Commonwealth Campus Sustainability Forums highlight sustainability champions

Halina Dingo
June 01, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Last month, sustainability champions from across all 24 of the Penn State campuses gathered by Zoom for the fourth Commonwealth Campus Sustainability Forums, an annual event hosted by the Sustainability Institute (SI) to bring campuses together to collaborate and to network on sustainability initiatives. The forums recognized the successes of faculty and students at Penn State in tackling sustainability challenges on their campuses and in their communities this year despite tight budgets, the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenging limits to in-person collaboration.

“The theme of this year’s event was exploring how we can create partnerships in a post-COVID world where campuses are working to build resiliency within their communities,” said Lydia Vandenbergh, associate director of employee engagement and education for SI, who coordinated the event. Vandenbergh explained that helping build community resiliency not only advances Penn State’s Land Grant mission but also educates students and faculty about components of resiliency.

The forum uses the United Nations' 17 Global Sustainable Development Goals to help orient the campuses’ sustainability initiatives and projects. Unlike previous forums that organized presentations based on geography, this year the forums’ plenary sessions were divided by campus size, to allow participants to share ideas with campuses with more similar opportunities and challenges.

Penn State Wilkes-Barre hosted the first day, which had a morning plenary session focused on the Commonwealth Campuses with the 12 smallest student bodies. Wilkes-Barre discussed their efforts to incorporate sustainability into the curriculum and to create a campus culture where sustainability is foregrounded in all areas. Other themes and goals presented from other campuses focused on creating sustainability councils, upgrading campus facilities to be environmentally friendly, and incorporating sustainability into other education programs.

Penn State Behrend hosted the second day, which had a plenary session for campuses with the eight largest student bodies. Behrend highlighted some of its sustainability successes, including research that investigates plastic waste in waterways, and a recent $690,000 project to stabilize trails, protect habitats and manage erosion at Wintergreen Gorge, a local natural park and trail system.

Among the sustainability achievements highlighted throughout the forums, several campuses this year focused on community outreach and education. For example, Penn State New Kensington is creating an interactive “Sustainability Stroll and History Tour,” which is placing signs around downtown New Kensington that highlight sustainability efforts of local businesses and that explain the history of the area. The goal is to increase visibility of businesses, create incentives for implementing sustainability practices, instill a sense of community pride and possibly offer a community K-12 field trip destination as well.

In the afternoons, the forums hosted sessions for participants to network with each other and focus on particular topics such as sustainability in the curriculum and addressing Penn State’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In the “Strategic Community Engagement in a Post-COVID World” session, participants were split into groups to develop a model strategic outreach plan for tackling a sustainability problem affecting a hypothetical Penn State campus and surrounding community. The goal was to provide an engagement planning process that participants could take back and apply on their own campuses.

“The scenario work in the afternoon breakout sessions enabled staff from different campuses to plan together on community outreach,” said Jenifer Cushman, chancellor of Penn State Beaver. “This kind of out-of-the-box modeling contributes to a cohesive Penn State approach to sustainability.”

Despite the forums being virtual, many still left the event with new inter-campus resources and contacts.

“I am glad the forum was still held, even though virtually,” said Carole Shearer, assistant to the chancellor at Penn State Hazleton. “I find the exchange of ideas and initiatives from each campus extremely useful; you are able to see if an idea your campus has will work or to learn new possibilities from other campuses.”

Vanderbergh noted that one of the SI’s key goals for the coming year after the forums is to help all of the Commonwealth Campuses establish a Sustainability Council that can formally institutionalize sustainability across all aspects of each campus’s strategic planning. Currently 10 campuses have councils sanctioned by their chancellors, while the remaining campuses have either voluntary Green Teams or Sustainability Teams.

Recordings of the plenary sessions are available for the Wilkes-Barre session here and for the Behrend session here.

Last Updated June 03, 2021