“Due to the coronavirus” is a refrain we have become familiar with in recent months with respect to “closed” signs on storefronts, notices of cancelled or postponed events, and reduced hours and services. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an abrupt halt to daily routines and a palpable uncertainty for what lies ahead on virtually every front.
For higher education, questions remain about how teaching, research, and student services must evolve to match a new reality, and business models will once again be tested in the process. There is no clear sense yet of what will constitute the new normal. What we can assume is that steady leadership in these uncertain times will require ingenuity, collaboration, and compassion.
“Being responsive” is how Colorado State University System Chancellor Tony Frank articulates sustainability leadership, the topic of the sustainability articles in May/June 2020 Business Officer. The content—largely finalized prior to the onset of the pandemic in this country—may at first glance seem less consequential than a slew of other concerns emerging for a world reeling from the devastation of COVID-19. And yet, as climate change threatens to increase the frequency and severity of pandemics such as this one, sustainability-focused leadership is all the more appropriate as a lens for navigating what comes next for students, employees, communities, and the higher education sector and beyond.
Sustainability—financial, environmental, or otherwise—is predicated on the concept of maintaining the healthy balance of a system. If COVID-19 has awoken us to anything as a nation, it may be the need to rebalance economic, health care, education, and social safety net systems to endure crises as devastating as this pandemic.
Consider, too, how the expression “flatten the curve” has become part of the national lexicon. The dramatic and previously unimaginable measures taken by citizens, businesses, and local governments—such as practicing physical distancing, taking work and school online, and closing nonessential public spaces—in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease and keep from overwhelming an already stressed health care system have a parallel on the sustainability front.
Efforts to mitigate climate change and rising temperatures worldwide are also an attempt to provide critical time and space for transitioning our energy economy away from fossil fuels, reducing our waste streams, and improving the overall viability of local and global ecosystems. As the vast majority of scientists have warned, not doing so will unleash potentially devastating and cascading impacts on the health of our economy, society, and environment. The fallout may not be as swift as from COVID-19, but it will be even more comprehensive and must be met with a similar urgency for collective action.
Rising to the Challenge
“Most campuses during this pandemic have justifiably been concerned, foremost, with the personal health and safety issues of their students and employees,” says Sally Grans Korsh, NACUBO senior advisor of facilities management and environmental policy. “Close behind are the macroeconomic and microeconomic concerns about the financial sustainability of their campuses and communities. However, as with any crisis, there are bright spots, learning moments, and changes to approaches that may ultimately enhance campus operations and could improve our communities at large.”
One positive outcome from this crisis may be greater recognition of the value of interweaving environmental, social, and economic priorities in making sustainability central to the education mission, Grans Korsh says.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—highlighted in “Leading With a New Lens”—make clear the interconnectedness of “good health and well-being,” “decent work and economic growth,” and “quality education” alongside priorities for “climate action,” “affordable and clean energy,” and “clean water and sanitation.”
The second article in this collection, “Systemic Sustainability,” focuses on the resilience efforts of municipalities and hospitals, which serve a crucial role—similar to colleges and universities—as anchors within their communities.
The third and final article, “Force Multipliers,” highlights how strong collaboration among cities and their education and business sectors brings economic, social, and environmental benefits to the entire community.
What lessons can higher education leaders draw from these community partners and business leaders in a shared post-COVID-19 world where, more than ever, we need to work together to solve our complex problems?
This pandemic is leaving a trail of clues about what we as a nation and as a world must fix—and soon. Sustainability-focused leaders will see the connections, help make those connections evident to others, and engender a spirit of innovation and collaboration in pursuit of a more just and equitable future for all.