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Image of students talking about the SDGs in Cohon Center

January 30, 2020

CMU Initiative Aims at the Sustainable Development Goals

By Kelly Saavedra

If you’re not a student, it may have been a while since you were quizzed on a topic. That’s about to change.

Through a short email questionnaire coming in February, Carnegie Mellon University hopes to gauge the level of awareness in its global community with regard to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The email questionnaire is part of the Voluntary University Review overseen by CMU’s Sustainability Initiative, which the provost launched last September at the United Nations General Assembly to help CMU raise awareness of, and stimulate action on, the SDGs from now through 2030. This month, Alexandra Hiniker, who created the concept of the Voluntary Local Review and oversaw the process for New York City, joined the team as Executive Fellow for Sustainability Initiatives to lead the Voluntary University Review efforts.

What are the 17 SDGs? Spin the wheel to find out.

From ending poverty and corruption, eliminating hunger and reducing inequality to protecting life on land and under water, the 17 SDGs are a call to action to partner locally on a global agenda of creating a sustainable and prosperous planet.

A group of CMU students in an Engineering and Public Policy class identified a range of opportunities for the university to expand efforts and commitments to sustainability. They asked what the university was doing to contribute to achieving the SDGs. This led to discussions in the Faculty Senate, a report by a Faculty Senate ad hoc committee on sustainability at CMU, and the creation of the Sustainability Initiative by university leadership.  The Sustainability Initiative is guided by a three-member steering committee plus a 20-member advisory council made up of students, faculty and staff.

“Awareness is one of our main goals right now,” said Steering Committee Co-chair Steve Guenther, university engineer and assistant vice president of Facilities Management and Campus Services. “We need to find out where our CMU global community is in terms of awareness of the SDGs in order to have a foundation to build on.”

The survey is set to launch in February across the global campus community and will be emailed to students, faculty and staff. Guenther said the survey starts with the basics, asking simple questions such as:

  • Have you heard of the SDGs?
  • Do they resonate with you?
  • Do you see a connection between any of the 17 SDGs and your passions?

“We want to know more about your engagement with the SDGs — in the classroom, where your research is focused, things you’re doing on campus or at home,” Guenther said. “The initiative is not about creating lots of new things. It’s about being a force multiplier. We want to acknowledge the good things that are happening and use that baseline to help the university build a strategy for the future, support SDG-related CMU activities, as well as be able to see our progress as we move toward the Global Goals.”

Steering Committee Co-chair David Dzombak, who is a University Professor and head of the College of Engineering’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, characterizes CMU’s Sustainability Initiative as a “bottom-up” effort rather than top-down.

“We really want to engage the entire campus community,” Dzombak said. “Carnegie Mellon has a unique role to play in contributing to achievement of the Global Goals. Our long-range goal is to advance sustainability education at CMU and position our students to be citizens and leaders who help society move forward on the SDGs.”

Following the February survey, Guenther says the campus community can expect continued engagement that will take on a variety of forms, including events, workshops and opportunities to have conversations centered around the SDGs and how people connect with them.

Sarah Mendelson, who co-chairs the Steering Committee with Guenther and Dzombak, is a distinguished service professor of public policy, head of the Heinz College’s Washington, D.C. program, and former ambassador to the United Nations with expertise in the SDGs and in human rights. Mendelson explains why universities and CMU in particular are important to the global effort.

“CMU is really a mission-driven place that is already working to solve societal problems,” Mendelson said. “We can harness the energy of CMU around the SDGs by meeting people where they are and where their passions are, by figuring out where and how they want to make a difference.”

Guenther noted CMU has a unique set of strengths among higher education institutions. He is interested in seeing how some of the university’s world-class skills apply to advancing the SDGs.

“One example is how artificial intelligence research can be applied to dealing with the issue of human trafficking,” Guenther said. “There are so many ways to get involved and engaged.”

Guenther said there are several efforts being planned to engage members of the campus community in a conversation about the SDGs and how they connect with them. A workshop is scheduled for fall that will bring people together to roll up their sleeves and participate in exploration of an SDG that interests them.

Until then, Dzombak encourages you to learn more about the 17 SDGs and think about which ones resonate with you most. Dzombak also invites you to visit the Sustainability Initiative website and to reach out to the steering committee or advisory council members with ideas or questions by emailing

“People shouldn’t wait to hear what we come up with,” Dzombak said. “We want to inform our community about the SDGs, stimulate thinking and planning, and then let the dynamic talent here be creative and take root into advancing CMU’s contributions to achieving the Global Goals.”