If necessity is the mother of invention, then what begets reinvention? That question is starting to cross the minds of faculty and staff these days as the institution embarks on the process of its reaffirmation.

Every 10 years, the College retools its identity in a key way. That’s because colleges and universities that are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges must undergo reaffirmation to remain fully accredited. A vital part of this process involves establishing a quality enhancement plan (QEP) for the institution and then implementing that plan over a five-year time span.

Last year, College leaders formed a committee to determine what the focus of that QEP should be. After evaluating a range of proposals, the committee determined that the plan would center around sustainability literacy. Effectively, this means that students will be encouraged to develop the knowledge and skills required to work effectively for a more resilient world.

Photos by Kip Bulwinkle '04

Photos by Kip Bulwinkle ’04

Let’s pause for a moment to better understand that. What does “a more resilient world” have to do with the College? To be resilient is to have the ability to recover quickly from misfortune or disruptive change. When faculty teach students using the liberal arts and sciences tradition, they’re endowing them with the intellectual resilience to adapt in an ever-evolving job market. When the College invests in a zero-waste dining facility such as Marty’s Place, it is helping the surrounding community become more resilient by diminishing the waste stream that already burdens Charleston’s only landfill. And when students at the College defend the rights of LGBTQ individuals, they’re helping to form a more resilient community.

“Our new QEP is one of the most important pieces of work that the College has taken on in its history,” explains Todd LeVasseur ’97, the religious studies and environmental and sustainability studies professor who was tapped to direct the plan. “This initiative will ultimately touch the lives of everyone here, and we expect it to become a key identifying element of our institution.”

A big part of the plan is to invite faculty to infuse existing courses with material that emphasizes the goals of the QEP. Eventually, the College will add a robust mix of new courses that have sustainability integrated into their curricula. In addition, LeVasseur says, “We plan to stage events that will increase student awareness. We’ll work with faculty to offer some study-away and study-abroad opportunities, and we’ll liaise with the Center for Civic Engagement on alternative break experiences that all meet the goals of the QEP as well.”

Several dozen existing courses already qualify as sustainability focused or sustainability related. These classes range from an education course on the civil rights movement in Charleston to a first-year seminar on biomimicry to an introductory course on environmental and sustainability studies to a course on ecopreneurship. As the campus begins to embrace this new initiative, LeVasseur and his fellow QEP committee members expect that list to grow exponentially.

“It’s important to acknowledge that we live in a more-than-human world,” explains LeVasseur. “Everything requires contextualizing, and that means taking into account our interaction with the natural world – effectively our impact on other species and ecosystems, and how our worldviews, policies and economic incentives all contribute to this impact. But we also need to pay attention to issues of fairness and justice in our communities, as those are central to sustainability literacy, as well.”

And that’s really the importance of sustainability literacy. It involves understanding our role in the intricate dynamics at play around us – whether those be human-devised systems or the natural environment. Achieving this literacy will endow College of Charleston students with important knowledge and skills that will render them stronger candidates for a wide range of professional roles and for graduate school, as well. For everyone involved, that’s worth some reinvention. 

Train Your Brain to Sustain

What is sustainability? Among the initial challenges that the College faces in establishing its new Quality Enhancement Plan on sustainability literacy is the need to answer that question.

For starters, sustainability pertains to more than just the environment. The College defines it as the endurance of systems and processes. Effectively, it is a balance between human systems and the biophysical environment. When the two interact sustainably, there is balance and both endure.

Proponents of this more expansive understanding speak about sustainability’s three pillars: the economy, society andsustainability2 the environment. Truly sustainable solutions come about when our actions take into account the triple bottom line, which includes not only the financial costs, but the social and environmental costs as well.

So how does this apply in an academic setting? If you teach medieval history, music theory or business administration, how would you integrate sustainability into your courses?

For the medieval historian, there’s the option of having students read Richard Hoffmann’s An Environmental History of Medieval Europe, or Lynn White’s famous 1967 article on social/religious change and environmental impacts. These works explore the social and economic dynamics prevalent during that era and how they affected the natural world.

The music professor could add ecomusicology readings to the syllabus and foster class discussion regarding the influence of birds on Béla Bartók’s compositions or the viability of musical genres as a way to increase awareness about sustainability in society.

And the business professor has a lot of options. Students can research case studies on businesses that weren’t sustainable (e.g., Hummer, Circuit City). They can examine incidents of business ethics that have distinct environmental or social ramifications. They can dialogue about the importance of recognizing the non-fiscal costs of doing business (e.g., CO2 buildup, biodiversity loss, deforestation, ocean acidification, social injustice, environmental racism): what economists call externalities. And they can read case studies of socially responsible corporations that have benefitted from adopting sustainable practices.

“Integrating sustainability more broadly into our curriculum is an important challenge for the College because it requires interdisciplinary thinking and dialogue,” explains QEP Director Todd LeVasseur ’97. “The good news is, there’s really no limit to the ways that we can accomplish this.”