AASHE in Transition, Facing Challenges

The premier professional organization for sustainability in higher education is the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, or AASHE. Roosevelt University has been a member for the last three years, and its faculty, staff, and students utilize many of its online resources and have attended/presented at its annual conference. Sustainability Studies program director Mike Bryson participated in a faculty roundtable at the AASHE 2012 Conference in Los Angeles this past fall.

aashe10_logoThis past spring, AASHE has experienced some organizational growing pains, as reported today in the Chronicle of Higher Education. As Allie Bidwell reports in her 31 May 2013 article,

The organization, known as Aashe, was created in 2005, and it has increased its staff and its membership since then amid high demand for guidance in an uncharted area for many colleges. But as such programs evolved at the institutions that subscribed to the association’s services—campus sustainability profiles, case studies, environmental ratings—some observers say the organization did not evolve with them.

A “disconnection from member input limited responsiveness to rapidly moving sustainability trends, and not surprisingly revenues declined,” Dave Newport, who serves on the organization’s Board of Directors, wrote on his own blog.

The resultant decline in membership and income, which has grown more severe in recent months, led to a financial crunch in which five program staff positions were cut. That, in turn, elicited an outcry from Aashe stakeholders and was followed by the departure of its executive director. In April 2012, the group had about 1,000 member institutions, up from a handful when it was created. According to Aashe’s Web site, it now has about 900 members. With membership dues ranging from a few hundred dollars to nearly $2,000, depending on an institution’s enrollment, a loss of 100 members would cause a noticeable dip in income.

Dedee DeLongpre Johnston, director of sustainability at Wake Forest University and a former member of Aashe’s board, said the organization’s “incredible” initial growth left it struggling to keep up with the needs of its members.

“The members just continued to expect more,” said Ms. DeLongpre Johnston, who also serves on Aashe’s advisory board. “Everyone wanted other resources.”

‘A Little Starry-Eyed’

One such member institution was the Johns Hopkins University. Davis Bookhart, director of sustainability there, said he decided not to renew the university’s membership in 2009 because he felt the association was no longer providing the kind of support the university needed.

Aashe was at first a good resource for sustainability representatives who felt as if they were “groping in the dark,” Mr. Bookhart said. It served as a hub of professionals throughout the country. Campus leaders could share successes and frustrations at the group’s annual conference and share ideas via online resources.

“In the beginning,” he said, “we were a little starry-eyed about how we were going to change the world.”

But as the sustainability movement at Johns Hopkins matured, what became apparent was that Aashe was not updating its approach, Mr. Bookhart said.

“To be successful, we needed to be quick in adapting to changes and understanding the needs of the university,” he said. Aashe “was starting to feel a little more stale for those of us who were looking for a bit more in terms of support and guidance.”

He said he had hoped that the association would be “more responsive” to the needs of its members and adjust its services accordingly.

For example, many college-sustainability offices start with one person, who may not have managerial skills. As those offices are expanded, Mr. Bookhart said, many need guidance in skills beyond environmental advocacy—how to build a budget, how to deal with employees, how to develop basic programs.

“Those are the kinds of things I thought that, as our programs evolved, Aashe would evolve as well,” he said. “It’s not just about giving good ways to plant trees or get gardens on your campus ground.”

Growing Dissonance

In addition to the growing dissonance between the association’s available services and the demands of its members, sources said its governing model began to create a distance between the governing board and staff members, as well as between the organization and its member institutions.

Though Aashe was formed as a nonprofit advocacy organization, its governance model follows that of a college—including the bureaucracy and management styles that accompany institutions of higher education.

Such a model is not ideal for a nongovernmental organization, which has to answer to stakeholders and lacks the support of state funds or endowments, Mr. Newport wrote on his blog.

For example, Aashe’s board is self-perpetuating—current board members recruit and appoint new ones. And the association has never operated like a typical membership organization, in which members are allowed to vote on representation, said Richard Martin, principal sustainability analyst at Syracuse University, a member institution. Members may nominate candidates for the board, but the directors themselves make the final decision.

Speaking for himself, Mr. Martin said he thought that such a structure may have made sense when relatively few people were focused on sustainability in higher education, but it’s is not well suited for today.

What evolved, Mr. Newport wrote, was “distance between board and staff, board and stakeholders, and staff and stakeholders.”

“Efficiency suffered,” he added. And when news spread of the layoffs of five employees, “alarms went off very publicly.”

Mr. Newport, as well as other members of Aashe’s board and staff, declined to comment further on the situation.

Mr. Martin, of Syracuse, said institutions that pay dues to Aashe derive value from the programs it provides. By cutting its staff, the association risks perpetuating members’ dissatisfaction, he said.

“You’re going to deliver less value, you’re going to accelerate member departure, and you’re going to accelerate the decrease in dues income,” Mr. Martin said. “How is this not a vicious cycle?”

On May 20, soon after the layoffs, the organization announced the departure of its executive director, Paul Rowland, who had called for the staff cuts.

Though the association has yet to announce who will serve as its interim director, it said in a statement that its staff is “diligently working together to address concerns around Aashe’s short- and long-term needs” related to governance, financial standing, and services.

Though many sustainability representatives said they had become concerned with the quality of Aashe’s services in recent years, some see the change in leadership as an opportunity for the organization to evolve.

Gioia Thompson, director of sustainability at the University of Vermont, said many colleges still rely on Aashe to provide a structure for a national conversation on sustainability.

“Its success,” she said, “will depend on members’ willingness to pay membership dues while Aashe reinvents itself.”

The SUST program at RU anticipates that AASHE will right its fiscal ship and continue its leadership in supporting sustainability efforts in curriculum, facilities, and operations in the US higher education community.

Students, faculty, and staff at Roosevelt can access the Chronicle of Higher Education for free through the university’s library website.

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