Greening higher education: Q&A with Rachel Gutter

Published on: 
28 Jan 2016
Amanda Sawit

Last October, USGBC, along with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and Second Naturecommitted to more deeply collaborate on sustainability in higher education toward the goal of graduating more than 20 million “global sustainability citizens” across all majors by 2025.

We interviewed leaders from each organization to get their take on what the commitment means to them, and the results they hope to achieve. In the first installment of this four-part blog series, we talk with Rachel Gutter, USGBC Senior Vice President of Knowledge and Director of the Center for Green Schools, on her vision for greening higher education and the students who stand to grow from it.

How do you envision the effects that this commitment will have?

The four organizations involved in this commitment are setting a new tone and leading by example. We know that if we work more closely together, we can increase our capacity, magnify our impact and better support institutions of higher education in their efforts to green their campuses and prepare their students for 21st century careers in sustainability.

From your perspective, what does a 21st century sustainability native look like?

Sustainability natives are those who intuitively make decisions to use what they need as opposed to what they can. These individuals are adept in systems thinking and understand the complexities of cause-and-effect relationships. This generation, in particular, approaches sustainability as a solution, rather than a challenge. With this commitment comes a renewed push for project-based learning opportunities for students who already possess this mentality, so that they are better prepared for 21st century careers.  

What value does each of the partners bring to this commitment?

All of the organizations that brought this commitment forward have played vital roles in the shift toward greener, more efficient and healthier campuses, as well as the injection of sustainability themes into higher education curriculum and degree pathways.

From the beginning, our organizations have been pulling in the same direction, but we haven’t always worked together. For example, both USGBC and NWF support student groups on campuses. Through our conversations with NWF and in polling college students on what they most want from USGBC, we concluded that we could better support students (and the green campus movement at large) if we reconfigured USGBC Students to serve as a resource channel that flows through existing campus groups, like NWF EcoLeaders. Now, instead of separately organizing parallel networks of student groups with overlapping goals, USGBC and NWF can join forces to leverage our collective capacity, resources and impact.

What are some of the basic components needed to actualize the actions outlined in the pledge?

What will sustain this movement is better data and data sets that talk to one another. Each of our organizations possess a tremendous amount of campus-level data that can be organized, aggregated and put back into the hands of schools to help them make better decisions and drive sustainability deeper into the fabric of their institutions. Even more exciting is the kind of impact we could catalyze if each of our respective data sets could be visualized and interpreted in combination. Just think of all the valuable insights we could generate!

As someone who has spent their entire career dedicated to education, do you have words of encouragement for someone who is considering a career in sustainability? 

There are infinite opportunities within the field of sustainability; more and more, sustainability is a theme—even a mentality—that permeates every field and every organization. To work in a capacity that focuses on how to balance humanity’s long-term needs with the resources that are available is fulfilling and inspiring work. My advice is to get practical, seek internships and focus on gaining real-world experience, so that you can amass expertise on a broad spectrum of sustainability concepts that are likely to be applicable no matter what field or industry you elect to work in.