New Sustainability Institute committed to immersive education

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — President Abraham Lincoln, in a letter to Congress sent seven months before establishing land-grant colleges in 1862, issued a national challenge.

“It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘can we all do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew,” he said.

In 1863, the Pennsylvania State legislature designated Penn State the Commonwealth’s sole land-grant institution “to promote liberal and practical education.” After 130 years, we face the practical and global challenges of sustainability — from feeding a growing population to preserving Earth’s resources to ensuring energy security.

Penn State is proud to announce the launch of a Sustainability Institute to bring together researchers, educators, students, staff and community members from multiple colleges, campuses and frames of reference — all committed to critical, systems-level thinking. The Institute will dissolve the traditional boundaries of the classroom to partner operations with research, teaching with community engagement and all with each other.

Penn State has been actively engaged with sustainability for more than 20 years, but the Sustainability Institute represents an unprecedented new commitment.

Penn State President Rodney Erickson calls sustainability “the major theme of the 21st century” with the University “already establishing itself as a leader."

Penn State has been actively engaged with sustainability for more than 20 years, but the Sustainability Institute represents an unprecedented new commitment. Two of the sustainability cornerstones at the University — the Center for Sustainability and the Campus Sustainability Office — will be integrated into the Institute. While their names will become part of the history of sustainability at Penn State, their important work and continuing achievements will be fundamental elements of the Institute’s future. Their web pages will redirect to a new central portal — sustainability.psu.edu — and the information and services they have provided in the past will live on as fundamental resources of the Institute.

The formation of the Institute and sustainability.psu.edu began more than two years ago. Then-Provost Erickson charged a Sustainability Council comprised of 13 faculty, staff, students and administrators from across the institution to assess the existing sustainability efforts taking place at the University. They were to develop a strategic plan that would allow Penn State to maximize the impact of these efforts and receive the greatest return on investment from its sustainability research, teaching and outreach initiatives.

The Council investigated all of the major academic centers, research clusters, extension efforts and student groups and discovered what Tom Richard, director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, describes as “an extraordinary group of faculty, students and staff working on different dimensions of sustainability."

The Council conducted dozens of input sessions over 18 months and met with hundreds of students, teachers, researchers, deans, chancellors and local community members. They visited every Penn State campus, connecting with sustainability leaders across the state.

“Sustainability knowledge is not confined to energy and the environment. It is a fundamentally different way of approaching our living, working, designing and manufacturing.”

Lori Bechtel-Wherry, chancellor at Penn State Altoona, is a particular advocate of providing an education in sustainability and systems-level thinking. “Our students are the future generation of leaders,” she stresses, “and so it’s important for us to help them to both promote sustainability and to become advocates and change agents in their own right. If not us, then who?”

The Council distilled hundreds of recommendations and aspirations all into the Penn State Sustainability Strategic Plan, which defines sustainability as “the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well being for current and future generations.”

Modeled after Priorities for Excellence: The Penn State Strategic Plan, the sustainability plan has the appropriate and timely subtitle of Land Grant 2.0 because it represents a new century’s opportunity for the University to realize its full potential as an institution of truly higher learning. It has three overlapping goals for the University community to LEARN, LIVE and LEAD. The plan stresses that sustainability knowledge is not confined to energy and the environment. It is a fundamentally different way of approaching our living, working, designing and manufacturing.

The plan advocates the creation of a living laboratory, an atmosphere that encourages critical thinking and develops the University community’s capacities to account for the ethical, environmental and economic outcomes of their decisions — an immersive education in sustainability. The living laboratory will take advantage of the 30 million square feet of Penn State facilities to pilot sustainable practices.

Steve Maruszewski, assistant vice president of the Office of Physical Plant, has championed this integration for more than a decade. "We have incredible real-world opportunities to use the buildings, operations and planning at all of our campuses to supplement what students learn in their classroom and what researchers investigate in their labs."

The plan surfaced an extensive catalog of existing efforts and successes, but also the need to collect, connect and focus resources on new opportunities. What emerged was the concept of a Sustainability Institute — a central University resource to link and leverage all sustainability efforts. The Institute subsequently developed sustainability.psu.edu to provide a comprehensive hub for sustainability people and programs, events and experts, grants and goals, news and knowledge.

The Institute represents a philosophical and financial commitment by the highest levels of the University’s administration to sustainability. “Sustainability fits perfectly within our legacy and land-grant mission because building sustainability requires that we integrate our research, teaching and outreach effectively and simultaneously,” says Hank C. Foley, vice president for Research and dean of the Graduate School.

This institutional commitment also represents an understanding that sustainability connects multiple disciplines, beyond classrooms and the campuses. “I think what is unique about Penn State’s dynamic efforts in sustainability is our holistic strategy,” says Craig Weidemann, vice president for Outreach. “We are engaging the entire University, along with our external communities, in this exciting effort.”

“We have the power to teach our students, and ourselves, how to pursue ‘human health and happiness, environmental quality and economic well being for current and future generations.’”

Vice president for Student Affairs Damon Sims stresses that the Sustainability Institute will broaden student learning, extending it from the classroom to the wider community experiences of Penn State's students. "Sustainability will be an important peg on we which we hang the expansion of experiential learning at Penn State, encouraging our students to positively impact the many communities they touch," Sims says.

The size and scale of opportunities are enormous. "We educate more than 96,000 students and employ more than 20,000 workers,” says David Gray, senior vice president of Finance & Business. “Through our commitment to sustainability, we have the scale and the reach to effect real change."

Denice Wardrop, director of the Sustainability Institute, envisions the impact this immersive education will have not only on current students, faculty and staff, but also the ever-growing network of more than 500,000 living alumni of Penn State.

“We stand at the gate of the sustainability challenge,” Wardrop says. “This Institute has the opportunity, the responsibility and the great honor of molding a sustainable future. We have the power to teach our students, and ourselves, how to pursue ‘human health and happiness, environmental quality and economic well being for current and future generations.’”

More information about the Sustainability Institute can be found at sustainability.psu.edu.

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Last Updated March 21, 2013