'Sustainability Failures'

July 23, 2008

Mark J. O’Gorman’s presentation stuck out amid the normal conference fare. He wasn't in town to discuss "successes" or "best practices." His talk had the word “failure” in the title.

“Whatever scorecard you’re using to talk about sustainability…it’s not good enough,” O’Gorman said Tuesday at the Society for College and University Planning Annual Conference, meeting this week in Montreal. The full title of his session was "Reconciling a Sustainability Failure: Green Planning But No Green Building."

O’Gorman, an associate professor of political science and environmental studies at Maryville College, in Tennessee, used his college’s example as an avenue into his argument that student demand for sustainable campuses is cresting – to tsunami proportions, to use his metaphor – and, for today's students, “very good isn’t good enough.”

“Sustainability for this generation is not an afterthought. It’s a central thought. They’re coming to your campus soon.”

By way of example, at Maryville, O'Gorman's sense is that the college has actually done a pretty good (though, again, not good enough) job. All freshmen, for instance, are required to take a “Perspectives on the Environment” course, and a 2007 “Maryville College Sustainability Suggestions Study” identified a set of campus priorities to work toward.

Then the college moved ahead with building a parking lot near (or, depending on who you ask, on) a favorite student hang-out spot and suddenly, O’Gorman said, the students were up in arms (asking questions, for instance, about "pervious paving"). Within a month, students wanted to know what else the college was (and was not) doing on the green frontier, with questions arising, for instance, on why the college’s flagship $47 million Civic Arts Center, under construction, isn’t undergoing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

But, on the plus side, O’Gorman said, the controversies have raised the profile of sustainability in students’ minds, yes, but also the administration’s.

“I really see our college as still on the upslope when it comes to environmental issues. There’s no question about that,” Bill Seymour, Maryville’s vice president for administrative services, said in a phone interview. He added that his priorities include writing a vision statement on environmental stewardship, completing a comprehensive environmental audit, and incorporating sustainability principles in the college’s upcoming strategic planning process. The college is also incorporating some sustainable design principles in building the Civic Arts Center, a particularly complex project as it's being constructed in cooperation with two cities.

But, on the LEED issue, Seymour cited the higher costs of green construction and a need to steward a small college’s resources, rather than pay a premium for certification in this case.

“Even though you can argue there can be paybacks here with different features [in the form of lower energy costs, for instance], we still have to have the money now to make it happen," Seymour said.

Moving beyond Maryville, O’Gorman turned the tables during his presentation, asking his audience about their colleges’ successes and failures on the sustainability front. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the stated successes tended to be more specific: biodiesel for campus shuttles, a new LEED Gold building, a program promoting local foods. “So, yeah, there are all kinds of sustainability successes out there. The question is, ‘Is it enough?’"

“Is there a program, is there an activity that you’d hoped you’d be doing by now that hasn’t been implemented yet?”

Answers to that question were slower in coming, but they came: A need to do a better job managing a food vendor’s waste stream, and a failure to think through the impact of budget cuts (one college apparently slashed a recycling program). The “we versus me” issue came up, with the complaint being that students want sustainable building design while some still tool around from class to (nearby) class in their cars.

And, on green building, one audience member lamented “the continuing failure to recognize that the greenest building is the building already built.”

“I’d rather not build a building at all,” another said, “than build a LEED Gold building.”

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