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Campus sustainability expert, author visits NMSU

Campus sustainability expert and author Geoffrey Chase visited the New Mexico State University Las Cruces campus this week to discuss graduation, retention and sustainability with NMSU officials.

Geoffrey Chase sits at a table in the Dona Ana Room at Corbett Center, waiting for a discussion with the NMSU Sustainability Council to begin.
Campus sustainability expert and author Geoffrey W. Chase visited New Mexico State University this week to discuss not only sustainability, but also student retention and graduation strategies with NMSU leaders. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)
NMSU Sustainability Council members sit at tables in the Dona Ana Room at Corbett Center, while discussing sustainability concerns at NMSU.
Geoffrey Chase, seated in the middle of the rear table, interacts with members of the New Mexico State University Sustainability Council during his visit to campus this week. Chase is coauthor of "Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change (Urban and Industrial Environments)." (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)

Chase is dean of undergraduate studies at San Diego State University, but is also the coauthor, along with Peggy Barlett, of "Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change (Urban and Industrial Environments)."

"I would like to share the story of how San Diego State, which is in some ways a similar kind of institution [to NMSU], has been able to achieve what we have around graduation and retention," he said. "What I'll really be talking about is how you build a culture that is focused on that and how in that culture, we can begin to create some opportunities for significant change."

That change, Chase said, takes a lot of people and a concerted effort over time. It takes a sense of shared values and it also takes people who are willing to continually focus on how to make improvements. SDSU has been able to do multiple things at the same time concerning graduation and retention, including policy-level changes, bureaucratic changes, but also broader changes around high impact practices targeting groups of students. Another key focus has been a strong reliance on effectively using data to figure out which student groups need the most help.

SDSU, like NMSU, is a Hispanic-Serving Institution, with a traditional campus population of 18-22 year-old students. Its second largest population of students is Filipino/Pacific Islander, but Chase said that there is not a majority population group on his campus.

The graduation and retention rates seem to be impacted most by student preparation.

"What we find is that generally speaking, one of the key components has to do with the academic preparation of the students coming in," Chase said. "But we also know that even for students less well prepared, we provide support once we know who they are. We work to find the students who need the most help."

Chase encourages university administrators to look at the bigger picture when it comes to graduation and retention rates. Examining the curriculum and the university's research, outreach efforts and operations provide a more comprehensive approach to retention and graduation.

"If we're not graduating students, but just cycling them through, that's not sustainable for our institutions," he said.

On sustainability

Chase moved to Northern Arizona University in 1992 to direct its English composition program.

"I revised the English composition curriculum to focus on the environment," he said. "All of the students read "Silent Spring" and then read a series of essays about that book. They also read other environmental works about Arizona. After that curriculum had been in place for about a year and a half, I got a call from the provost, who said, 'I understand you've done this with the composition curriculum, how would you like to do it for the university?' So he got me involved with some other colleagues there and we created a project to infuse sustainability across the curriculum."

That project was very successful and in 1998, Peggy Barlett at Emory University contacted Chase and Northern Arizona, and asked Chase to come to Emory to help start sustainability a project there.

"So, that's how I got into sustainability," Chase said. "In 2004, Peggy and I published "Sustainability on Campus" because we wanted to capture some of the work going on in sustainability on campuses across the United States. That's my progression and I've just gotten deeper and deeper into it."

Barlett and Chase are now putting the finishing touches on a new edition of "Sustainability on Campus," which will go to press this summer.

Chase met with members of the NMSU Sustainability Council on Tuesday and encouraged them to look at sustainability not just as environmental sustainability, but as a much bigger issue.

"One of the things I'm always trying to do is broaden that definition of sustainability, so it's not just a science or technical issue," he said. "One of the things that I've observed is that often when people talk about sustainability, they preface it with 'environmental sustainability,' and I would want to say to them, it's not environmental sustainability, it's just sustainability."

He considers sustainability as the intersection of the environmental, the social and the economic, citing the number and amount of student loans taken out as an example of an unsustainable practice.

Chase said that awareness of sustainability issues on campuses across the country has markedly increased over the past decade or so - students are hearing about it in classes, in student organizations and in the media, but the biggest area of needed improvement is in adding sustainability topics to college curricula.

"I think we have made some progress in curriculum, but we still have a long way to go on curriculum pieces," he said. "In campus operations now everyone sort of 'gets it' and they're doing the best they can do. We have a ways to go there, too, but there's been a lot of progress. There's been a huge uptick in student engagement around sustainability. It varies from campus to campus, but on a lot of campuses, students are the force leading the change and I'm not so sure that was the case in the 90s."

Chase encouraged the Sustainability Council to start conversations about sustainability with NMSU faculty, staff and students, as those conversations often lead to more involvement, changes in curriculum and changes in habits.

"I think the kinds of challenges New Mexico State is facing are the kinds of challenges lots of colleges and universities are facing," he said. "One of the things that's really exciting is to think about the way in which institutions of higher education can come up with unique solutions. The challenges may be similar, but the energy, the creativity, the innovation, the commitment on a particular campus can lead to a series of opportunities that no one else can predict, and that, I think, is exciting."