The Future of Saving Our Future

Some states talk big about green jobs. Others train the people who will create them.

The first thing you notice about the four-story building at the edge of Arizona State University’s main Tempe campus is what looks like a row of whirligigs perched along the roofline. Past the pale lemon and palo verde green walls of the breezeway, an elevator stands ready to whisk you upstairs. Inside, a sign explains it all.

Welcome to the almost 50,000-square-foot Wrigley Hall, which began its life in 1966 as the nursing college. About six years ago it was renovated with an impressive array of sustainable features: native plantings, energy-efficient lighting, waterless urinals. Even the reception desk was constructed of recycled aluminum cans and plastic milk jugs. And the whirligig things? They’re wind turbines, placed near the roof’s solar panels.

The building, which earned LEED Silver certification, has to walk the sustainability walk: It’s the headquarters of ASU’s groundbreaking School of Sustainability, which was founded in 2007 as the first of its kind in the United States. The school goes well beyond traditional ecology or environmental studies programs to offer an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability, allowing undergrads and graduate students the ability to study both science and society. The future depends on ecosystems and water quality, but also on policy, international development and broad social transformations. Business, law, communications, sociology, technology, engineering, urban planning, archaeology, anthropology and agriculture are woven into the school, giving students a big picture of, for instance, why desert cities have the heat-island effect, and why some consumers in some nations are greener than those in others.

The school has already graduated some 370 students and has 500 enrolled now. It’s part of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, founded in 2004 to serve as a hub for research, business practices, global partnerships and education. The institute also helps drive ASU’s sustainable practices, such as dotting the Tempe campus, as well as the three smaller metro Phoenix campuses, with 58 solar installations, giving ASU the largest solar portfolio of any university in the country.

Some might find it surprising that something as innovative and socially aware as the School of Sustainability was founded at ASU. But dig beneath the university’s rep as a Top 10 party school and a dependable producer of business majors, and you’ll find deep green roots. This was the university that in 1966 conceived the Rio Salado Project, a utopian plan (finally realized in the 1990s) to transform a nearby garbage-strewn river bottom into an urban recreational greenbelt, and was the first in the country to offer a master’s in solar applications, way back in 1974.

The current greening of ASU is largely attributed to Michael Crow, who became ASU’s president in 2002. Crow, an unlikely eco-warrior with a penchant for crisp white shirts and sober business suits even in scorching desert heat, started his career as a program development coordinator for the U.S. Department of Energy’s fossil energy program. Before coming to ASU, he was executive vice provost at Columbia University. He’s pushed ASU to incorporate more interdisciplinary schools and research initiatives as well as to become the greenest of the green, with everything from a campus bike co-op and locavore cafe to massive recycling efforts and the establishment of Sustainability House, a green living and learning dorm.

“With Michael Crow, you don’t sit still,” says Sander van der Leeuw, who has been the School of Sustainability’s dean since 2010. “We have so many projects, classes and initiatives that we’ve expanded to three other buildings besides Wrigley Hall.”

Netherlands-born van der Leeuw doesn’t exactly sit still himself. An archaeologist and historian by training, van der Leeuw received his Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam in 1976 and became smitten with the challenges of desert living as a Fulbright high school exchange student at Tucson’s University of Arizona in the 1960s and researching the technology of ancient pottery in Syria during the 1970s.

“I’ve always liked interdisciplinary work,” says van der Leeuw, who was honored earlier this year with the 2012 United Nations Champion of the Earth award. “At other schools, sustainability is taught in the context of forestry or ecology or agriculture. Here at ASU, we argue that sustainability is a societal issue, as well as a technical and business issue. It’s an interaction between society and the environment. We bring the knowledge together.”

Van der Leeuw works with 24 core faculty members, about 70 faculty members who also teach across ASU and a group of more than 250 sustainability researchers and scientists. “The overall [sustainability] community is quite large,” he says.

The school—and the Global Institute of Sustainability—are involved in such projects as reducing energy usage at City of Phoenix buildings, examining rural versus urban land use in metro Phoenix and creating a sustainability index for products sold at Walmart (done in conjunction with the University of Arkansas). There’s also a push to expand the school’s reach globally, thanks in part to a $27.5 million investment recently given to the Global Institute of Sustainability from the Rob and Melani Walton Fund of the Walton Family Foundation. The Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Fund intends to “build an international sustainability network by implementing a global sustainability studies program and establishing sustainability solutions centers on three continents,” according to an ASU news release.

To attract more graduate students, the school is offering a new applied master’s degree beginning in spring 2013, says Candice Carr Kelman, the school’s assistant director. “There’s no thesis, but with the master’s in sustainable solutions, students do a workshop, an internship or an applied project,” she says. The school is also planning an executive master’s degree, combining both online classes and blocks of classroom sessions.

“We have a very broad look at sustainability here,” Kelman says. “It’s not just an environmental issue. Everything plays into it. It’s a circle within a circle within a circle. That’s sustainability.”

Who studies sustainability?

ASU’s School of Sustainability has attracted a broad mix of students, from 18-year-old freshmen to 40-somethings spurred by the recession to go back to school. They arrive with diverse interests and graduate into careers in everything from academia to high technology.


BRIGITTE BAVOUSETT enrolled in fall 2007 as the first of 27 students working toward their master’s degrees in sustainability. Bavousett had majored in theater and psychology as an undergrad, but she was looking for something that gave her an understanding of cultural and societal sustainability. In 2008, she became the school’s first graduate. “The ‘alumni association’ was technically just me,” she says. Since graduating, she’s interned at U-Haul and worked on carbon-offset programs. She now teaches sustainability classes at ASU and a nearby community college, and she’s thinking about pushing on for the sustainability Ph.D.


RYAN BURM, a senior from Arizona, is typical in that he explored other majors before discovering sustainability, which clicked. “I like the problem-solving perspectives and the broad range of topics we cover,” says Burm, who has an internship with Dell through the school. “It’s a full-system approach. I’ve been introduced to a lot of different perspectives here.” He’s on track to graduate in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in sustainability, focusing on energy, materials and technology.


COLIN TETREAULT, who studied marketing, business and sociology in his undergraduate years at ASU, had an epiphany after a few years spent in the business world. “Business and the environment are not dissonant,” he says. “They can be intrinsically linked.” That aha moment led Tetreault to get his master’s in sustainability in 2010 and to an array of work and volunteer experiences that would exhaust most mortals. Tetreault runs a sustainability consulting firm, with clients that include the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix and a large catering company (“I’ve steered them to a zero-waste policy with strategies such as sending wet waste to chicken farmers, who give the catering company eggs.”). He’s also the first-ever sustainability policy adviser for the City of Phoenix Mayor’s Office, working on such projects as affordable residential solar energy and a vacant-lot initiative that creates temporary (and permanent) solutions to “heal the urban form.” He’s a faculty associate at the school, teaching sustainability courses, plus he’s on the board of two local sustainability organizations, Valley Forward and Phoenix Green Chamber of Commerce. “I have a passion for business that’s tempered by a love of people and the environment,” Tetreault says. “My degree helped me put it all together.”