The Butterfly EffectToddEmbed

It plays out, time and time again, in backyards across the country. A child stands alone, feeling bored, perhaps a little more mischievous than usual, out from under the watchful gaze of a parent. The child waves a stick in the air. One minute a wand, the next a sword. Of course, a weapon begs a target, and an anthill is soon leveled, its population rising out of the ground in panic and anger. And then, a butterfly appears, entering the wrong air space at the wrong time. The stick becomes a baseball bat, and the butterfly, an unwitting, fragile ball.

For Todd LeVasseur, that experience hits close to home. He points to this thoughtless act – of striking a butterfly when he was 12 or 13 years old – as a life-changing moment for him.

“Yes, I killed a butterfly,” says LeVasseur, a visiting assistant professor of religious studies and director of the Environmental Studies Program. “I acted stupidly, greedily – and, as it was dying in my hands, I asked myself, What right do I have to take this beautiful life for no reason, for my own selfishness?

In that one moment, LeVasseur saw a connection between the butterfly, the ants, the stick, the trees, the surrounding nature and himself.

“I realized, if I care about this little creature, I should care about everything,” he points out. “And then I started questioning everything – and my role in it.”

Academics call this a peak transformational experience, a moment that stops people dead in their tracks, opens their eyes to new possibility and changes their behavior. And LeVasseur is hoping the College’s quality enhancement plan (QEP) for its SACSCOC reaffirmation in 2017 will have a similar effect on campus.

Over the winter, the College selected sustainability literacy as its big project, and – with LeVasseur serving as QEP director – the plan is now being fleshed out more fully for implementation in fall 2017. For several weeks, LeVasseur and other faculty and staff members from across campus have been engaged in QEP committee work to establish definitions, goals, assessment strategies and, ultimately, application.

“Higher education is shifting in how it does business and recognizing the importance of sustainability,” he says. “Through our planning process, the entire campus is and will be involved in new systems thinking. Basically, we, at the College, need to figure out how our individual and collective work – whatever area on campus we may be in – measures up against what is known in sustainability parlance as the triple bottom line, which has economic, social and environmental implications. Our QEP will allow the entire College community to walk the talk on sustainability.”

An integrated, campuswide effort will build on existing strengths and empower faculty and staff to see how their day-to-day operations fit into a greater framework of sustainability. Perhaps it’s a curricular choice made by a faculty member, such as a theatre course using reclaimed lumber to instruct students on set designs. Or maybe it’s the Center for Civic Engagement staff leading an alternative spring break in Washburn, Tennessee, to address environmental justice and the social and economic aspects of sustainability.

“We are all in this together because we all play a role in sustainability,” LeVasseur says. “And, most important, the QEP will help our students to develop a better understanding of what sustainability is. We’ll do it through coursework, research grants, volunteer work, campus speakers, study-abroad trips, just to name a few. By developing our students’ sustainability literacy, we will empower them to change the world.”

That’s exactly what LeVasseur hopes sustainability literacy does for the College: that it will have a kind of butterfly effect – from the small, thoughtful, everyday choices to more sweeping, programmatic initiatives – that, together, will have a far-reaching and long-lasting impact on the College, and thus, the world.

This story was originally published in spring 2016 in the College of Charleston’s newsletter, The Portico.

QEP 101

What is a QEP? The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) requires institutions to develop a quality enhancement plan (QEP) with each 10-year review. A key component of the accreditation process, the QEP provides a three- to five-year plan of action to improve student knowledge, skills, attitudes, values or behaviors.

What is our QEP? The College’s QEP topic is sustainability literacy, with the goal of raising awareness and knowledge of sustainability through curriculum integration, experiential-learning opportunities and skill building.

When does the QEP officially begin? Work is being done now, and the plan will officially be implemented in fall 2017.