March 28th, 2011

Teaching Sustainability in Graduate Education: A Call to Leadership Development

By Viniece Jennings

The generic definition of sustainable development involves using resources to meet current needs without forfeiting those of future generations. Though this definition has been criticized for being vague and vulnerable to misinterpretation, it has evolved into a paradigm that confronts the way we exist, including how we educate. I became personally acquainted with the benefits of integrating sustainability into the graduate experience during a program I participated in this past  summer in Switzerland.  In the Youth Encounter to Sustainability (YES) program,  selected students from all over the world gathered for three weeks to study  various aspects of sustainability. Within a class of thirty students that represented over twenty countries, I was the only student selected from the United States. The atmosphere of the course was very  family oriented in which individuals were encouraged to make their unique contribution, recognize the value of other members and provide constructive criticism to the group. Our director challenged  us to be scholars who not only developed our mind but also our spirit. Rowland et al. (2009)  reinforced this notion by stating that  part of the sustainability movement has lost the spirit that challenges the status quo and critically analyzes our approaches. Therefore, infusing sustainability into graduate education can be an avenue to promote leadership development.

While higher education has played an influential role in various issues within American society, the depth of its persuasion must permeate the nation’s path to sustainability. This leadership role can be partly adhered to by providing sustainability education in graduate programs. While it was previously observed that undergraduates were generally not encouraged to be environmentally literate and that college graduates were leading us down an unsustainable path (Cortese, 2003; Rowe, 2002), a transition is taking place at the undergraduate level. There are also numerous initiatives, resources, and organizations that are available to help academic institutions reach sustainability objectives (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2010). Yet with these observations, there is room for improvement in graduate programs that are a vital part of the educational hierarchy. Graduate study is an exploratory learning experience where students are trained in higher order critical thinking and problem solving.  In essence, graduate education is fundamental to the nation’s competitiveness and intellectual leadership (Wendler et al., 2010).

Sustainability provides an exceptional platform to encourage holistic thinking that crosses disciplinary and cultural boundaries while developing skills to address complex problems (Fortium & Bush, 2010). For example, some graduate business programs teach standards in environmental management that allow students to appreciate the implications of sustainability issues (Haines, 2010). Along with sessions in ecology, art, social sciences, and economics, YES participants were exposed to classes on group dynamics, decision making, and optimizing the resources within a team. A transdisciplinary learning experience also encourages students to embrace diverse collaborations in their careers. For example, even though I am a graduate student in environmental science, the YES program is open to students of all disciplines. This feature was particularly beneficial as I experienced a learning environment with classmates from different fields and viewed sustainability from various perspectives.

When we consider how the principles of sustainability can be imparted in graduate education, the current and future roles of graduate students should be considered. For instance, they are not only involved in the learning process, but they also serve a critical role in teaching and research productivity. Developing a graduate student’s pedagogy will influence future educational practices which are particularly important since graduate students are in the pipeline to become future faculty members. Some competencies for faculty involved in doctoral leadership programs include translating information from theory to practice, strong communication skills, and modeling a lifelong learning experience (Hyatt & Williams, 2010).  Likewise, key faculty competencies in research and advisement should include viewing issues from multiple perspectives, encouraging innovation, and using technological applications (Hyatt & Williams, 2010). Since undergraduates often seek the advice and mentorship of graduate students throughout their academic careers, it is important that graduate students have a multifaceted perspective of their duties.

Since sustainability aims to be comprehensive and beneficial to generations, it embraces John Maxwell’s (1999) invaluable leadership qualities such as being competent, a problem solver and a visionary. Its vision should connect diverse people and programs to address collective concerns. This approach fosters creativity and strategic planning. Overall, I believe that we choose to sustain what we ultimately value. When I reflect on the YES program and other sustainability initiatives I have been involved in thus far, I am appreciative of the opportunities and inspired to improve. These experiences have challenged me to confront mindsets that are passe, counterproductive and are not inclusive of our neighbors in the global community. I  look at the human footprint not only in terms of our actions and environmental pollutants, but also in the form of my education being a pathway to serve and fortify communities as well as leave a legacy. Sustainability involves a serious commitment to a meaningful education, service, and acceptance of civic responsibilities (Thiele, 2009). Incorporating sustainability into the backbone of graduate education creates a win-win for higher education and the world that awaits its graduates.


Sincere appreciation is extended to Dr. Richard Gragg, Ms. Tamar Dickerson, and Mr. Denis Wafula for their review that enhanced this document.


Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (2010). Sustainability Curriculum in Higher Education : A Call to Action. Website:

Cortese, A. (2003). The critical role of higher education in creating a sustainable future. Planning for Higher Education, March-May 2003, 15-22.

Fortuin, I., & Bush, S. R. (2010). Educating students to cross boundaries between disciplines and cultures and between theory and practice. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. 11 (1), 19-35.

Haines, C. (2010). The role of the architect in sustainability education. The Journal of Sustainability Education.

Hyatt, L., & Williams, P. (2010). Twenty-first century competencies for doctoral leadership faculty. Innovative Higher Education, 30 July 2010, 19-35.

Maxwell, J. (1999). The 21 Indispensible Qualities of a Leader. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Rowe, D. (2002). Reprinted from Teaching Sustainability at Universities, (2002) In Walter Leal Filho                       (Ed.). New York: Peter Lang.

Thiele, L. (2009). A review of the sustainable learning community: one university’s journey to the future. Sustainability, 2(6), December 2009

Wendler, C., Bridgeman, B., Cline, F., Millet, C., Rock, J. Bell, N., & McAllister, P. (2010). The path forward- the future of graduate education in the United States executive summary. Commission on the Future of Graduate Education in the United States. Website: .

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Comments (1)

  1. GreaT article that will stir the soul of the American Poet Robert Frost in the woods

    Congratul;ations to the author and Larry the Edictor of JSE from COTR and the student community at Cranbrook, BC, Canada