educational and social imperative to build healthy and economically viable communities by fully embracing sustainability as a core responsibility. They understand that the “greening” of America is not a fleeting fad. It will continue to influence and impact our lives, requiring the development of eco-conscious, highly skilled workers, citizens and communities.

Community colleges are expected to play a leadership role in educating and training the workforce for their local economy. Thanks to close connections with local and regional labor markets, colleges assure a steady supply of skilled workers by understanding the needs of business and industry, identifying gaps and developing and adapting programs that are responsive to the demand.

Many green jobs span several economic sectors such as renewable energy, construction, manufacturing, transportation and agriculture. While there are emerging occupations such as solar and wind technologists, the majority of the jobs will evolve from existing jobs. Both will require new knowledge, skills and abilities.  For community colleges, this means developing new programs that meet newly created industry standards and adapting existing programs and courses to integrate green skills. As noted in Going Green: The Vital Role of Community Colleges in Building a Sustainable Future and Green Workforce, community colleges are strategically positioned to work with employers to redefine skills and competencies needed by the green workforce and to work with K-12, universities and community-based organizations to create the framework for new and expanded green career pathways. The key is to create a new talent pool of environmentally-conscious, highly skilled workers.

Two significant opportunities are at hand for community colleges. The first is encouraging student leadership. Today’s students have their own concerns about the environment. They have the expectation that colleges not only understand the issues but respond proactively. They won’t settle for rhetoric; they expect to see tangible action. This provides avenues for student engagement and real world problem solving that make education more relevant and enhance student learning outcomes. The second is using the college as a living laboratory. Colleges can use their facilities, classrooms and systems to provide real time, practical and hands-on experiences for students. This can result in new energy sources for college operations, for example, from the installation of solar panels, but more importantly it improves student learning and supports a multi-faceted sustainability program without a huge investment of funds.

In his book Cradle to Cradle, Bill McDonough declared, “All sustainability is local.” Knowing and being intimately connected to a particular region are hallmarks of the community college and are fundamental components of sustainability. This connection to place makes community colleges particularly well-suited to engage communities in living sustainably. Most community college students are local residents who stay in the community, building on the competence they gained as students. They become part of a larger, connected community where they make contributions to local sustainability.

Oregon is fortunate to have many higher education institutions committed to sustainability. For example, both Lane Community College and Portland State University have been recognized as leaders in sustainability by the U.S Green Building Council Center for Green Schools. Both are active in the American Colleges and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) which requires the development of a comprehensive plan to achieve climate neutrality and reduce greenhouse gases.

Community colleges must build on this expertise by pursuing strategic partnerships with K-12, economic development organizations, industry, labor, local government, and community-based organizations. Together, we can educate the community about the triple bottom line, and facilitate regulatory changes for a sustainable future. We can convene stakeholders to form regional visions for sustainable communities, in all three parts of the triple bottom line. The partnerships can leverage and align public and private funding sources and build on existing infrastructures, which is essential in these tough budget times.

Community colleges and its partners are faced with great opportunities to make a real difference if we seize the moment and start the hard work of building sustainable institutions and communities.

Mary Spilde is President of Lane Community College.



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