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'Sustainability' gains status on US campuses

University programs are focusing research and resources on environmental and social responsibility.

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Somewhere in the curriculum, most colleges and universities include Henry David Thoreau. Now, many of them are trying to emulate him.

Yes, sweeping the academic world is Walden Pond 101: the art of living in a sustainable manner. Think environmental and social responsibility.

One of the best examples of the ivory tower's effort to tread lightly on the land is at Arizona State University. Next month, ASU will inaugurate the nation's first School of Sustainability – whose classes will look at everything from water scarcity to urban air quality problems.

It is one of many universities putting its intellect and talents to use in the name of ecology. These institutions are devoting more research to solving global climate problems, and they're redesigning their own campuses to be examples of better ways to use and protect Earth's resources. For some schools, the financial commitment to these issues has started to run into the millions of dollars, as they foot salaries for new specialists and pay the costs of creating green buildings. At the very least, many universities are creating new courses in response to student interest.

"We have always looked to academia to think creatively about the larger problems of our day," says Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. "There is not a more complicated problem than how to survive and flourish with a growing population and finite resources."

Universities are quickly latching onto the issue as several developments show. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has quintupled in size this year, as it went from a West Coast-based organization to a national group. Also, an increasing number of schools, from New York University to the University of Central Oklahoma, are getting 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources. And next month, a group of colleges and universities will launch an effort encouraging 200 universities to develop a plan that would make their schools "climate neutral," meaning the schools wouldn't adversely affect the environment.

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