There is mounting evidence, corroborated by the world’s leading scientists, that planet earth is on fire, that global warming is an inexorable reality, that there is scant need for further studies. The evidence submitted cries for individual and collective solutions. Can natural-resource-dependent institutions, like colleges, play an active, if not leading, role in saving the planet? Yes. Should they? Yes.
An essential first step is for colleges to determine if they can function in a more sustainable fashion: that is, meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Practicing sustainability means making environmentally friendly, otherwise known as “green,” choices related to energy, construction, renovation, purchasing, and investment. Modeling sustainability requires more than just an adjustment to college and university operations, it requires a reconsideration of institutional missions and pedagogical values.
Energy costs are higher than ever, creating pressures on all organizations to find efficient, inexpensive alternatives to fossil fuels. But out-of-control energy prices are not a new phenomenon. The world experienced oil price shocks in the 1970’s. As a result, energy conservation became a national goal in the United States, resulting in stricter miles per gallon standards for automobiles, solar research and design initiatives, and the energy efficient construction and renovation of some campus buildings. But the changes in behavior were not permanent. As soon as oil became less expensive, business as usual resumed, even on college campuses.
This time the stakes are higher for the planet and for higher education. Higher education has an obvious interest in keeping the planet earth vital: If the earth does not survive, then of course no college or university will survive. And ignoring the issue or holding to the status quo this time will likely confirm negative public perceptions of higher education as wasteful and aloof. Arguably then, there has never been a better opportunity to persuade presidents, trustees, faculty, and students, as well as those who make policies affecting higher education, that institutions can be mission centered and market smart by pursuing a sustainability agenda.
Institutions of higher education are rarely founded to achieve quiet local success. Grand visions animate beginnings, motivate donors and help recruit leaders. Educating socially responsible or moral citizens is the raison d’etre for many colleges. Jesuit institutions such as Georgetown University impart the ideal of service for others. Quaker influenced institutions like Earlham College instill respect for consensus-based community governance. There is a strong populist tradition behind much of public higher education, embodied in the land grant university ideal of places such as the University of Wisconsin that produce new knowledge, develop inventions and harness research to help society and the economy. Other institutions have core commitments to correcting disadvantage due to gender (Smith College), race (Grambling State University), or socioeconomic status (Berea College). Each represents a type of institution historically tied to the notion that social responsibility is intrinsic to the education being imparted. Modeling and teaching sustainable behavior can be another way to stay true or reconnect to the ideals at the heart of an institution’s founding vision. A green agenda for higher education also cuts to the most basic core mission of any college or university, the goal of existing in perpetuity. In fulfilling institutional missions and by enabling institutional futures, then, green initiatives are mission centered.
Signs of Hope
Sustainable initiatives have been gathering momentum on campuses for over a decade. In 1995 Middlebury College’s trustees passed a resolution urging the campus community to practice responsible environmental stewardship and four years later resolved to reduce the college’s carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. Oberlin College opened the first green building on a U.S. college campus, the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, housing a living machine that purifies and recycles waste-water, containing features that produce more energy than the building uses. Tufts University became the first U.S. institution of higher education to agree to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol on reduction of greenhouse gases.
Nearly 10 years later, institutions like Connecticut College  have written sustainability into their mission statements and the University of Wisconsin campuses at Green Bay, Oshkosh, River Falls, and Stevens Point intend to go “off the grid” by 2012, using only renewable energy. A growing number of colleges, including California State University at Chico , Evergreen State College , Middlebury , Oberlin, Northern Arizona University , and the University of British Columbia  require that all new buildings and renovations meet or exceed best construction and renovation practices such as the standards necessary for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
The impetus for sustainable design and green practices most often comes from student groups or faculty members. Carnegie Mellon University’s living roof  started as a “what if” posed by three engineering students. Student initiative led the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh to establish an aquatics research lab to study Wisconsin’s waters. Maintenance workers at Northern Arizona University have suggested many of the ideas put into practice or selected for further investigation by the university’s faculty-directed Center for Sustainable Environments. Brown University  responded to student interest with energy efficient renovations, environmentally responsible design of new buildings, courses on environmental stewardship, and employee trip reduction programs. And Reed College purchased electric cars and cleaned up a campus wetland.
Besides energy and recycling, the issue of campus paper usage is an obvious target for sustainable efforts. Here some progress is occurring. Promotional literature, such as admissions view books, now frequently get printed on recycled paper using non-toxic, biodegradable inks. Numerous colleges have replaced their traditional paper course catalog with an electronic version. Institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania, now only send term bills electronically, while others, such as the University of Southern California, only offer an electronic admissions application. Double-sided copying and printing is becoming a widespread practice. But despite efforts to reduce paper usage, no institution has approached a paper free curriculum or administration. If anyone does, it will be Evergreen State, aiming toward goals of zero waste and carbon neutrality by 2020. Perhaps Evergreen will lead other colleges toward practicing green teaching, learning, living, and working in and around green buildings.
Whether you agree with Oberlin Professor of Environmental Studies David Orr when he asserts that all education is environmental education, it is hard to deny that campus design and construction teaches lessons about how resources are allocated. Just look at any college classroom or laboratory and ask some basic questions. Is the space naturally or artificially lit? Is there fresh airflow through spaces finished with non-toxic coatings and surfaces? Or is the room ventilated by fossil-fuel-powered or Chlorofluorocarbon-dependent air conditioning to remove vapors seeping from toxic surface materials? The mere asking of such questions is one result of the sustainability movement on campuses. The attempt at solutions is but another collaborative learning opportunity for students and faculty.
Green buildings have pedagogical value. Faculty and students have come to regard them as ongoing experiments, using them as living laboratory sites where they devise and test ideas for cleaner, less artificial, and more energy efficient learning spaces. At Carnegie Mellon, for example, biology classes analyze and evaluate the efficacy of the green roof and a sustainable engineering collaborative works to apply green solutions to engineering problems. Environmental studies students at Oberlin monitor the Lewis Center’s energy and water use and have transformed a nearby house into a green learning laboratory. Professors at the University of Texas and Arizona State aim to revolutionize engineering education by integrating sustainable design and construction throughout the curriculum.
Market Benefits of Going Green
Green design is popular with students and donors -- it can generate revenue streams. After the University of South Carolina opened a green dorm,  the largest in the U.S., it immediately became the most sought after residence on campus, spurring discussion of a green fraternity house. Bellevue Community College found that its green classroom building soon had the lowest student and employee absentee rates of any facility on campus. Oberlin’s Lewis Center has become a showpiece for visiting architects, school children, and college officials from around the globe. The Lewis Center gift brought Oberlin “new money” from a family that had no ties to Oberlin but was moved to support the bold gesture conceived by David Orr and his students. Institutions such as the College of the Atlantic, Northland, Humboldt State, Unity, the University of Vermont, and Warren Wilson are staking their identities to environmental education, hoping to draw prospective students, good publicity, gifts, and research funds.
A chief obstacle to sustainable design is cost. There is a perception that environmentally friendly means bottom line unfriendly. That is not true. There is a compelling market rationale for green practices. Going green can save colleges green, as in cash. Green projects are often misunderstood as more costly due to tensions between short-term and long-term thinking. Opponents of green projects commonly cite the higher initial costs of implementation. But dismissing green projects on an initial cost basis is shortsighted, even antithetical to the in-depth critical thinking so celebrated within higher education.
Sustainable buildings and energy systems may be more costly initially but have been shown repeatedly to save money when evaluated from life span and cost-to-maintain perspectives. While it took a substantial investment to construct a windmill on campus, for example, Carleton College  now derives 40 percent of its electricity from it. Bellevue Community College’s geothermal-powered, naturally-ventilated classroom building and Cornell University’s geothermal cooling system were more expensive to construct than conventional coal-fired heating and chilling plants, but both projects will pay for themselves with savings generated by ten years of efficiencies and energy reductions. College officials, as noted earlier, also need to factor into the cost analysis the dollar value of intangible benefits to the institution resulting from positive publicity, greater attractiveness to prospective students, and potential openings to new donor bases. There is evidence that once colleges shift to a long-term cost and benefit analysis,  they are much more likely to implement green initiatives.
Still, habits are difficult to change. Thinking about sustainability requires thinking in new ways about construction, design, energy, and materials. Most campus planners and treasurers came of professional age in the hey-day of fossil fuels and fixation on short-term cost efficiencies. Thus, the institutional purse string holders are often the first to throw up the “too expensive” roadblock at green suggestions. Fortunately, unlike corporations, where the chief financial officer’s opposition can doom a proposal, colleges rely on a decision-making structure where faculty consensus is essential. Getting that consensus poses challenges and opportunities for sustainability’s proponents. Faculty, regardless how local their interests and perspectives, are not immune to the influence of market leaders. Faculty, not to mention presidents, trustees, and students, notice when Harvard touts $5 million in annual savings due to green initiatives, Stanford announces plans to build a green dormitory, Yale commits to long-term greenhouse gas reduction, Penn obtains 30 percent of its energy from wind, the University of California system makes sustainability a core value, Northwestern gets 20 percent of its power from renewable sources, and New York University achieves 10 percent energy savings by purchasing wind power.
Some critics of the sustainability movement assert that the issue will be rendered moot when fossil fuel prices revert to previous low levels. The historical pattern, such critics assert, is for fuel prices to settle back to affordability. For that and other reasons, several leading institutions, including some full university systems, have yet to adopt sustainability resolutions. Critics seeking to stall green initiatives are playing a dangerous game. It is risky to predict fuel prices based on past history. Several researchers, for example, believe that the world has reached peak oil production, which means that wider recognition of a finite supply could lead to stockpiling, hoarding, even wars -- all developments counter to the what-goes-up-must-come-down argument. China’s booming economy will require an amount of fossil fuel that is hard to predict, because all indications suggest that demand from its billion-plus citizens will be unprecedented. Only fools dismiss the sustainability movement as a fad and fail to see its potential to spawn new industries and spur the United States’ global economic competitiveness.
The Cost of Inaction
There will be enormous consequences if higher education misses the opportunity to make green initiatives as ubiquitous on campuses as student unions and sports centers. With the future of the planet at stake, colleges must be on the side of solutions. If American higher education does not embrace sustainability, then it is likely that another country’s universities will and thereby gain competitive advantage. Canadian and European universities were the first out of the blocks, embracing sustainable building practices before they were adopted in the U.S. Since then the U.S. has caught up. U.S. colleges and universities now have the opportunity to take the lead in modeling sustainable behavior and educating the next generation of engineers, scientists, and architects. U.S. campuses showplace architectural wonders that help punctuate a sense of place -- just look at the recent spate of steel-clad, sun-reflecting, nearly-window-less Frank Gehry buildings. Yet such buildings are monuments to energy inefficiency, the antithesis of the approach taken by green architects like former University of Virginia Dean William McDonough, whose designs seek to eliminate waste, minimize natural resource use, and respect the natural surroundings. Which message does higher education want to send to its students and the public?
In a world where the U.S. is losing its competitive advantage in computer science, engineering, and research science, the nascent fields of environmental architecture, sustainable engineering, and ecological science provide a new universe for innovation and training for the jobs of the future. U.S. colleges and universities, acting in concert, can lead the world by training the corps of professionals whose ideas and actions will save the natural world. The same principle holds for individual colleges acting in isolation. The innovators along green lines will reap the rewards.
Politicians frequently assail higher education as wasteful. Yet incredibly, the recent Spellings Commission on Higher Education missed the opportunity to endorse green design and energy efficient campus practices as ways to reduce waste and achieve cost savings in American higher education. One wonders how serious the commission was about cost saving, whether its dominant focus on accountability merely provided a convenient means to set up higher education as a whipping post.
The actions of the chief players in debates about higher education’s future leave so many other questions unanswered. How, for example, could the Spellings Commission as well as presidents of major colleges and universities have squandered the opportunity to push for a federal grant program to fund green initiatives and sustainability? Why haven’t states provided scholarships to study environmental engineering and sustainable science? Where are the funds for green design and fuel efficiency incubators at colleges and universities? Why aren’t colleges and universities leading elementary and secondary schools toward sustainable design, curricula, and operations?
Sustainable practices promise the potential for long-run cost savings for colleges, savings that might help hold down tuition increases. That is something every taxpayer and every tuition-payer would love to see colleges achieve. Going green can help colleges and universities achieve their missions, because sustainable practices are consistent with education for global citizenship. Going green can also help colleges and universities achieve market efficiencies and competitive advantages. Green is the academically sound and market smart choice. Colleges and universities can and must lead the way. Making sustainability an every day choice can help colleges and universities fulfill their public purpose and regain an authoritative voice on issues of the common good.
Paul Marthers is dean of admission at Reed College and a member of the college's Committee on Sustainability. Amir Rahnamay-Azar is associate senior vice president of operations at the University of Southern California.