Sustainable for a Year

Multiple colleges have completed campus-wide "year of sustainability" initiatives devoted to changing and improving green practices. But some say the campuses need to look at the bigger picture.
July 10, 2009

Pressure on universities to live up to standards of carbon neutrality has led to increasingly diverse strategies for motivating people into action. One of the more offbeat approaches has been the creation of a campus-wide "year of sustainability" -- often by senior administrators excited about the idea of a climate commitment. With multiple campuses, including Davidson College, New Mexico State, Villanova University and University of Denver having just finished up their years, the results have been varied, and some question whether the concept is more than a gimmick.

Each university had a different goal from the outset. Davidson was focused on increasing campus-wide attention to sustainability and setting small concrete goals like reduction in plastic water bottles. Villanova, on the other hand, used the year as a motivation for top administrators to weave issues of sustainability into the university's academic programs, culminating in the creation of a minor in sustainability. For New Mexico State, the year was used as a continuing discussion on how best to proceed with sustainability issues.

But just declaring a year of sustainability does little good by itself, says Julian Keniry, director of campus and community leadership for the National Wildlife Foundation’s Campus Ecology program. Instead, implementation of sustainability initiatives needs to be done with the ultimate goal of making them a permanent part of all campus inner-workings.

"Sustainability is something that needs to be the purpose of education across operations and disciplines and sustained over time," Keniry said. "The idea of focusing on a one year theme doesn't lend itself to a [sustainable approach]. But it might be a way to catalyze thinking that could lead to long term work."

Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, agreed that a year should begin, not end, the process of making a campus sustainable.

"It is certainly an interesting concept and it does provide a good bit of value in that it helps focus the school community on the issue," he said. "At the same time, sustainability shouldn't be something you focus on for a year and then move on to another issue. It needs to be focused on in ways that celebrate the unique aspects of the institutions."

Keniry noted that a year of sustainability can be good for getting people to start thinking about limiting their carbon footprint, but the idea of pursuing sustainability within the confines of a set period of time works against the long-term objective of making a campus more sustainable permanently. With many institutions working toward the overarching goal of addressing climate change as set out by the Presidents Climate Commitment -- a contract signed by over 600 college presidents -- the focus, she says, needs to be on approaching sustainability at universities holistically.

"If they are really encouraging department chairs to think critically about the long-term relationship to sustainability, that could foster some fruitful long-term thought," Keniry said. "A sustainability-themed year could be a tool, but it is unlikely to be a way to go about something like that."

Kealy Devoy, Davidson's sustainability fellow, was charged with planning programs for her college's year of sustainability. She managed to set a number of concrete goals that could be achieved within the year, such as reducing disposable bottled water use and food waste while increasing the prevalence of recycling and efficient utility use. She says the resultant monetary savings was worth more money than her salary.

"There was already a lot of momentum but from small groups of people. The year was about trying to spread the momentum out," Devoy said. "We found that a lot of people care about sustainability but no one really knew about it, so [the year] was good for bringing it to the table."

She added that many people latched onto the sustainability initiatives and even started further initiatives at their own behest. Undergraduates began conducting research on sustainable practices such as the best ways to invest in carbon offsets and the most efficient forms of composting, all of which were presented to Davidson's president. The president took these findings into account when deciding what sustainability practices to use. Riding on the successes of the year, Devoy is preparing a presentation on how colleges can best implement years of sustainability.

But with the year just finishing up, the jury is still out on whether momentum will continue past the one-year threshold.

"We haven't achieved 100 percent on most of the goals, but I don't consider that an issue because we're not going to just stop," Devoy said.

At Villanova, the year was less about goals for carbon neutrality on campus and more about introducing concepts of sustainability into the curriculum, according to Frank Gelgano, the university's sustainability executive director and chair of the new department of geography and the environment. While initiatives to reduce waste were promoted on the campus, the chief achievements of the year were the institution of a master's program in sustainable engineering, the creation of an undergraduate minor in sustainability, and the addition of courses in sustainability to already existing departments. These curriculum additions were supplemented by a focus on research and student competitions for sustainable solutions.

"The campus is good about sustainability. We have things like recycling programs," Gelgano said. "The idea is that we are doing well in those areas, but do we have an idea of where we go with our curriculum?"

The courses -- which range from policy classes on environmental issues in one department to design classes on sustainable products in another -- have been met with great enthusiasm, Gelgano said. Now the biggest setback is not having enough professors to meet the demand. The department of geography and the environment was established to give Villanova a permanent focus on sustainability.

"We started the department two years ago for just this reason, to keep it from being a fad. Other professors may teach for a couple years and get tired of it. [This way], there will always be a thread of sustainability."

New Mexico State University's former president declared 2009 to be the school's year of sustainability. However, somewhat limited by a lack of funding, the program has "had a certain amount of inertia that you have to overcome," according to Steve Loring, director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at New Mexico State and leader of the university's sustainability initiatives. The year was meant to initiate a conversation about how New Mexico State can prepare its students so that they leave the university as leaders in sustainable living. In addition, the university also participated in smaller initiatives, like the Recyclemania recycling competition.

The University of Denver used its year of sustainability to begin a collaborative effort to write a plan for carbon neutrality as part of the presidents climate commitment, while also commencing smaller initiatives like supporting green commuting and more recycling, according to a university statement.

With many different ways of raising awareness about sustainability, Keniry urges colleges to look past small reforms in carbon usage and approach sustainability as an issue woven into the fabric of every university, rather than as a passing fad. For example, she says that putting performance goals and objectives into faculty and staff evaluations can help keep university employees cognizant of ongoing sustainability issues. Going through residential life, she says, can be a good way to reach students who otherwise wouldn't think to ask how they can be more environmentally sustainable.

According to Keniry, regardless of the means of making a campus more sustainable, the biggest objective should be finding an "Institutionalizing mechanism" -- somehow making sure that the school's sustainability practices last indefinitely as the university moves forward.

Orlowski agrees that involving "multiple stakeholders" across the university ensures that sustainability issues become embedded in an institution's culture. He said the fact that colleges that have created offices or departments of sustainability shows an ongoing commitment to the issue.

"It's not something you jump into, take care of, and move onto something else," he said. "It's not a new policy around a specific issue, where you implement the policy and pat everyone on the back. There's always room for improvement. Even the schools at the front of the pack have staff devoted to sustainability initiatives. I don't know any schools that say 'mission accomplished' with sustainability."


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