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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

How many angels?
April 15, 2010 - 8:33pm

So, drawing on the putative thoughts in the last two posts, one of the problems universities face in trying to become sustainability leaders comes to the fore.

If corporate influence (in society, on campus, wherever) is one of the contributing factors to ecological, economic and societal unsustainability but corporations are major donors/partners whose participation makes campus projects (including sustainability-related projects) possible, . . .

If adding built space on campus increases a university's greenhouse gas emissions, but new buildings are one of the few things donors are willing to kick in money for the naming rights to . . .

. . . then how can Greenback, or any other school, hope to fund a full range of campus enhancement projects? How can we afford to refresh and refurbish our existing spaces? How can we invest in a variety of energy-saving, much less energy-replacing, technologies?

In truth, some campus enhancement projects are financial no-brainers. (On a university campus, is "no-brainer" still a good thing??) Building enhancements which pay for themselves in three years, or four or five, and then continue to deliver cost savings or other benefits for additional years with no additional investment -- those projects get approved automatically. Presuming a school has the financial capability, those projects are at the top of the list. (And for schools which lack the financial capability I have two words: "performance contract").

But other projects are only marginally attractive in financial terms, even if they yield significant savings in greenhouse gas emissions and significant socio-economic learning opportunities for our students. Projects like that are harder to sell to the suits (at least they are to our suits). And, unless somebody's got a pre-commercial technology they're looking to highlight, projects like that aren't attractive to corporate partners, either.

So, if Greenback is going to implement good, but not no-brainer, projects, we need to find non-corporate money to cover at least a portion of the expense. Sometimes, the state or federal government can be induced to kick in some funding. The rest of the time, we need to find private philanthropic money. We need to find an angel.

Now most angels aren't entirely angelic, when you get to know them. Most angels want something in return for their tax-deductible dollars. The most common thing they want is recognition. Like a name. Over the main entrance door. Which works well if it's a new building that's being constructed (because the main entrance door is readily evident), but less well if it's not (because it's not). So the challenge can lie in convincing angels that something less than a building is worth paying for the naming rights to. And some schools are better at that than others.

How good is your school at sweet-talking angels? How can you tell?

The first sign is the names of your buildings. If each major building on campus is named for someone nobody remembers, then your school is probably pretty good at the sweet-talking game. Some alum, some local philanthropist, somebody with a lot of money and an ego in need of gratification. (And I mean that in the most positive way imaginable.) But nobody who was present on campus for decades.

On the other hand, if you have a lot of buildings named after former administrators or emeritus faculty members, then the conclusion I'd draw is that the sweet-talking contingent needs a refresher course.

For state schools, buildings named after prominent local politicians who brought a lot of grants and a lot of fiscal support is a good sign. Buildings named after randomly selected past state governors is not.

And if your school has portions of buildings -- rooms, benches, nooks, crannies -- named for benefactors, then your folks talk so sweet that butter wouldn't melt. And, Lord knows, the last thing we need on this earth is more melted butter.

Somebody at Greenback, and -- I suspect -- at a lot of other schools, needs to come up with a way to convince potential angels that the sustainability-related refurbishment of an existing building is a better investment than an entirely new building would be. And to find another blank spot over that main entrance door. Ideally, a big one.


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