In fall 2019, Lehigh University announced that the Sustainable Development minor would no longer be offered. The sustainable development minor was one of the interdisciplinary programs offered at Lehigh. (Jessica Mellon/B&W Staff)

Committee leads effort to resurrect sustainable development minor


As of the fall of 2019 The Office of Interdisciplinary Studies will no longer be offering the sustainability minor, leaving a lot of students frustrated. The Office of Interdisciplinary Studies helps students merge their interests into a major program that works for them. (Jessica Mellon/B&W Staff)

When Nadine Clopton, ‘19, ‘20G, learned that Lehigh would no longer be offering the sustainable development minor program, or SDev, she had only one way to describe her feelings. 

“I was dumbfounded.”

The sustainable development program has been on hiatus since September 2018 following funding cuts from several academic departments. 

Clopton spearheaded The Committee on Saving Sustainable Development in November 2019  with the goal of reinstating the minor. Clopton, who completed the minor, said she had a good experience in the program.

The committee has been at work collecting and compiling testimonials from students, faculty and alumni on their experience with the minor. It is also hearing from students and alumni who had not taken sustainable development classes at Lehigh, but feel it would have been relevant to their education. So far the committee has heard from almost 20 individuals. 

Clopton said she hopes to present her findings in front of various departments of university governance, including Student Senate, members of the university administration and the board of trustees. 

While the committee’s primary goal is to bring the sustainable development program into Lehigh’s curriculum, Clopton hopes to ignite a conversation within all academic disciplines on why SDev is relevant. 

“It’s a matter of wanting to inject student voice where it wasn’t necessarily asked for when the decision making was going on,” she said. 

Donald Morris, an associate professor in earth and environmental sciences, was appointed director of the minor in August 2018. Morris said for the past two years, SDev’s only support came from the College of Arts and Sciences. 

He said, however, the College of Arts and Sciences did not have the financial resources to fund the program without further support from the university.

Failure to acquire grants from external sources and donors led to the termination of the program, Morris said. 

“It was the most pivotal point of my undergraduate experience,” Clopton said. “I really would hope that the opportunity is available for undergraduate students coming through Lehigh.”

Having completed her undergraduate education in 2019, Clopton is currently pursuing a master’s degree in environmental policy as a Presidential Scholar. She is focusing on urban planning, sustainable development and environmental health. 

Leah Charash, ‘19, ‘20G, another member of the committee, said she believes Clopton is the right person to lead the initiative toward saving the program.

“In general, people only go out of their way to do something if they’re really passionate,” Charash said. “Nadine truly cares about SDev and in general is a highly motivated and intelligent woman. I know she’ll follow through with the plan because it matters to her.”

Charash said she chose sustainable development as her focus for the arts and sciences portion of her degree in the IDEAS program.

In her view, SDev is the only avenue that seeks to better the world by addressing environmental issues while accounting for real world complexities. 

“I used to be so idealistic, but it’s very challenging to actually accomplish things and make a tangible impact without working with people of different opinions,” Charash said. “To do that, you need to have common ground, acknowledge the economic system and make environmental initiatives profitable. That’s what sustainable development aims to do.” 

Clopton also serves as the director of the UN/NGO executive committee and said she feels as though the loss of SDev goes against everything that the UN is trying to push forward right now, in terms of addressing the sustainable development agenda.

Morris said he hasn’t yet given up on the prospect of a new SDev program to emerging at Lehigh and said he sees a path forward but only if university partners buy in.

“Dean (Robert) Flowers has come up with a plan, and I think if we follow that plan through, it is going to come to fruition,” Morris said. “It’s a matter of finding a variety of different stakeholders and more participants within the faculty.”

Morris said these groups have to work together in terms of developing a future program for SDev.

With the $1 billion Path to Prominence initiative, Clopton said she would like to see a plan to fund SDev and take the minor to new heights. 

“There’s no prominence, let alone a path to it, if you’re cutting a program that allows students to inform themselves about what’s relevant in the 21st century and beyond,” Clopton said. “I’m doing this because I love Lehigh and I think it would be a really big stain on this institution’s history if they were to go through with completely eliminating the minor.”

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  1. Hello Business and Engineering Board Members! on

    Excellent and informative article. And kudos to Nadine Clopton. I am “dumbfounded,” too. Most major research universities are expanding their offerings in this field, not eliminating them – especially in the face of all the climate change naysayers. Maybe Nadine and the Committee can appeal directly to the most influential members of the Board, Chair Kevin Clayton and Vice Chair Philip Sheibley. Clayton, as we know, is a partner in Energy Capital Partners, ” a private equity and credit investor focused on existing and new-build energy infrastructure projects.” He was previously on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Business. Sheibley Is “a venture capital investor with a primary focus on the alternative energy and life sciences industries and chair of Fiberight. LLC, an advanced biofuel company.” He is also on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, whose goal is “”Linking the Campus to the World.” (Can’t get more “worldly” than the UN.) Clayton and Sheibley, powerful alums and parents of alumns, should understand more than most how important it is for the next generation to become active and educated in the areas of environmental science and sustainable development. Nadine and company should think about pressuring these very involved Board Members to advocate putting university resources and money where their mouths, or professional interests, are — or to put their mouths, or voices, where their money is: in SD ventures. Seems kind of ironic that these guys put so much time, money and energy into a beloved alma mater whose graduates will not have the knowledge, experience and skillset to come work for or with them. They’ll have to hire and work with graduates from other “prominent” research universities.
    At the very least, Mannan should send each of these Trustees a copy of her terrific article – just in case they miss it. Just my humble opinion. 🙂

  2. Robert F Davenport Jr on

    What is needed is the justification for not having the sustainable development minor program. I’m sure you have to justify its institution as a program you should do likewise to end it. That is what the Trustees need if not keep it.

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