Sustainability Institute seeks public comment on University goal setting process

Penn State’s University’s Sustainability Institute is seeking public comment on a report that proposes a new community and stakeholder engagement process for setting University-wide goals for sustainability, starting with energy.

During the past two years, Penn State’s administration has asked the University’s Sustainability Institute to convene community discussions about sustainability issues, including a forum on the concept of zero-carbon communities and an extensive assessment of key stakeholder views on the recent natural gas pipeline controversy.  Along with partners at Harvard University, the Institute is now developing a new process for engaging the community and other stakeholders when the University is setting goals for sustainability.  The first topic to be tackled using this inclusive process is likely to be the University’s energy goals.

A report on the proposed stakeholder engagement process has been publicly released, and the Sustainability Institute invites suggestions that will help them to modify and refine this process.  Anyone may offer comments on the report until Feb. 18; details on where to find the report and how to submit comments can be found below.

Penn State’s Sustainability Institute was created to lead the University’s sustainability mission: a comprehensive integration of sustainability into the University’s research, teaching, outreach and operations that prepares students, faculty and staff to be sustainability leaders. Sustainability is broadly defined by Penn State as the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well being for current and future generations. 

In its inaugural two years, the Sustainability Institute, in response to the call for a new approach to decision making, explored models of stakeholder engagement that bring communities together to address the challenges of sustainability.

Last July, the Sustainability Institute began work with the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP), the nation’s first legal clinic focusing on conflict management and dispute systems design. HNMCP student teams, under the supervision of Harvard Law School clinical faculty, work on projects for clients in a number of fields and industries.

After consulting with key participants during the fall semester, HNMCP recommended a four-part stakeholder engagement process for setting an energy-related goal at Penn State.  The process includes an initial public meeting, the convening of an Energy Task Force with diverse membership to coordinate and manage the process, a notice and comment period to address draft goals and principles for going forward, and a period of reflection and feedback.  The report "A Blueprint for Engaging Stakeholders in Setting Energy-Related Goals at Pennsylvania State University: Report and Recommendation" is available for download.

“Emphasizing transparency and open dialogue, the process was designed to yield an actionable blueprint for engagement and consensus building for important institution-wide issues such as energy planning.”

     -- Denice Wardrop, Sustainability Institute director

“Emphasizing transparency and open dialogue, the process was designed to yield an actionable blueprint for engagement and consensus building for important institution-wide issues such as energy planning,” said Denice Wardrop, director of the Sustainability Institute. “It will take all hands on deck.”

Two Harvard Law students, Joshua Fogarty and Tara Norris, conducted three focus groups and 30 private interviews with individuals from a wide variety of stakeholder groups, including Penn State faculty, students, administrators, and staff, and residents living near the University Park campus.

“This process provided a rich and diverse foundation for the identification of broad trends in stakeholders’ interests and opinions, and the resulting information grounded their proposed processes in Penn State’s unique resources and challenges,” said Wardrop.

The result: a framework for a community and stakeholder engagement process that involves both the University and its regional community and that may be used to address to a number of high-level resource challenges facing the University, including energy planning, climate action planning and water management.

Reflecting on the project, Norris summed up her views on stakeholder participation, “I believe that every community, including Penn State, is made stronger when the people involved feel like they can help shape the decisions that affect them, and I hope that our plan helps encourage that feeling.”

“I believe that every community is made stronger when the people involved feel like they can help shape the decisions that affect them.”

           -- Tara Norris, Harvard Law School

“Penn State is brimming with folks who have the knowledge and interest necessary to improve their community,” added Fogarty.

HNMCP Director Robert Bordone highlighted the importance of process design: “Consensus based processes such as these are the surest ways to educate a community and ensure that all its members feel good about decisions going forward.”

The report includes concrete phases and timelines, and was originally designed as a six-month process to enable completion by July. The Sustainability Institute is working with the University administration to determine the best way to adapt the recommendations to meet Penn State’s needs.  Because adequate participation and consideration of the public comments on the report are a critical part of the engagement process, they may require a longer timeline.  The report is available for download and open for public comment until Feb. 18.

A plan is in place to pilot the engagement process this spring and summer, with the goal of developing the University’s first institution-wide energy-related goal.

“We were delighted when we were selected to be a part of this unique program,” said Wardrop of the experience with HNMCP, “and look forward to the opportunity to experiment with a thoughtful and thought-provoking process that will allow us to envision our collective future and chart a path towards it, one that requires all of our education, research, outreach and operations functions to meet.”

An open comment period will accompany the process throughout the spring and summer.

“I encourage members of our community to grab a cup of coffee, find a comfortable seat and enjoy reading the report and consider how we might tackle some of our biggest immediate challenges utilizing an inclusive process that is designed to use new ways of thinking and acting,” said Wardrop. “The process is designed to be exciting, interesting, bold and reflective of the commitment, contribution and thoughtfulness of its participants. And for this participation all contributors will have the profound gratitude of Penn State’s Sustainability Institute.”

Comments on the report should be directed to Denice Wardrop via email at dhw110@psu.edu or via phone at 814-865-4415.

For more information about sustainability efforts at Penn State, visit sustainability.psu.edu.

Last Updated February 13, 2015