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Future Shock

The Greening of Catholic Colleges and Universities: Saving Today?s Congregation and Tomorrow?s Planet

University Business, Oct 2009

THERE ARE THOSE IN THE media who suggest that some religious institutions have forgotten the roots of their social justice and civic engagement purpose. Yet, for whatever the reason, a special group of Catholic schools is now adopting sustainability as a strategic driver, and integral part of their academic mission. Indeed, these Catholic institutions are intentionally recruiting and attracting environmental scholars who have a lifelong commitment to saving today’s congregation and tomorrow’s planet.

Just consider the likes of Saint Joseph’s of Maine, the University of Notre Dame, Marquette University (Wisc.), and Santa Clara University (Calif.) - venerable Catholic colleges and universities which have willfully centered their missions on long-term sustainability as a common thread in the priority allocation of academic resources, recruitment of new faculty, and enrollment of environmentally engaged students.

An articulate advocate for the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, St. Joseph’s President Joseph Lee gives credit to faculty and staff “for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, raising global warming awareness and finding new ways to conserve energy and cut waste.”

By way of demonstrable example, St. Joseph’s has required every student to take a sustainability course, and creatively connected organic farming, food composting, green cleaning, recycling, and energy conservation. Uniquely, Saint Joseph’s branded energy literacy initiative has linked the campus and southern Maine community on matters that impact environmental learning and healthful living.

Endowed with a bucolic campus on the shores of Sebago Lake, one of Maine’s freshwater treasures, Saint Joseph’s offers its students and faculty an authentic outdoor laboratory - attracting the interest of aspiring environmental scholars. Through its programs in marine science, Saint Joseph’s links students to hands-on environmental fieldwork throughout New England and around the world. Tracking toxic red tide algae in the Gulf of Maine with state-of-the-art water quality monitoring buoys, faculty and students analyze how ocean acidification affects clams before they find their way to local seafood markets.

Viewed as a leader among Catholic universities, Notre Dame takes considerable pride in hosting a national conference on “Renewing the Campus,” a forum for Catholic colleges and universities to explore their commitment to sustainability and discover ways to preserve the environment through leadership in higher education and the Catholic community. With a full-time Office of Sustainability already in place, Notre Dame offers preferred parking for low emission vehicles, dorm energy reduction competitions, a choice of several environmental majors, has their first expected certified LEED building this fall, and about 40 percent of food on campus is locally grown. President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., notes that “the long-term solution to our energy challenge starts with harnessing the energy of our students, and getting them to bring their idealism, imagination and problem-solving skills to this very practical and fundamental challenge.”

Santa Clara University has implemented best green practices in everything from the chemistry lab to reusing reclaimed water for landscaping, as a result of these creative initiatives the Sustainable Endowments Institute has recognized Santa Clara as a 2009 campus sustainability leader. President Michael E. Engh succinctly conveys, "I propose that we (Santa Clara) seriously consider becoming a major center for discussion of environmental justice, and for examining the ethical dimensions of how we treat the physical world."

Impressively, Marquette University has added new water law courses, and has recently announced funding of an endowed chair in renewable energy. Dean of Engineering Stan Jaskolski reflects that “sustainable energy is fundamental to our quality of life. We must, from both an industrial and educational perspective, address the issues of energy consumption and find ways to facilitate energy production from renewable energy sources.”

From Maine to California and Indiana to Wisconsin, Catholic colleges and universities are going green in campus dorms, classrooms, and labs. Beyond campus boundaries they are protecting the habitat, managing natural resources and improving the quality of life for those in the congregation and the community. Remarkably, there is a wonderful irony among this new breed of green Catholic colleges and universities ? regenerating themselves by conserving nature, sharing, and protecting the delicate balance of campus and global ecosystems.

Saint Joseph’s Sustainability Coordinator Dr. Jeanne Gulnick sums up nicely, “It fits in with one of our core values, social justice. It’s what sustainability really is all about.”

James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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