Signing the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment

Rachelle Peterson

How did sustainability get to the college campus? Unlike protests over war in Vietnam or teach-ins on gender roles, this movement came not by militant students, nor by manumitted faculty. The sustainability movement frolicked onto campus at the bidding of the president’s office, and since then the greening of the ivy-sheathed campuses hasn’t ceased.

In 1993 John Kerry and Teresa Heinz launched the organization Second Nature, which grew out of their conservations at the UN Rio Summit in 1992. Second Nature targeted heads of colleges as the conduit for planting sustainability in academic institutions across the country, and in 2006, the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) was devised as the main instrument for making those goals a reality. Presidents would sign the commitment and vow to purge their campuses of all greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly, they would model the behavior that other institutions and their own students, once graduated, could mimic.

Specifically, each signatory college and university is required to perform three key tasks:

  1. Develop a comprehensive plan to achieve climate neutrality as soon as possible.
  2. Take tangible actions (at least two of five from Second Nature’s list) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while the more comprehensive plan is being developed.
  3. Make the climate action plan, an emissions inventory, and periodic progress reports available to the public by submitting them to the ACUPCC Reporting System.

In October 2006, at a joint meeting with Second Nature, ecoAmerica, and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, twelve agog presidents agreed to become founding signatories. By March 2007, there were 152 signatories. Today, 669 active signatories have taken the ACUPCC pledge.

Signing the ACUPCC is the equivalent of a Boy Scout becoming an Eagle Scout: it means that you mean business. So what can we learn about the campus sustainability movement by examining the signatories of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment?

We took the list of ACUPCC signatories and categorized by them by location, rank, type, and setting, based on information from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Carnegie Classification, and U.S. News and World Report. Here are our main findings.

First, the signatories appear to be slightly concentrated along the two coasts rather than in the interior of the country. While every state and District of Columbia hosts at least one college or university that took the pledge, the states with the most signatories are located either in the Northeast or along the West Coast. California, with 64, has the most signatories, followed by New York (54), Massachusetts (48), Pennsylvania (30), and Washington (29). Alabama and Wyoming each have 1 signatory; Alaska, Idaho, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota each have 2.

Outliers can be unreliable, though, so we sorted and grouped the states by Census Bureau Region. We found again the Northeast had the most (194) and the West had the second-most (171) signatories. The South held 165, and the Midwest 139. Of the signatory schools that appeared on the U.S. News and World Report “Regional Universities” list (that is, excluding national universities and liberal arts colleges, and unranked community colleges or special-focus institutions), 71 inhabited the North, 34 the West, 30 the Midwest, and 22 the South.

Second, the sustainability movement among the elite, insofar as it is represented by the signatories of the ACUPCC, is better established among liberal arts colleges than it is at universities. The ACUPCC counts signatories among both, as well as among community colleges and a number of more middle-road institutions, but you won’t find many of the highest-ranked universities on the list.

Only two of the top ten universities have signed onto the Commitment: the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University (tied for #7 according to U.S. News and World Report). By comparison, 8 of the top 10 liberal arts colleges have signed on: Swarthmore College (#3), Pomona College (#4), Bowdoin College (#4), Middlebury College (#4), Carleton College (#7), Claremont McKenna College (#9), Davidson College (#9), and Haverford College (#9). Fifteen of the top 20, and 36 of the top 50, liberal arts colleges have joined the movement, versus a mere 5 of the top 20, and 20 of the top 50, national universities.

Third, while there are signatories from all levels of higher education, doctorate-granting institutions are the most prevalent, followed (somewhat surprisingly) by two-year colleges. Among the current signatories, there are 241 doctorate institutions, 188 two-year colleges, 150 at which a master’s degree is the highest degree awarded, 85 at which a bachelor’s is the highest award, and 5 with no degree information listed. The concentration of two-year colleges surprised us: they’re mostly community colleges drawing from local student populations, and presumably gain no recruiting advantages from latching onto such a hot topic as climate change. Nor are they wealthy schools with money to burn on geo-thermal furnaces and wind-powered heating units. Perhaps this indicates the thorough permeation of sustainability within higher education.

Finally, urban and suburban areas house more signatories than do rural areas. According to Carnegie Classifications and U.S. News and World Report data, 279 of the signatory schools are located in urban areas. Another 175 call a suburban area home, while 164 reside in the country. Fifty-one list no setting. (If you’re curious, 428 are public, 239 private not-for-profit, and 2 private for-profit.) In the future, we’ll examine how the sustainability doctrine differs across regions. Do urban schools care more about smog and pollution, while rural colleges emphasize water and mineral resources? We’d like to find out.

In the months ahead, we’ll be conducting studies of the sustainability movement at college campuses in America. Where did it come from? What does it look like? What are its goals? How does it implement them? Stay tuned for more installments. 



Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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