Letter from the Executive Director

While 2020 was a year filled with loss, fear, sorrow, and anger, welcoming in a new administration, and the first female, Black and south Asian Vice President of the United States, has me filled with hope. With a commitment to racial equity, a renewed focus on climate, the restoration of various environmental protections, and the most diverse cabinet to date, the changes happening in Washington, D.C., and across the nation help to strengthen the foundation on which we can advance our work as sustainability champions.

Like many of you, I’m eager to, not move on, but to move forward. In order to do that, reflecting on the past, especially last year, is critical. It was a trying year but it was a year of leaning into hard things, stretching, learning, developing, and working through significant challenges. That was certainly the case at AASHE and I’m sure our experience mirrors that of many in our campus communities.

Early on in the pandemic, we made the decision to host our conference virtually. Making this decision six months before our October conference gave us the opportunity to focus our efforts on creating a new event as opposed to being in limbo. I’m proud that AASHE was able to adapt to our changing and uncertain circumstances and ultimately make a decision that benefited our community. With our conference being virtual, as well as our inspiring theme, Mobilizing for a Just Transition, we were able to engage nearly 7,000 people in our event. This more than tripled the reach that we typically have for our in-person events.

In addition, as we pivoted and adapted, we stayed focused on building value for our members. Though we had to cancel our in-person workshops, we still had regular webinars, with a 30% increase in participation, and offered two new discussion series - one focused on COVID-19 in April and the other focused on racial equity & social justice in August. This provided many opportunities for our community to connect, engage, and learn from one another.

Last year we saw 3 new STARS Platinum institutions bringing the total number of Platinum-rated institutions to nine. We also saw our first STARS rated institutions in Australia, Morocco, Greece, and Colombia.

We also spent much of 2020 doing powerful work with 122 Consulting Group to center racial equity & social justice in everything we do. This work has proven to be deep, introspective, and transformative work particularly for our primarily white organization. Dismantling systems of oppression is fundamental to our mission and therefore we’ve been identifying ways in which systemic racism and white supremacy culture show up in AASHE, the sustainability community, and the higher education sector. As sustainability leaders, we have to recognize that championing racial equity & social justice is a critical part of our work. Check out the resources and educational opportunities we created last year to help inform and evolve our community.

I truly believe this evolution is necessary for us to meaningfully advance our mission to inspire and catalyze higher education to lead the sustainability transformation. Our personal and organizational evolutions are interdependent.

2020 was a year that forced us to adapt. We pivoted and demonstrated resilience. We’ve learned that what seems impossible (e.g., all classes being taught virtually) is actually possible. Amidst absolute turmoil and uncertainty, we persevered. I'd encourage all of you who are reading this to reflect on the challenges and successes of 2020. How can you move forward, peacefully and powerfully, envisioning what's possible for the future, letting go of anything that doesn’t serve you, and focus on championing your work, adapting, and expanding your impact?

The work you do matters greatly and AASHE will continue to be here supporting you, challenging you, and pushing you forward. I’m sending wishes for good health to you all!


Meghan Fay Zahniser

COVID-19 & RESJ: A Watershed Year

2020 was an unusual year. Deep racial tensions, COVID-19, and the worsening effects of climate change compounded the ever-increasing demands of sustainability professionals to address contemporary societal problems. Long-standing and systemic issues unveiled themselves with a quickness much like the wildfires that rolled across many parts of the world. More than ever before, the sustainability community was challenged to bridge common ground across disciplines and departments, address the onslaught of emerging concerns, and manage competing priorities in an unconventional way.

AASHE remained committed to helping the sustainability community leverage the repository of knowledge, resources, and tools to deepen their understanding of the issues, adopt effective models and strategies, and cultivate the fortitude needed to bring about systemic change.

  • When COVID-19 reared its head, AASHE created a special resources section to provide the higher education sustainability community with tools, models, and resources to tackle the new norm including working from home, handling issues of inequity, how to support students, and policy responses that support sustainability in addressing COVID-19.
  • AASHE held a 4-part discussion series related to COVID-19 where the higher education sustainability community came together to discuss their experiences on how they've weathered the on-going pandemic and what lies ahead at their universities and for the community at large.
  • In response to the racial awakening taking place globally, AASHE created a special resources section related to the intersection of racial equity, social justice and sustainability. It features a living document for the higher education sustainability community to provide resources to further education around racial equity and social justice.
  • AASHE stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • AASHE created the Racial Equity and Social Justice Discussion Series to highlight the intersection between RESJ and Sustainability.
  • With guidance from the AASHE Advisory Council’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, AASHE launched a compelling essay series No Sustainability without Justice: An Anthology on Racial Equity and Social Justice to further underscore the connections between sustainability and racial equity and social justice.
  • AASHE opened a supplementary Call for Emerging Issues proposals to ensure pressing contemporary issues confronting society are the focal point of content at the Global Conference on Sustainability in Higher Education.

Using Our Voices

Despite all the political uncertainty the world has faced, AASHE remains focused on our mission around the concept that we are stronger as a whole. We believe in putting our collective voices together to advocate for the global sustainability transformation that benefits all. Advocacy is a collective duty and, as such, we continue to explore ways to collaborate with others to influence policies and actions that transform our world into a thriving, equitable and ecologically healthy world for everyone. AASHE joined with numerous organizations and coalitions in supporting the following advocacy initiatives:

Now in its eleventh year, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), designed to incentivize institutions to deepen their sustainability efforts, proves that despite all the challenges we face, sustainability remains of vital importance and top of mind to the higher education sustainability community. Throughout 2020, we saw a number of “first” and witnessed the expansion of STARS as a vital tool for achieving sustainability.

  • United World College, Montezuma, New Mexico, became the first secondary school to earn a STARS rating.
  • STARS, currently in 43 countries, expanded its international reach by acquiring the first-ever STARS participant from: Australia, Morocco, Greece and Columbia.
  • Arizona State University, Cornell University, and University of Connecticut became the newest Platinum rated institutions, bringing the total number of Platinum-rated institutions to nine.
  • More than 1,000 institutions registered to use the Reporting Tool.
  • STARS Aligned: Using the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System to Report on Contributions to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals publication was unveiled to recognize the strategic importance of the SDGs and the potential value to the higher education sector of having a standardized tool to report on higher education's individual and collective SDG contributions.
  • Issued the STARS Data Accuracy Video Series to provide data quality tips and resources to help STARS users submit high-quality data under version 2.2.

What We Learned

Data provides the foundation leaders need to more powerfully articulate the value that sustainability offers their institutions. In an effort to continue proving the value of sustainability, several resources were created based on member feedback to better understand the impact a global pandemic was having on their day-to-day efforts.

  • The 2020 Sustainable Campus Index which recognizes top-performing sustainable colleges and universities overall and in 17 impact areas, as measured by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) was published.
  • Released the 2020 Higher Education Sustainability Staffing Report, which examines the nature of sustainability positions at colleges and universities. The publication provides comprehensive insights into salaries, funding, supervision, job satisfaction, challenges, and more.
  • To assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on sustainability offices, AASHE surveyed its members:

Virtual: The Way Forward

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, AASHE's Annual Conference & Expo moved to a virtual format and rebranded as the Global Conference on Sustainability in Higher Education (GCSHE). The move signaled our commitment to achieving our sustainability goals to reduce the carbon footprint of the event and become a more inclusive space enabling professionals around the globe to participate in the virtual event.

Recognizing Excellence: AASHE Sustainability Awards

450+ submissions. 4 categories. 1 honorable mention.

10 winners. 1 Lifetime Achievement Award.

The AASHE Sustainability Awards recognize sustainability achievements, research advancements and individual leadership. By raising the visibility of high-impact sustainability projects and pioneering research, the awards program helps to disseminate innovations and inspire continued progress toward sustainability.

The 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient is Nan Jenks-Jay. This award recognizes outstanding leaders who have made significant contributions to the advancement of sustainability in higher education over their lifetime. It is the highest honor bestowed upon an individual by AASHE. Nan Jenks-Jay, who recently retired as the dean of Environmental Affairs at Middlebury College, is a leading voice for the environment and sustainability in higher education. She played leadership roles in the development of Environmental Studies programs at Williams College, University of Redlands and Middlebury College. In addition to her work as an educator, Nan also pioneered a wide variety of campus sustainability strategies – from green buildings and on-site composting to sustainable purchasing, fuel switching and land conservation – that have helped to make Middlebury an internationally recognized leader in sustainability. She has published and presented widely on her work and served as an advisor to multiple sustainability organizations, including AASHE.

Membership Profile

AASHE empowers higher education faculty, administrators, staff and students to be effective change agents and drivers of sustainability innovation. We work with and for higher education to ensure that our world’s future leaders are motivated and equipped to solve sustainability challenges.

AASHE membership is intended for the full spectrum of higher education institutions and organizations – from community colleges to research universities, and from institutions just starting their sustainability programs to long-time campus sustainability leaders. Nearly 900 higher education institutions, businesses and nonprofit organizations comprise AASHE’s membership base reaching more than 2 million people.

2021: The Road Ahead

While we can't predict the future, one thing is certain, we will remain focused on trying new things and supporting our members in achieving their sustainability goals. Now is the time for innovation and bold actions that will truly transform the global sustainability movement. We look forward to continuing to learn and grow together.