Greening higher education: Q&A with Julian Keniry of NWF

Published on: 
11 Feb 2016
Amanda Sawit

In the third installment of our blog series on sustainability in higher education, we talk with Julian Keniry, co-founder of Campus Ecology at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and senior director for campus and community leadership. She is also the co-founder of Greenforce, a national community college green workforce education initiative, and the EcoLeader leadership and career development program.

For you, what’s the significance of collaboration in meeting sustainability goals?

Some of the very best progress we’ve made has been achieved by coalition. A few examples are the Energy Action Coalition and higher education association collaborations such as AASHE. More recently, USGBC has played a significant and timely national role in renewing collaboration across higher education NGOs, including AASHE, NWF and Second Nature. Already, we’ve been able to envision ways to leverage our individual work toward a common and powerful goal, including our vision for 20 million eco-literate graduates by 2025.

Through this commitment to collaboration, we encourage innovation, flexible approaches and opportunities to advance higher education and leadership, moving toward a strategic purpose that’s accomplished in a shorter amount of time. We recognize that we’re supporting colleges and universities, understanding that our collaborations are successful due to their vision.

What sort of trends will likely impact, or currently influence, this commitment? 

Within the lifetimes of college students today, the world will work to nearly eliminate carbon pollution. Yet, unless students are majoring in environmental studies or biology, they are relatively unlikely to learn about sustainability. The discrepancy is amplified when considering that the American workforce, employers and shareholders are leaning toward sustainability, recognizing the benefits of financial savings, risk reduction and improving health.

All students should understand how their chosen careers impact the earth, and think about solutions that can strike that triple balance of economic, social and environmental benefit. College students deserve, need and are requesting this basic education that will position them for good jobs in a clean economy and help them identify business needs. This education and training will also be particularly important at community colleges, which will prepare half of the nation’s green STEM workforce.

What are some of the ways NWF can actualize the three pledges?

For us, equipping 20 million graduates with sustainability competencies by 2025 is the overarching framework for NWF’s role. There are also components that we can facilitate, including an inquiry-based session (what are the policy, individual and institutional mechanisms to achieve this goal), a partner strategy (what other organizations would wish to engage and lead, and how do we empower those groups), and implementation (which components fit best with each organization). 

Beyond that, we’re engaging thousands of student and young professional leaders in EcoLeaders. In the pilot year alone, more than 1,000 students and young professionals registered in 49 states and five countries, and hundreds are registering for career development webinars. A big emphasis will be shaping the EcoLeaders career center in a way that taps the expertise of our partners. For example, USGBC may be able to elevate its credential process, related fields and members through guest columns, interviews and video blogs integrated into the career center for students.

It’s been often said that climate change is the greatest challenge of our time. In your view, what role does education play in taking action? 

Climate change is a symptom, while clean energy, sustainable agriculture and smarter design and planning are the solutions. Climate change helps as a way to frame the problem primarily because of the consensus across the world that we must eliminate carbon pollution by 2050. There will be no more important entity in the world than U.S. higher education in addressing this global mandate to prepare graduates with the competencies to eliminate carbon pollution and protect and restore biodiversity. We’re seeing impacts in every field, and we’ll find the solutions in every field, especially through teamwork. The right thing to do is to scale solutions, and fortunately, these are also the steps that create healthier and happier, more peaceful people and communities.

Read our first higher education Q&A blog