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Analyzing the Impact of Environmental Initiatives

February 7, 2012

Luce President Michael Gilligan

How can foundations move institutions of higher education to incorporate environmental issues more fully into their mission and practices? How can these partnerships develop so that funded initiatives are both transformative and institutionally sustainable for their own organizations? Under what conditions do these developments produce benefits for society and the biophysical environment?

To address these questions, a new research paper analyzes the experience of the Henry Luce Foundation’s seven-year, $30 million initiative to enhance the quality of academic training and research on the environment and to support environmental organizations’ efforts in the field.

The paper, “Environmental Knowledge Matters: Assessing Impacts of the Luce Foundation Initiative on Higher Education and Sustainability,” was co-authored by Institute Professor Michael Kennedy and Timmons Roberts, director of Brown’s Center of Environmental Studies, with Brown graduate students Alissa Cordner and Adam Kotin.

The paper draws in part on a November 2010 conference at Watson involving leaders of many of the Luce-funded projects at 35 American colleges and universities and 32 non-governmental organizations. Summaries of this research, including videos about the Luce projects at the College of the Atlantic, Bard College, and University of California Berkeley’s College of Engineering, now appear on the www.luceenvironment.org website.

The website also includes the entire research paper.

Not only retrospective, the assessment offers ideas about how to make philanthropy and higher education more consequential in their work together: “We seek to capture impacts of the Luce program not only in often-discussed and more easily measured ways, but also in terms of more intangible and longer-term changes,” the authors write.

Among the lessons learned:

• “Impacts are multidimensional. Impacts of environmental and educational initiatives vary across institutional and geographic scales, time, and the publics most affected. Therefore foundation funding should recognize the importance of multiple impacts, ranging from on-campus sustainability practices, to training the next generation of environmental managers.

• Measuring impact is difficult. Impacts may be easier to see at smaller institutions, and when funding supports the creation of new programs. It is particularly difficult to identify the indirect and future impacts of foundation funding initiatives. However, the fact that impacts distant in space or time may be difficult to measure does not diminish their importance, because programs have significant spillover effects that defy simple quantification.

• Interdisciplinarity is necessary for environmental studies training and sustainability practices. The Luce Initiative was designed in part to enhance interdisciplinarity. Because of the inherently cross-disciplinary nature of contemporary environmental problems, foundation funding for environmental sustainability should support interdisciplinary collaboration. What is less clear, however, is what kinds of interdisciplinary engagements need external support, and which ones proceed through the institutional logics of environmental learning and practice, and how the keys to fostering successful interdisciplinarity are changing over time.

• Internationalism does not come easily among environmental programs. In fact internationalism, more than any other focus of the Luce initiative, was most vulnerable to elimination or serious reductions once the grant concluded. At the same time, much more work needs to be done to explain how international work is important for environmental learning, and how environmental engagements are important for the international mission of US higher education.”

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Lauren Fedor '12