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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.

June 15, 2009 - 8:33pm


So if cities need to get citier and the country needs to get countrier, what does that mean for campuses? Do we need to get more universal? More collegiate? More collegial?


Looking at campuses as communities, we need to get more communal. Not all of us, but many. That’s the bad news, if you perceive your current campus environment to be absolutely perfect and any change, as a result, to be for the worse. In general, though, the changes campuses need to make should improve life for students, for faculty and (especially) for staff.


The main change for full-time students should be an increase of housing that’s either on campus or within walking distance. Students who live on or near campus produce no commuting emissions. They can be influenced towards healthy and sustainable menu choices (not totally, I’m sure, but more than if they live in scattered sites miles from school) through various meal plans and dining co-ops. They can constitute a critical mass which can affect (perhaps even for the better) the local culture, reinforcing each others’ expectations and modeling to the rest of the surrounding city/county/state. In a sense, students living on or right near campus can – as infrastructure evolves – experience many of the benefits of co-housing while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.


For part-time students, the only obvious way to reduce emissions is to provide instruction where the student already is, rather than forcing students to drive to campus. At Greenback, one of the things our GHG inventory pointed out was the impact part-time students have on commuting emissions – there was a clear, strong correlation as our part-time enrollment went up and down. This makes sense, as full-time students will generally locate near campus (if they can), while part-time students often have an established residential location which was chosen based on a raft of factors, often not including educational plans. So an increase in distance/online education or regionally distributed classroom space may be the way to go, depending on how many part-time students a school has, how many shared courses they typically take, and rural/suburban/metro area dynamics.


For faculty, the main change is probably more situational. I’ve known some colleges which own houses that they rent to faculty at below-market rates. In the past, this has often been to (partially) offset low salaries paid to instructors and assistant professors, but there’s no reason the practice couldn’t be extended. Or the school could subsidize (or otherwise encourage) faculty housing purchases within walking distance of campus. Advantages to the university include reduced demand for campus parking, easier faculty access in inclement weather (not that we ever get that in Backboro, you understand), a new income stream (rental housing can be fairly profitable, especially with a large-scale operation and long-term tenants), and even a local community less likely to complain to the politicos when students (predictably) malfunction in public. Advantages to faculty can include lower costs of living (perhaps even elimination of need for one of the family cars), better interaction with other faculty who are now neighbors, and a healthier lifestyle (daily walking as opposed to driving).


Probably the biggest impact, though, would be for staff – academic staff and, even more so, facilities/administrative staff. At Greenback, staff tend to live farther from campus than do faculty. A lot of that’s due to the fact that staff get paid less, and for decades a main method of choosing residential location has been to keep moving outward until you can afford the monthly mortgage. But many staff work hours other than 9-to-5 and (for a variety of reasons) tend to hold their jobs for decades. The result? An employee base which commutes in single-occupant vehicles (car-pooling is difficult), for long distances, five days a week (as opposed to 3 or 4 for most faculty), for years and years. Oh, and staff are more likely to drive older vehicles and/or pickup trucks. More gasoline. More emissions.


There are a couple of ways to address staff commuting. One is, as with faculty, to find a way to incent them to live near campus. The other is, particularly in towns/areas with few transportation choices, to provide practicable commuting choices other than the single-occupant vehicle. Vanpooling and park-and-ride systems work well for factory shiftworkers (or did, when factory shiftwork was common) – similar approaches could be adapted to the realities of working on campus.


A big implication of “town & country” thinking, then, is the need for colleges and universities to engage in transportation demand management based on the widest possible set of perceptions, paradigms and possible solutions. For residential campuses, this might mean getting more residential – bringing students and employees closer together. For non-residential campuses (commuter colleges and many community colleges), it might require getting more community-based – taking the instruction closer to where the student already is by whatever means necessary.


One exception to all the above, of course, is experiential learning. I’m thinking agriculture or oceanography here, but the model also applies to internships with businesses or governments or anthropologists. Reducing transportation demand in these cases probably requires doing them intensively and exclusively for a period of time, rather than mixing morning classes on campus with afternoon internships across town, Monday through Friday. Since part-time students create high commuting emissions, one thought is to avoid transforming full-time students into (behaviorally) part-timers as much as possible.


Reshaping the way the Greenback U. community lives and learns will, of course, affect the way the campus interacts with/experiences the Backboro area. But if we manage it, and explain why we’re doing it, the very act of reshaping provides a community outreach opportunity. And happier/healthier employees. And a more focused student experience. And – down the road – possibly even more loyal alumni.


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