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This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Talloires Declaration on Sustainability. In October 1990, Tufts President Jean Mayer convened a group of 22 international university presidents, rectors and chancellors for what would be an historic discussion about universities’ responsibility to teach environmental sustainability to their students and to be themselves, examples of sustainability in their communities. We asked Dr. David M. Gute – Tufts professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, former Director of the Tufts Center for Environmental Management, and champion of environmental issues – to offer some perspective on this very important Talloires Declaration.

30th Anniversary of the Talloires Declaration

by David M. Gute, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering   

Tufts University has long taken an active interest in the environment as a subject of research, instruction, and outreach.  The study of the environment encompasses the traditional media (air, water, soil, and food chain) but also extends to understanding how human behavior influences environmental conditions.

Tufts was an early institutional leader in embracing and pursuing environmental themes. Some of these early activities included:

  • The establishment of the Tufts Center for Environmental Management (1984), a multidisciplinary research, education and policy center focused on solutions to problems of toxic substances in the environment, and created to be a neutral and independent forum where citizens and representatives from government, academia, industry and public/environmental interest groups could meet to discuss and resolve critical policy issues.
  • The creation of the Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute (1990), an annual workshop that brought together faculty from across many different disciplines, to encourage adoption of environmental content throughout a diverse set of curricula.

The Talloires Declaration is the enduring outcome of these initiatives, and you could say that it was conceived right in the beautiful inner garden of the European Center.

For three days, twenty-two presidents and rectors from institutions of higher learning from throughout the world met at the European Center in Talloires to discuss “The Role of Universities in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development.” Their historic discussions in MacJannet Hall, as well as their less-formal exchanges in the Priory gardens, proved inspired and fruitful. The result was the Talloires Declaration, a document proclaiming the commitment of university administrators to sustainability in higher education. The Talloires Declaration was a call to action and included a concise ten-point plan that laid out steps for the integration of environmental literacy and sustainability into the mainstream pedagogical and operational activities of institutions of higher learning.

In a reflection on the importance and impact of the Talloires Declaration, William Adlong wrote the following:

While visionary, the Talloires Declaration is also, of course, a product of its time. As part of the collaborative efforts among the world’s universities to address the environmental crises noted in the Declaration, it is worth taking a constructively critical perspective on the Declaration 20 years on. Such a perspective is taken in this article, while remembering the good that the Talloires Declaration has achieved, for example in giving legitimacy and internal leverage for university staff members committed to sustainability or in lending weight to proposals to lessen a university’s environmental impact.[1]

The tenth and last item in the Talloires Declaration establishes a Secretariat to be created to continue the momentum, and to, “inform and support each other’s efforts in carrying out this declaration.” Tufts University, as initiator of the Talloires conference, offered to host this activity. Thus, the Secretariat of University Presidents for a Sustainable Future was inaugurated in 1992 with funding from the MacArthur Foundation. The present-day successor of the original Talloires Declaration Secretariat is now based at the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute. The number of signatories to the Talloires Declaration has continued to grow, with over 500 now present.  It is important to note that each Tufts President in the last 30 years has continued to further Tufts interests and activities regarding the environment.

During the 2019 session of Tufts in Talloires, at the invitation of Gabriella Goldstein, I led a discussion to commemorate and assess the Talloires Declaration in the very same inner garden where the first signatories met. The participants included students, staff, and faculty and it was a great honor and pleasure to introduce them to the history of the Talloires Declaration. At that time, some of the participants had not heard of the Declaration – and still others observed, as Adlong had, that the Declaration’s promise was not accompanied by sufficient action and progress.

Looking back on that moment in 2019, it is instructive to recall that many participants suggested that a greater sense of urgency is necessary in order to achieve meaningful progress. This sense of urgency, particularly present in current student cohorts, will hopefully lead us anew to more fully realizing the promise of the goals articulated in the Talloires Declaration 30 years ago. The original global signatories would likely expect nothing less from us.

[1]Adlong, William. “Rethinking the Talloires Declaration.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 56–70., doi:10.1108/14676371311288958.

Editors’ Note: The Talloires Declaration was created just ahead of the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. This 30th Anniversary of the Talloires Declaration falls auspiciously at the point 30 years ahead of the climate goals set for 2050 at the Paris Climate Summit that was held in 2016.


David M. Gute is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University. He has been a regular Tufts in Talloires faculty member over the last twenty years, and his course, “The Emerging Global Health Crisis: Epidemics, the Environment, and Public Policy,” is a regular favorite among students.