At Colleges, the Environment is Hot

It's been a big year for green roofs and renewable energy initiatives at institutions across the country.
October 24, 2006

“My campus is greener than yours.”

“Yeah, well we have more energy-efficient classrooms than you’ll ever see.”

Were two college officials to tangle at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s conference, a meeting of the minds for campus environmental experts, the dialogue might sound something like that.

Eco-friendly buildings and sustainable landscapes -- like endowments, rankings and graduation rates -- are becoming a source of pride and bragging rights for colleges in this year of heightened environmental scrutiny (thank you, Al Gore).

On university campuses, the environment is hot, and not just as a research topic. Colleges are rolling out new academic programs in environmental studies and announcing new initiatives devoted to energy conservation.

  • New York University, which has established an environmental studies major, plans to purchase 118 million kilowatt hours of wind power, which it says will be the largest purchase by any American college and 11th largest purchase nationally.
  • The host of the AASHE conference, Arizona State University, announced a new School of Sustainability, which, starting in fall 2007, will offer bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. programs relating to environmental challenges.

Some of the initiatives are expansive: The University of California at Berkeley has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

They can be simple: Harvard University recently put in place toilet handles that help conserve water, and Columbia University is setting up a recycling contest for students in dorms.  

And some come with minimal cost: St. Mary’s College of Maryland refurbished old bicycles and placed them around campus in hopes that students will ride the two-wheelers, and not cars, through the college’s grounds. Anthony Cortese, co-founder of the group that is now AASHE, says that more than 100 colleges have similar programs that provide incentives for students to stay out of their cars.

One of the most popular projects is the green roof, a building top covered with soil and vegetation that reduces energy costs and prevents rain runoff. A number of universities -- including Spelman College (which recently held a groundbreaking for a "green" residence hall) -- are members of the U.S. Green Building Council, which certifies buildings as being environmentally friendly.

Students are spearheading projects aimed at preservation:

  • Emilie Brill-Duisburg, a University of Arizona undergraduate, won an award at the AASHE conference for helping to create a course focused on rainwater harvesting, a technique that addresses water scarcity. The class designs and then implements the irrigation system.
  • Brandon Armstrong, a recent graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, organized a “clean energy fee” campaign through a coalition group of the state's students and alumni that led to an $8 per semester increase in student fees at MTSU, with the money going toward purchasing renewable energy. Students at University of Tennessee at Knoxville at Tennessee Tech University, among others, also passed a similar resolution.  

With all these new efforts, colleges are hiring environmental experts to tie together the campus projects. Columbia named a new director of environmental stewardship. Lane Community College, in Oregon, is one of the few community colleges to employ a full-time sustainability coordinator, who oversees environmental projects.

“Every week I’m seeing a new opening and hearing about universities announcing that they’ve established this position,” says Nilda Mesa, the Columbia director.

Still, some students and faculty members remain skeptical of colleges' environmental initiatives.

"Most of what they are calling sustainability projects are not living up to their name," says Walt Anderson, director of the undergraduate environmental studies program at Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, a small college in Arizona known for attracting students interested in the natural sciences. "You can reduce electric use or be more energy efficient, but total consumption still keeps rising."

In an attempt to address criticism such as that, College of the Atlantic, in Maine, has promised to mitigate its effect on global warming by either cutting the use of fossil fuels or by offsetting any carbon emissions with investments in renewable energy -- a so-called "net-zero plan."

Out in Front

Perhaps nothing is more indicative of colleges' rising interest in environmental action than AASHE, an organization whose membership has more than quadrupled in a year -- and who hosted more than 700 people to its inaugural conference.

Still, Anthony Cortese, who runs a nonprofit that advocates sustainability in higher education, says that when it comes to "green" policies, colleges have historically been behind the curve and still aren't on par with the most progressive corporations and state governments, though they are "catching up fast."

The higher education sector, he says, is now the largest user of renewable energy wind power in the country.  “If you would have told that to people three years ago, they would have said, ‘no way,’ ” Cortese says.

Much like a similar environmental push in the 1960s, experts say students have been a driving force. Dozens of colleges will take part in the October 25 Campus Sustainability Day, an event planned by the Society for College and University Planning that includes myriad environmental projects. A number of student leaders are involved in Campus Climate Challenge, a push for "clean energy" purchasing at colleges.

“It’s a feeling like there’s a groundswell of interest and a sense of urgency in young people,” says Judy Walton, executive director of AASHE.

Cortese says that student demand for environmental education has greatly increased -- while only a few colleges had an environmental studies program a few decades ago, at least half have one now, he says. 

Prescott College recently added a Ph.D. program on sustainability education, and Anderson says the college has to add programs like these to keep up with the growing number of options.

"Before, we stood out as being really different," Anderson says. "Now what you call mainstream schools have jumped on the bandwagon with environmental programs. In a sense, that increases the competition for us."

Across the country, an unofficial competition has emerged as to who has the nicest green roof or the most spectacular solar panel. Colleges boast that their buildings rank highly in the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) ranking system, which measures the indoor air quality of a building, as well as how much air polution it produces. Nearly 300 campuses have taken the initial steps to have their buildings be LEED certified, according to SCUP's journal “Planning For Higher Education."

Frank Powell, a professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Furman University, says colleges are the perfect place for "green" construction.

"We're less conventionally regulated by stale economic theory that says you have to make money on everything right away," Powell says. "A building can be a teaching tool, and we have the luxury of saying, if we spend more money than usual on a [green] building, that's OK. It will save us in energy costs down the line."

But Anderson, the Prescott director, says colleges are generally risk averse   when it comes to construction spending, particularly if they aren't supported by state funding.

'Year of the Environment'

Furman, another small liberal arts college, deemed 2006-7 the "Year of the Environment" on its campus. It has asked food service vendors to serve only locally grown produce and is retrofitting a number of buildings to meet LEED standards, among other initiatives.

Since 2000, the college has run what it calls an "eco-cottage dormitory," a small housing complex with solar tubes, high-efficiency lighting and low-flow shower heads. The eight students who live there each year practice energy conservation, which Powell, the exercise science professor, says helps them understand environmental issues raised in the classroom.

New this year is a dorm wing that houses 20 freshmen who take an environmental studies course and earn $1,000 stipends in exchange for working on environmental projects.

Students at Northland College, an environmental college in Wisconsin, spend weeks during the summer on native plant landscaping. Roughly half the campus includes plants that are native to Wisconsin and thus naturally adapted to the weather characteristics of the region. That lowers the college's labor and energy costs, because less groundwork is required, says Kenneth M. Bro, Northland's director of sustainability and an assistant professor of geoscience.

Many of the changes have been made since 1999, when the university became aware that its landscaping and building practices were leading to storm water runoff that polluted nearby bodies of water. 

"Drought continues to grip most of the central U.S. and the East Coast is experiencing flooding," Bro said in an e-mail this summer. "Native landscapes are designed for both of these extremes."

Part of Northland's sustainability policy is to decrease the use of herbicides, fertilizers and other chemicals that are used by many colleges to maintain the look of a perfectly manicured quad.  

“Americans have been taught that an attractive landscape means expansive, weed-free lawns with clipped shrubs and scattered shade trees -- the picturesque ideal of 18th century England," Northland's new sustainability initiative says. "But is this aesthetic really appropriate for northern Wisconsin?"

The college makes clear that the answer is 'no.'

Northland, while widely recognized for its environmental practices, was not given an award at the AASHE conference. Nor was any college anointed the "greenest" campus, which, for all purposes, should keep any debate -- or competition -- alive.


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