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Embracing the Opportunity

"Sustainability has become a very defining leadership competency for our students going forward. We've made a commitment that every single one of our students, every single one will go out with sustainability embedded into their DNA." —Ron Johnson, Smeal College of BusinessWhen people think about sustainability, many think first of increased operational efficiency and waste diversion, and there is ample evidence for those benefits. For example, Penn State has reduced its electrical usage by about 7 percent since 2005 (while its footprint has grown significantly), avoiding $5 million annually in utility costs. Twenty-two thousand gallons of used-cooking oil are refined yearly into fuel for campus vehicles and pieces of equipment. More than 3,000 tons of food and landscaping waste are converted into 1,200 tons of compost. Penn State has a highly developed waste management program and is now recycling 65 percent of its waste, avoiding half a million dollars annually in landfill tipping fees. These early successes and savings in operational efficiency are just the beginning of what is possible.

However, a commitment to sustainability that is integrated into teaching, research, and service, in addition to operations, will yield benefits that far exceed those listed above. In particular, evidence suggests that sustainability has emerged as an important and growing priority among the University’s key stakeholders, including students, faculty, and staff, research agencies, private donors, alumni, and policymakers. We expect these benefits to include an increase in students who apply for admission and faculty and staff who apply to work here. That will allow us to select more of the best and brightest among these applicants. The Princeton Review published a survey showing that if students could compare colleges on how committed they were to environmental issues, 67 percent said that it would contribute very strongly or strongly to their decision to apply to or attend that college. Princeton Review’s Green Guide now allows students to make these comparisons.

We also expect to attract a greater share of the federal, state and local grants that are targeted to research on sustainability. For example, the National Science Foundation set aside $766 million in its 2011 budget (16 percent higher than 2010) for “cross-agency sustainability research” aimed at increasing sustainability research on renewable energy and complex environmental processes. The NSF has partnered with the Department of Energy to provide $19 million in the form of graduate fellowships and undergraduate scholarships to encourage careers in clean energy. We further expect an increase in gifts and endowments. We have barely begun to tap the interest of our alumni and other potential donors to create a legacy of social, economic, and environmental well-being for future generations. Penn State's commitment to sustainability will inspire its stakeholders to rise to the challenge and establishing legacies such as new centers, endowed chairs, and student scholarships.

Our commitment to sustainability also will raise interest among private and public organizations in our graduates and in our research. Korn/Ferry conducted a survey with 1,500 executives across functions, industries, and geographical areas. Nearly half said that their companies were hiring new staff to support environmental initiatives, reassigning existing staff for that purpose, or doing both. A Walmart senior executive reported that his college recruitment teams are increasingly screening for candidates with a record of community involvement and sustainability competencies. We expect our graduates to be ready to meet this demand. Finally, although limited evidence is available to show that university research on sustainability will influence public and private sector policy and practice as well as personal behavior, we are confident that recruiting the best and brightest researchers to Penn State will increase the amount of research that is conducted here, which in turn will enhance our reputation and impact on society.

The strategic rationale for sustainability at Penn State, here and now, is clear and compelling. Penn State's reputation for ethical leadership and academic excellence will soar by doing what is right in the present for the benefit of the future.

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