Landmark U-M Effort Measures Sustainability Culture on Campus

October 10, 2013

The majority of University of Michigan faculty, students, and staff say they are committed to sustainability, but data findings indicate significant room for improvement in sustainability behaviors, awareness, engagement, and accountability. This is according to a recently released U-M report, which also provides a set of indicators for measuring and assessing changes and progress.

It’s all part of the Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program, known as SCIP, a first-of-its-kind study the Graham Sustainability Institute and the Institute for Social Research are administering to track the “sustainability culture” on the university’s Ann Arbor campus over a six-year period, with particular focus on four campus sustainability goal areas: climate action, waste prevention, healthy environments and community awareness.

 “The university is committed to ambitious sustainability goals — one of which is to pursue evaluation strategies toward a campus-wide ethic of sustainability,” said John Callewaert, director of integrated assessment at the Graham Sustainability Institute and co-principal investigator of the SCIP project with Robert W. Marans, research professor at the Institute for Social Research. “SCIP is serving as the university’s primary community awareness evaluation tool. We’re excited to be sharing the first-year report.” 

SCIP kicked off campus-wide last October by surveying more than 6,600 students, faculty and staff about their sustainability knowledge, beliefs and behaviors. The first-year report, titled “Monitoring the Culture of Sustainability at the University of Michigan: Fall 2012,” represents the tabulated results from that survey. The second annual survey will be distributed to a new sample of students, faculty and staff the week of October 28. (The university urges all recipients to please respond to the survey.)

Key observations and notable findings are as follows:

According to Marans, index scores from the first-year survey are crucial because they serve as benchmarks against which findings in subsequent years will be compared, with 15 specific sustainability cultural indicators to be monitored annually. Indicators cover awareness, dispositions and actions related to travel and transportation, waste prevention, conservation, the natural environment, climate, food and engagement. They also cover awareness and ratings of campus sustainability initiatives. Survey data are supplemented with geographic data covering campus buildings where respondents live, work and study. 

“Findings covered in our first-year report are primarily descriptive, showing differential responses among U-M students, staff and faculty,” Marans said. “We anticipate doing additional ‘data mining’ to test hypotheses and consider factors that may be associated with indicator scores.” 

Using annual SCIP data as a gauge, the university hopes to see U-M’s sustainability culture improve more and more each year as community members become increasingly aware of, and engaged in, campus sustainability initiatives, such as the Planet Blue Ambassador program and the annual Earthfest event.

Callewaert said the university intends to share the SCIP research methodology with other sustainability-minded organizations worldwide.

“The primary purpose of SCIP is to inform U-M officials and others responsible for day-to-day options at the university, including its academic programs," he said. "However, we also hope to serve as a model demonstrating how behavioral research can be used to address critical environmental issues within academic institutions and other organizational settings. We are eager to see the program replicated elsewhere.” 

The complete Year One SCIP Report, a six-page overview report, the Year One surveys and other related materials are available on the Graham Institute website at graham.umich.edu/leadership/scip.

Established in 2006, the Graham Sustainability Institute is a U-M provost’s unit that fosters sustainability at all scales by leading stakeholder-centric activities that systematically bring together and harness talents across all U-M schools, colleges and units. The institute’s work focuses on three key areas: translational knowledge, transformative learning and institutional leadership.

Established in 1949, the Institute for Social Research is the world's largest academic social science survey and research organization and is a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology and educating researchers and students from around the world.  For more information, visit the ISR website at isr.umich.edu.

— Lisa A. Pappas, Graham Sustainability Institute