The Team to Tomorrow: A New Institute Leads GW's Study of Sustainability

By Robert Preer
Published: Fall 2010

George Washington University offers more than 130 courses that address sustainability. Approximately 75 faculty members conduct research in some aspect of the field, from indoor air quality, to alternative-fuel vehicles, to the ethics of global development.

With programs spread across the University’s nine schools, faculty and students interested in sustainability have never had a place to call their own—until now. The Institute for Sustainability Research, Education and Policy, chartered late last year and launched formally in spring 2010, finally provides a home for the University’s burgeoning scholarship in sustainability.

The institute is housed at the School of Business under the direction of Mark Starik, professor of strategic management and public policy. A banner outside Starik’s office at 615 Funger Hall announces the presence of the institute, which now has two staff members, Executive Coordinator Mariya Isayeva and Director Starik. The institute also has an advisory board of alumni, students and faculty. It is chaired by Chad Holliday, chairman of Bank of America and former chairman and CEO of DuPont, who also served as executive- in-residence at the School of Business.

The institute’s charge is to coordinate GW’s scholarship in sustainability and to boost the University’s teaching and research in the field as well as its public profile as a leader in sustainability.

“We want to become the prominent research institution in sustainability, and we want to apply our research efforts to issues that are of urgent concern to society,” Starik said.

School of Business Takes The Lead

While the institute’s mission is broad, its focus spotlights four main areas: global climate change, sustainable organizations, sustainable communities, and infrastructure and urban sustainability.

The University launched the institute with a modest firstyear budget of $200,000. The institute promptly distributed half of it to faculty and graduate students in the form of $10,000 grants for summer research projects that cover a diverse range of industries and issues.

Ivy Ken, associate professor of sociology in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, is studying food service companies that supply schools in Washington, D.C. Baoxia Mi, assistant professor of civil engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, is investigating sustainable wastewater reuse systems. Assistant Research Professor Andrea Sarzynski of the GW Institute of Public Policy is exploring the relationship between urbanization and air quality.

Starik said most of the institute’s remaining money this year will be used for fundraising. He spent much of the summer on a “BC to DC Sustainability Tour,” driving from a summer home in Vancouver, British Columbia, to Washington, D.C., meeting alumni and other potential donors along the way.

At most U.S. universities, multidisciplinary environmental programs are housed in science or engineering departments, not business schools. “The idea that the business school can actually take the lead in something like this takes a little getting used to,” Starik said. “But it’s really a natural extension of what we’ve been doing all along.”

For more than a decade, GW School of Business has offered courses in sustainable business subjects at the same time it has interwoven sustainability principles through its undergraduate and graduate curricula. The School has consistently scored high on the Aspen Institute’s “Beyond Grey Pinstripes” ranking of business schools based on their attention to social and environmental issues (10th in the U.S., 13th worldwide).

“Sustainability is a critical component of how businesses operate,” said Dean Doug Guthrie. “Entrepreneurial and innovative businesses are pioneering new ways to address sustainability. Our institute can serve as an important platform— especially among global business leaders and policymakers in the nation’s capital—for the thoughtful and dynamic exchange of ideas.”

The origins of the Institute for Sustainability can be traced to President Steven Knapp’s arrival at the University in 2007. He identified sustainability as a top priority of his new administration and set up a task force co-chaired by Starik to write recommendations on how the University should approach the issue. One of the task force’s recommendations in June 2008 called for creation of an Institute for Sustainability.

A faculty working group came to the same conclusion in a report issued a year later. On Dec. 15, 2009, the University formally established and funded the institute.

Bridging Divides Between Disciplines

“Unconferences” have become popular at academic institutions lately. These are informal, participant-driven get-togethers with no prepared agenda. At the Institute for Sustainability’s unconference in the spring, Starik confesses, “I did have an agenda.”

Starik’s not-so-secret agenda was to gather faculty and graduate students interested in interdisciplinary sustainability issues, introduce them to one another and watch them capitalize on the connections. About 40 researchers attended. They divided into 10 discussion groups, all of which agreed to meet again later. To facilitate follow-up meetings, the Institute for Sustainability issued gift certificates for future group lunches at Founding Farmers, an environmentally conscious restaurant in Washington, D.C.

“I think it was successful in opening our minds to what other people here were doing,” said unconference participant Sarzynski. “This University, like most universities, has researchers working separately on their own projects.”

In its first few months, the institute launched several other programs. It held a symposium on environmental issues arising from the extraction of oil from Canada’s tar sands. In June, it sponsored a one-day executive education session on sustainability in management and policy. Speakers included GWSB faculty and Miranda Ballentine, a GWSB alumna and Wal-Mart’s director of sustainability. Starik hopes to schedule future two-day-long executive training sessions.

The institute is taking the lead in organizing nonprofit organizations to find ways to create a greener District of Columbia. Initial talks have focused on energy conservation. “The University administration really wants to be a good neighbor in the district, and we feel this is a good way to do that,” Starik said. The institute also has applied for a $1 million National Science Foundation planning grant to develop climate change education programs for underserved communities in the United States.

Starik sees the institute’s role evolving as more activities are added and more people become involved. “We’re all just trying to see from week-to-week and month-to-month what’s going to happen,” he explained.

Former DuPont CEO Holliday has worked with Knapp in forging the University’s approach to sustainability. He calls establishment of the institute an important step.

“It’s still in its formative stages, but what’s unique is that it stretches across the University,” Holliday said. “That’s really tough to do, but it’s a very noble objective, and it’s off to a good start.” GW