You are here

Articles: Sustainability

Albert Einstein had this to say about problem-solving: "You can never solve a problem on the same level on which it was created." In other words, the solution lies at a higher level. That is certainly the truth for many efforts in higher education, where overcoming administrative challenges? that are holding back student or institutional success or service is often about reaching for innovative solutions.

This issue marks our sixth annual "green guide," looking at sustainability trends and technologies at campuses around the country. Some students even base enrollment decisions on an institution's commitment to the environment. "Green" and "sustainability" seem to have become ingrained in the collective higher education consciousness--which, of course, was the idea all along. This was brought home to me in a conversation I had with Karli Grant, a product manager for Campus Management.

The Power of Green

For six years each June, University Business editors have been sharing snapshots of sustainability efforts taking place at campuses across the country. As green continues to grow in popularity, institutional efforts and the collective impact of those efforts continue to impress.

Just one example is the combined 1.2 billion kilowatt-hours of green power purchased annually by the Top 20 College & University list from the Green Power Partnership. It's the equivalent of powering nearly 103,000 average American homes.

Electricity. It turns on the lights, powers the smart boards, and runs the computers that are all vital to a modern campus. Acquiring that electricity can be both an expensive proposition and a key part of an environmental action plan. With the size and variety of buildings on campus, some colleges and universities have their own power stations on campus to ease their dependence on public utility companies. Most have their own microgrids to distribute power generated from any source. Now campus leaders are looking into giving those microgrids an education.

It's rare to even hear about a single new campus building these days that wasn't built with sustainability principles in mind. Inevitably, institutional officials are learning not to reinvent the wheel every time a new construction project comes up. Creating a green building policy is one way of ensuring sustainability is a collective goal--a goal that will likely benefit future project design teams.

When Zach Waickman was a senior at Loyola University Chicago, he had just completed an internship with a major news network in Chicago and planned to pursue a career within his communication major. But, a course focused on biodiesel completely changed his path.

Waickman, who graduated in 2008, is now working toward obtaining his MBA and is biodiesel lab manager for Loyola's Center for Urban Environmental Research, facilitating students in the process of turning waste grease into biodiesel to fuel the university's shuttle busses.

Programs that allow campus offices to become officially certified green in operations can pack a one-two staff engagement punch. In Bowen Close's experience overseeing sustainability as assistant director of facilities and campus services at Pomona College (Calif.), initially people already interested in improving their environmental impacts get engaged in the structure and assistance that such a program offers. As they work to get their colleagues involved in the effort, their enthusiasm is contagious.

The sustainability movement is on pace for rapid growth in the United States, with some analysts predicting it will approach $50 billion by 2013. Stanford University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of California, Berkeley, and MIT top the U.S. News and World Report list of universities offering degrees in renewable energy, sustainable design, and conservation. It was only a matter of time then that a college, focused solely on preparing grads for careers in this field, would appear on the map.

Signatories to the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, as of mid-May. --ACUPCC annual report

Portion of current campus sustainability positions created in 2007 or later. --AASHE Higher Education Sustainability Staffing Survey

Amount of carbon dioxide reduced by ACUPCC institutions. --2010 ACUPCC annual report

It doesn’t get greener than planting trees, and thanks to the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Campus USA program, colleges and universities are being recognized for their dedication to the most literal translation of going green.

It is becoming more and more fashionable to claim a greener identity, and it seems college students everywhere are excited to help the environment, particularly when their actions are visible to others. When questioned about reducing the carbon footprint at Bentley University (Mass.), for instance, I’ve been asked, “When are we going to install wind turbines?”

“How much does LEED cost”? University administrators and facilities directors across the country are grappling with the need to design and construct their buildings sustainably with all the obvious long-term benefits but within their “first cost” budget.

There was a time, and not all that long ago, when many organizations looked at energy costs as a fixed cost of doing business over which they had little control. But rising energy prices, coupled with a challenging economic environment and an increasing focus on carbon reduction, have grabbed American leaders by the shoulders and shaken them into a greater state of consciousness when it comes to energy.

Colleges and universities essentially operate as self-contained small cities, providing huge amounts of energy to its campuses, in increasing amounts, all day, every day. The higher education sector owns and operates tens of thousands of buildings, owns millions of acres of land and spends nearly $10 billion each year on energy.

In today’s discussions about buildings and architecture for higher education campuses, sustainability is touted for its positive environmental impact. However, sustainable design can be more than just responsible earth stewardship. It can impact operational costs, support and improve student learning, and even promote change in students’ behavior. Universities should approach sustainability as an expectation, not an add-on, incorporating it into the building process and thinking about all of its potential impact when making design decisions.