Con Vocare: Calling together for meaningful change

Many things about graduation are based on traditions that go back almost a thousand years, including the gowns we wear. Thankfully, we wear these “regalia” only a couple of times per year. The word “convocation” comes from the Latin words “con”, meaning together and “vocare”, meaning to call. So, convocation means a “calling together,” in this case to celebrate the students graduating here today. But it also to call together the family, friends, staff, and faculty that provided the support and guidance to make sure all of these students sitting in the front rows could reach this watershed moment.

To the students, I know all of you are excited to be graduating, as you should be. But with any transition, there is always some degree of anxiety and uncertainty. For the past handful of years, you have been able to explore, grow, and learn in a nurturing environment, guided by faculty and staff that care about your well-being and want nothing more than to see you succeed. Leaving that environment and venturing out on your own can be unsettling. I understand that.

The one thing I want all of you to remember is that you are certainly not on your own when you graduate from the school. You are and always will be part of the SOS family. You will be joining nearly 2,000 alumni who have gone on to do incredible things; achievements we never could have envisioned when we started the school some 11 years ago.

You will come to rely, as past graduates have, on the alumni and school networks for support, for the generation of novel ideas, and for pathways for getting things done. All of you know that sustainability challenges and opportunities are complex, meaning that no individual alone can tackle them in a meaningful way. You will need to lean on each other to move the needle on sustainability, something which I know inspired all of you to join the school in the first place. To make positive change, don’t forget to “call together” your sustainability allies, your alma mater, and the lifelong friends you have made at ASU and the School of Sustainability. Remember the words: Con Vocare. Those words are not just for graduation. They should serve you for life and help you, working with others, to build a better, more humane, and sustainable future. 

Congratulations Class of 2017.

Measured by whom we include, not exclude

The ASU Charter outside of Wrigley Hall at ASU

The ASU Charter contains very powerful language about principles of inclusion. For quite some time, universities have measured their excellence by their selectivity. In some of the most selective schools, this can translate into admitting less than 10 percent of applicants, who in many cases are very high achieving and accomplished students. National ranking systems use the selectivity measure as part of their ranking calculations.

The first line of ASU’s charter takes a different stance:

ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed

Commitment to this principle has produced remarkable achievements. ASU’s incoming class now reflects the demographics of the state of Arizona along all social, ethnic, and economic dimensions. In 1985, less than 2 percent of the students at ASU were from the bottom half of family incomes but now that figure is 50 percent. At the same time, graduation rates have vastly improved since the mid 1980s. ASU has held fast to accepting A and B students while undergoing the highest growth in research expenditures of any university in the country. The evidence shows that it is possible to educate a broad spectrum of society and be a research powerhouse at the same time. One does not have to come at the expense of the other.

Indeed, I believe the strategies are mutually reinforcing. Inclusion means, in part, not excluding the good ideas, experiences, and insights from a diverse cross section of society. For some time, business has recognized the value of the diversity dividend. Simply put, a diverse work force translates into increased profits and financial performance. Inclusion and diversity are important to the health of any organization.

A second and equally important reason for promoting diversity and inclusion is the ethical responsibility universities have to the public. Citizens of Arizona rightfully expect children of all family backgrounds to have the chance for an education. It is the right and fair thing to do. A college education remains the single best predictor–by far–of social mobility.  A college education prepares individuals for a fulfilling and meaningful life while contributing to the overall health and well being of the community.

Yet inclusion in college does not just happen. It requires vigilance. It requires all of us to make the effort to reach out, welcome, and listen to those who may feel that college is not for them. It means developing pathway programs for students in high schools that do not typically send students to college. It means inviting students to campus to demystify what it means to be a college student. It means creating an environment on college campuses (including online) where all people are respected and listened to with an open mind. It means that all are welcome. The future success of universities, and the societies they serve, depends on it.


A funny thing happened on the way to the job market

Deans of colleges and schools have an annual ritual. Each fall, they greet their incoming class of freshmen – excited, hopeful and mostly young minds ready to enter adulthood, citizenship and self-sufficiency.

These students have worked hard to get into the school of their choice, and now their journey begins. This meeting is a blend of informational, inspirational and joyous.

Often sitting beside these excited young students are their equally excited parents, who have sacrificed to enable their children to reach this auspicious moment. They dream their children will become the proverbial “doctors and lawyers and such,” and also artists, engineers, historians, teachers, journalists and other well-known vocations.

But when the dean of a sustainability school addresses an incoming class, something curious happens. Every time.

Incoming students who have chosen sustainability as their career path have expressions that unmistakably say, “I want to save the planet.”

At the same time, their parents seem somewhat mystified, wondering, “Will my child be able to get a job with this degree?”

When Arizona State University opened its School of Sustainability in 2006, it was widely considered to be the first school of its kind in the U.S. To be honest, nobody knew how many students would enroll, let alone where they would work after graduation.

One faculty member quipped, “It’s not as though our students can look in the want ads under ‘S’ and find a career path.”

By comparison, today there are hundreds of sustainability programs offered by universities, and employers of all sorts are keenly interested in their graduates.

A 2016 survey of ASU’s undergraduate sustainability alumni showed that 96 percent were employed or attending graduate school. What’s more, 67 percent of employed students were working in sustainability-related jobs – more than twice the national average for major-to-career match.

Those are good odds.

But how can this be? After a decade of working with sustainability alumni and their employers, we know that sustainability is more than just a major. It is also a value – a set of principles by which to live one’s life, treat humankind and the Earth – all in a way that helps create a prosperous future for everyone.

Employers of all kinds are attracted to workers who hold these values and have attained the skills that sustainability students are required to master – systems-level, future-focused thinking and the ability to engage and collaborate with stakeholders to develop and implement solutions, among other skills.

In 2006, we couldn’t predict who would employ our graduates, other than perhaps the obvious environmental and conservation-oriented organizations. But since then, our graduates have consistently gotten good jobs at top-notch companies, important government agencies and major international nonprofits. Some examples: Amazon, PepsiCo, Walmart, NRG, Tesla, cities throughout the U.S., GE, Rolls Royce, Waste Management, World Wildlife Fund, USAA Insurance, Owens-Corning, Sandia National Labs, Dell.

So, when this dean greets incoming sustainability students, he understands the earnest concerns parents have about their child’s employment prospects. But he is also confident that these fears will, on graduation day several years from then, have been allayed.

This short article appeared in a number of newspapers in the Valley and across the country.

Lessons from the Palo Verde Tree

This spring we start a new tradition. Attached to the gowns and hoods of our graduates are small branches of palo verde. One of the most common trees in the Sonoran Desert, the palo verde is also the state tree of Arizona. What astonishes most visitors when they see palo verde trees is the green bark and branches. We locals know that this allows the trees, which often shed their small leaves during hot and dry periods, to continue photosynthesizing – to convert the sun’s rays into useful chemical energy. If there is sufficient rainfall, in the late spring, they produce bright yellow flowers that nourish pollinators and produce seed pods, a source of food for birds, rodents, and, particularly in the past, for people.

These beautiful trees have adapted to the difficult conditions of the desert. Mature specimens can live for hundreds of years. They are a reminder that even in harsh environmental conditions–with little and unpredictable rainfall, seething heat and freezing temperatures–life can adapt and thrive and bring beauty and sustenance.

As you graduate and go out into the world, at some point you will likely encounter your own difficult environments. You may have co-workers who doubt your novel ideas. You may work for bosses who are perfectly satisfied with the status quo and won’t budge. Banks and investors may be skeptical of your innovative business plans. Decision makers may dismiss your forward thinking interventions. Community members may not initially welcome you.

But when these challenges arise, think of the palo verde. Your good ideas, your energy and passion for creating a better, sustainable future need to see the light of day. Don’t let difficult environments discourage you. Use the problem-solving skills and the positive, solutions perspectives you learned in the School to overcome the doubters, the naysayers, and the short-sighted. I am confident in your resilience, knowing you have the skills and drive to grow and thrive in the face of difficult and entrenched challenges.

Most importantly, remember that you are not in this alone. You are joining more than a thousand SOS alumni who are ready and willing to support you–to help you launch your careers, listen to your challenges, find solutions, and realize your dreams–just as other alumni did for them. And remember that you are a part of the School of Sustainability family forever. You will always have a place here in this beautiful desert we call home.  

Congratulations to the Class of 2017!

School of Sustainability Fall 2016 Convocation Address

SOS ConvocationThis has been a year of surprises. Around the world, many were shocked by the “Brexit” vote, committing the United Kingdom to leave the European Union after more than 40 years. The results of the US federal election caught many off guard. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. And Bob Dylan received (well, was awarded) the Nobel Prize in literature.

Change can be unsettling, but it also brings opportunity. Your degrees in sustainability I firmly believe are more important than ever. While the winds of change can shift direction quickly, the commitment to sustainability in many private, public, non-profit and religious organizations remains firm. We have reached a kind of sustainability “lock-in” that would be very difficult, although not impossible, to dismantle.

Of course, this kind of experience in persuading others about the importance of sustainability – from practical and ethical standpoints – is something all of you have lived over the course of your career in SOS. As you launch into the next stage of your life, you will not always be surrounded by like-minded people. Indeed, you were not at ASU and even in the School of Sustainability. Negotiating different sets of worldviews and priorities to achieve common goals is something you are all very well prepared to do, and I am confident you will.

This century belongs to you. And to your children and grandchildren. You will be the leaders at a critical time in human history. I know you will be smart, motivated, and ethical with the decisions you make—individually and with others—to design and build the future we want and need.

In January of 1964, a very young Bob Dylan (about the age of most of the undergraduates here today), released the song “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. Any one of the verses from that song are as relevant now as they were 50 years ago. Here is the first verse (feel free to hum along):

Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Congratulations to the class of 2016!

Two Great Degrees in Five Years

09_2012_fall_undergrad_commencement_1363wI am very pleased to tell you that last week, the School of Sustainability officially launched an accelerated (4+1) degree program. Current and future students who meet the requirements can enroll and receive a bachelor’s and a master’s degree (MSUS) in 5 rather than the typical 6 years. We built this program in response to my breakfasts and lunches with current students. When I asked how many would want to enroll in a 4+1 program nearly every hand went up.

This interest doesn’t surprise me for a couple of reasons. First, our students are smart, motivated, and passionate about what they do. We have the highest retention rates on campus, which speaks to the quality of the degree programs we offer and the dedication of our students. The chance to stay on in the School of Sustainability and specialize even more by enrolling in a master’s degree in sustainability should therefore not come as a surprise.

Another reason is that many of our students are already doing graduate quality work by the time they get to their junior and senior year.  In the accelerated program, students can take some courses toward their master’s degree while they are finishing up their bachelor’s degree. An added bonus is that because we work with and know the potential of our own students, we do not require them to take the GRE when they apply for admission. Below are the basic eligibility requirements for the 4+1 program. If you are interested in learning more, have a look at the full description on our web page:

To be eligible for admission to a 4+1 program, a student must:

  • Have a 3.0 GPA in the last 60 credit hours of undergraduate coursework.
  • Have accumulated at least 75 credit hours toward the undergraduate degree at the time of application; 90 credit hours are required to begin the program.
  • Have completed at least six credit hours of upper division coursework in the major.
  • Be on track to graduate with the undergraduate degree two semesters after being accepted into the program (one calendar year later than the acceptance date).

Looking back on my own years as an undergraduate student, I wish this kind of opportunity had been available to me. I encourage all of you to take a close look, and feel free to talk to any of our advisors. I look forward to welcoming many of you into this new and exciting 4+1 program!

ASU is all-in for sustainablity

This fall, another 150 students joined the School of Sustainability as majors and graduate students. In total, 2,000 students are enrolled in sustainability programs at ASU this fall. The School of Sustainability is committed to offering education to students in sustainability no matter what their major. This can range from a single course, such as the ever-popular Introduction to Sustainability, to concentrations, certificates, a minor, and double majors. We have also developed a very robust executive education and training program, one that links the expertise of our world class faculty to growing needs for sustainability training in the private, public, and non-profits sectors.

The reason we can reach all these audiences is because ASU is an “all-in” university when it comes to sustainability. And because ASU is a large, research-intensive organization, we can draw on the talent pool of 415 Sustainability Scientists and Scholars to tackle almost any sustainability question.

Our students benefit hugely from the sustainability expertise that has been fostered at ASU over the last dozen years. Over the next decade we will continue to engage globally by bringing students to ASU from around the world, in person and virtually through our excellent online programs. Last year we launched ASU’s first joint degree program with a foreign institution. With the MS in Global Sustainability Science students earn a degree from ASU and from Leuphana University of Luneburg, Germany. ASU and Leuphana students spend a semester abroad at each other’s university and work together on sustainability projects.

We have also created a global consortium of universities and research institutes focused on sustainability outcomes. The purpose is to work together to scale solutions to have a global impact.

All of these efforts are centered on our most important mission–educating students to develop practical solutions to the most pressing sustainability challenges. As we welcome another fabulous group of students to ASU, I share their excitement about the years ahead, what we will learn together, and how we will build a better future.

Photo from Camp SOS, Prescott AZ, Aug 2016
New School of Sustainability students at orientation camp in the cool pines of Prescott, AZ.

Anytime, anywhere education to tackle sustainability deficit

IMG_1862I have written elsewhere about the sustainability deficit, and what we and our graduates are doing to fill it. Data from our alumni surveys show that the demand for sustainability graduates is strong and growing. At ASU, the university is committed to offering sustainability education in as many formats as possible, from majors and graduate programs, to minors, concentrations, and certificates. At the end of last academic year, more than 1,700 students were enrolled in sustainability programs at ASU. Next year, I expect that enrollment to top 2,000.

Over the last 10 years, ASU and the School of Sustainability have become a world leader in sustainability education, research, and outreach. My goal is to make this expertise available to as many students as possible, regardless of what time zone they occupy or time constraints they face.

This past year, we launched the Master of Sustainability Leadership degree fully online. This was designed by sustainability faculty and practitioners to equip ambitious, dedicated individuals with the knowledge and skills necessary to drive sustainability in a variety of private, public, and non-profit institutions, as well as the military.  We also launched fully online BA and BS degrees in Sustainability, programs that are internationally renowned as the gold standard. In addition to allowing students to take their degrees anytime, anywhere, the other purpose of the online offerings is to engage voices and experiences from around the world. Ultimately, sustainability is a global issue. I want students in the United States to interact with students from around the globe, to learn from one another, create bonds of friendship, and find ways to build a better future together that takes into account the diversity of needs and aspiration of people everywhere.

The world needs more sustainability graduates and we are dedicated to meeting that need. Think about what role you want to play in building a better, more sustainable future.


Sustainability degree at the Polytechnic Campus

asu_poly_campusI am very pleased to announce that the School of Sustainability is now established at the ASU Polytechnic Campus! Located in Mesa, AZ and the fast growing East Valley, the beautiful Polytechnic campus provides a small campus feel with a student-centered mission. Starting this fall, students can pursue the Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science in Sustainability at the Poly campus. Also available is the option to earn two degrees at the same time–the Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability and Bachelor of Science in Supply Chain Management from the WP Carey School of Business–by enrolling in the concurrent degree. The Sustainability minor, the sustainable food systems certificate, the sustainable energy certificate, and the Sustainability concentration in Business are also available to Poly students.

The Polytechnic campus has some unique offerings that will be especially attractive to Sustainability students: a world-class maker space, one of the country’s largest algae test beds and renewable energy labs, an agribusiness school, a degree that educates students for careers in environmental and resource management, and plans to develop a sustainable community near the campus’ international airport. Also in the works is the first integrated food-water-energy certificate at ASU exclusively for the Poly campus.

I am very pleased that the School of Sustainability has another home at the ASU Polytechnic campus. I encourage you to reach out to one of our advisors to find out more about the program. I look forward to welcoming sustainability students at Poly this fall!



10 Years On

10_yrsUnless you slept through it, which would have been very difficult given the noise and commotion, you know that we recently celebrated 10 years as a school. Because 10 is the base of the decimal numeral system (likely because we have 10 fingers on our hands), it is a special number in human culture, and one that invites celebration.

In the 10th anniversary logo, you may also have noticed that 1-0 stood for One World. This was meant as a unifying theme—we need to think of ourselves as members of a global community. It was also meant as a limiting theme – we have only one planet and we can’t break it since there are no other Earths to escape to.

The purpose of the 10th anniversary was to celebrate accomplishments and to demonstrate that sustainability is a principle that pervades all that we do at ASU. But I also called for us to think about how to expand our impact – to demonstrate that the principles of hope and agency can drive positive, enduring impact at a global scale. We have One World, but it is a big planet, and there are huge opportunities for all of you to make a difference in shaping its future.

I can’t wait to see what you accomplish over the next decade. I see a bright future for all of you, and with your training and passion for sustainability that means a better future for everyone. Mark your calendars now for spring of 2026 and join us for an even bigger celebration of the nation’s first and best School of Sustainability. Congratulations graduates.