Skip to Content

University of Virginia Statement on Sustainability in Response to the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment

March 21, 2007

During the last several weeks, University officials have reviewed a document entitled the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment.  Contrary to what its title may imply, this document is not a reflection of a significant agreement reached among college and university presidents. It is an effort by environmental activists, many of whom we know and admire, companies that earn their profits by selling environmental services, and others to gain commitments from college and university heads to agendas set outside of higher education.

We have examined the feasibility and effectiveness of each of the pledges proposed to be made in this document. We have conferred both with activists who had roles in drafting and promoting it and with officials of other colleges and universities, a few of whom have signed the document, and most of whom have not.  Recent e-mails from students interested in this project suggest that some 100 of the nation's 2,700 or so college and university heads have signed it. After this review, we have decided that while signing the pledge at this time would please many here in our community and activists elsewhere, and indeed would satisfy many of us who share the proposers' concerns about global warming and environmental sustainability generally, doing so is not consistent with the University's legal and other capacities.

The issues are several and perhaps difficult. Despite assurances from the document's proponents that it is simply a promise to spend two years planning for future actions, the document in fact contains stipulations that would require us to commit future institutional (which, under Virginia law, means state-taxpayers') resources without appropriate planning or cost justification, without scientifically verifiable means of proving that the predicted results have occurred, and (perhaps most oddly in a document that presents itself as a commitment to improving the environment) without a clear definition of the meaning of the commitment's benchmark term, "climate neutrality." 

The costs of implementing technologies that do not now exist and of adopting new standards to replace existing standards that have only recently come into use here and elsewhere are not known. An example of this is the proposed commitment to LEED Silver certification of the environmental impact of buildings rather than the LEED certification that is now state of the art.  Yet universities are asked to commit to adopting the proposed standards.

We understand from proponents of the statement that private universities can promise whatever they may wish to promise, and also that universities in other states have the capacity to commit future legislative appropriations.  We believe that these statements about conditions elsewhere may be true, but U.Va. does not have these capacities.  We operate within the laws passed by Virginia's General Assembly. In addition, the proposed pledge calls for commitments with regard to what is taught within the University's curriculum and other commitments to policies and practices under the purview of faculty that are not within any university president's capacity to make.

These things said, we admire and share the zeal of those outside education who have produced the statement and recruited students and others to support it. We are deeply alarmed about environmental deterioration here and elsewhere, around the globe, in places where faculty members and students work to remedy environmental damage. We spend substantial sums on sustainability initiatives, albeit initiatives involving technologies that actually exist and work and that have passed appropriate standards of review. Our building and maintenance guidelines are clear on our commitment to doing more as reliable science becomes available. The University has taken many of the specific steps toward sustainability proposed in the document. We have made this progress without prompting from external parties simply because it is the right thing to do.

We will continue to work toward sustainability by following the integrated approach adopted systematically during the past several years.  A recently published institutional assessment report on sustainability details some of these steps. (See

Our goals are aggressive. They require responsible, informed decisions made within the context of our mission and properly vetted not by one person, a president signing what is effectively a petition, but by faculties, the University's Board, state officials, and others. We will continue to measure progress and report regularly on progress. We are interested also in collaboration with other colleges and universities, and we look forward to continuing to share (as we have for more than a decade) technologies and scientific information as well as design concepts with them so that we can collaboratively improve the work that we do to sustain the environment.

John T. Casteen III