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Keeping the Commitment

Even in difficult economic times, the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment continues to make its green mark.
University Business, Jun 2010
The solar arrays on Furman University's campus reduce the need to purchase electricity and also serve as learning laboratories. This fall, students will install a small solar array on campus as a class project.

Richard Cook spends much of his time listening to college and university presidents ask questions about sustainability. Can we afford this? What if my trustees balk? Is global climate change exaggerated? Is carbon neutrality even possible? Cook responds with patience and knowledge about the impact of harmful greenhouse gases, about clean energy, and about why it makes fiscal sense to go green. "I liken it to the moonshot," says the former president of Allegheny College (Pa.). "When you have lofty goals and you mean it, and you put great talent and resources toward it, you make great progress."

Cook is an Education for Sustainability Fellow for Second Nature, the Boston nonprofit that acts as the leading support organization for the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, the largest movement in American society to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and achieve climate neutrality. His job is, in part, to support current participants in the Presidents' Climate Commitment and encourage others to sign.

Given that the recession began just months after the Commitment launched in 2007, it would not be surprising if fewer institutions signed on or current participants stepped back. But that's not the case?the goal of going green (or getting greener) is surviving and thriving on campus. As of this spring, 677 schools, representing nearly 6 million students and about a third of the higher education student population in the United States, signed the commitment. "We were hoping by the end of 2010 to reach about 40 percent of the student population, and we're right on track to meet that," says Anthony Cortese, co-director of the Presidents' Climate Commitment and president of Second Nature.

To sign on, institutions agree to:

  • conduct at least one campus greenhouse gas inventory
  • create a comprehensive Climate Action Plan
  • implement at least two of seven shorter-term actions for reducing their carbon footprint.

All of the documents are posted online. "We're accountable to each other," says James Buizer, science policy advisor to Arizona State University president Michael Crow, a charter signatory. "The teeth is deadlines, and we're being quite open and transparent on the web. Where it's flexible is that each university can decide what their target date [for reaching climate neutrality] is."

Fulfillment of the Commitment's reporting requirements provides a lens for assessing its success. Of the 388 institutions that signed on in 2007, the inaugural year, about 89 percent have conducted and submitted greenhouse gas inventories, says Toni Nelson, the ACUPCC program director at Second Nature. About two-thirds of the first cohort have either submitted a Climate Action Plan or are working to submit one this spring. Since the initiative began collecting dues from signatories, 66 percent have paid up?noteworthy given that the dues are voluntary. (The amount varies, with the average institution owing $1,865.)

Only about 30 schools were notified this past spring that they could be removed from the initiative due to their failure to submit required reports of those, about 15 have since made movement to remain in good standing, says Nelson. Overall, the initiative has continued to move in the right direction. "During my professional lifetime, we've had six economic downturns, and in every one before this one the first thing that many people wanted to relax was environmental standards, assuming they were too expensive," says Cortese. "This time around, with the worst economic situation we've had since the Great Depression, people are saying just the opposite?the best way to get the economy going again is to pursue the most environmentally responsible way."

'When you rally people around something like sustainability or energy savings, people come out of the woodwork because it's helping to save their place.
-James Buizer, Arizona State University

Here's what institutions that have signed the Commitment are doing to continue making progress on their promises actions that can help any higher ed institution.

Arizona State's community can go places--and be green--via light rail.

In his conversations with college and university leaders, Cook urges them to discuss sustainability at the highest levels of the institution. "These kinds of things need to be part of the strategic direction of a college or university, at the board level," Cook says. "It needs to be an institution-wide commitment." That helps when challenges or doubts arise, and when presidents leave. "Institutions that have had those conversations in advance find it quite easy to sign the Commitment," says Cook. "Those who don't feel it's a unilateral act on the part of the president."

Committees made up of staff, faculty, and students play a central role in creating broad support across campus as well as gathering valuable ideas. At Cape Cod Community College (Mass.), which serves about 12,000 students, an assistant vice president for facilities management and sustainability co-chairs a sustainability committee along with an official from the academic side of the college. The committee enables people across the institution to play a role in making decisions and taking action. Case in point: The institution's chief information officer undertook an analysis of technology-related energy use on campus and learned that computers were left on for days, bloating costs and wasting energy. By implementing an automatic computer shutoff at 11 p.m. every night and raising awareness of technology waste, the college moved toward saving $100,000 a year.

"It's about changing the culture," says President Kathleen Schatzberg. "Faculty might have bristled, but when you tell them that we'll save the equivalent of two faculty positions in cost savings, they say, 'That makes a lot of sense.'"

Student EcoReps conduct regular "trash audits" to help Bates College meet its aggressive carbon neutrality goal.

As the ACUPCC has grown, so too has its toolbox of resources and supports. Its website acts as a bustling town square where information is shared and connections are made. There are guidance documents, which are vetted by experts in academia and approved by the Presidents' Climate Commitment steering committee, and tools for financing. Signatories get access to a monthly e-mail newsletter, webinars, training workshops, and a climate action planning wiki, not to mention the comprehensive, public-facing reporting system, which houses each signatory's documents. To support signatories in their work, the initiative also assigns a liaison to each school.

Signatories are, in turn, supporting each other. After a group of southern institutions that receive funding from the private Duke Endowment held a climate action planning workshop, they realized other signatories could benefit. "They developed this concept of a half-day training program that they are now doing on behalf of the ACUPCC," says Nelson. The group held a "train the trainers" event in March to expand the list of workshop facilitators. "The schools are creating these tools that are helping other schools and training people," says Nelson. "It's got this snowball effect."

"Sustainability has been the initiative that has been most successful in promoting collaboration in higher education," says David Shi, president of Furman University (S.C.) and a charter signatory of the Commitment.

Cliffs Cottage, home of Furman University's sustainability center, is an example of creative use of external fund- ing. The building was originally renovated as a consumer magazine's "showcase home" as a way to get sponsors.

On many campuses, grant funding has kept sustainability efforts afloat in rough fiscal waters. Furman recently garnered a $500,000 grant from the South Carolina Energy Office to install solar panels, and a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to install a geothermal pump plant. "It's certainly true that in the last 24 months, it's been more difficult for campuses to sustain any relatively new initiative, not just sustainability related, because of excruciating budget circumstances," says Shi. "These two big government grants we've received have allowed us to keep moving forward."

The grant funding has also helped change the minds of skeptical campus stakeholders, according to Shi. "As they see us bringing in more and more money, they realize this is not a fad; it's something that's truly systemic," he says.

'Often the goals of energy savings and greenhouse gas reductions and saving money are compatible overall; it's the initial capital costs that make people associate sustainability with higher cost.'
-Julie Rosenbach, Bates College

Institutional leaders and sustainability committees are creative in seeking funding sources. Furman worked with Southern Living magazine to conduct a green renovation of a historic building on campus, first turning it into one of the magazine's prestigious "showcase homes," then converting it to a sustainability center for the university. About 30,000 people bought $10 tickets to view the renovated Cliffs Cottage before it was retrofitted to become the David E. Shi Center for Sustainability. "That partnership enabled us to recruit more than 100 additional [corporate] partners who wanted to take advantage of the platform from Southern Living, and they discounted things for us," says Shi. While Furman shouldered some of the cost, sponsors--which included Bank of America, Cliffs Communities, and Duke Energy--helped significantly.

In Illinois, community college leaders have utilized external funding to create a network to engage communities. The Illinois Community College Sustainability Network, a consortium of 48 colleges, is capitalizing on grant funding from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to operate centers for sustainability and green job training. According to Jerry Weber, president of the College of Lake County, the administrative college for the sustainability network, backing from the state has put $1.7 million toward these initiatives, and the network is looking to receive an additional $1 million in federal appropriations and grants.

American University's School of International Service in Washington, D.C., is taking a branded approach to funding a new 70,000-square-foot LEED gold building designed by William McDonough + Partners, a Charlottesville, Va., firm known for its sustainable structures. American is fundraising $25 million to support the new SIS building as well as a scholarship and academic programs, encouraging donors to help create a new home for the school that aligns with its international relations and social justice work.

Compact cars, such as Cape Cod Community College's carpenter's vehicle, allow facilities staff to avoid loading docks and work more efficiently.

During challenging economic times, institutions are thinking more than usual about aligning efforts across campus. Bates College (Maine) is working toward carbon neutrality by 2020, an aggressive goal. Officials developed a climate action plan in conjunction with a major facilities master plan revision. Such integrated planning saves costs, increases efficiencies, and ensures sustainable growth, says Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach. "Often the goals of energy savings and greenhouse gas reductions and saving money are compatible overall; it's the initial capital costs that make people associate sustainability with higher cost. ... We were able to integrate sustainability ideas and costs into ongoing projects and utility infrastructure needs rather than propose them separately, where they would compete for funding."

The centerpiece of the Bates plan is conversion of the main campus steam plant to a biomass cogeneration facility. The new biomass boiler system will kick in around the time when demand on campus would outweigh the capacity of the current steam plant. "The central strategy of converting our main steam plant to a biomass cogeneration facility is triggered when energy loads of new buildings exceed the capacity of our current plant," says Rosenbach. "That way the additional cost of converting the plant to a carbon neutral source is lower, and the payback is around 10 years." The new biomass boiler system would reduce the college's net emissions by 70 percent.

"The way we approached our climate action plan is characteristic of Bates," says Elaine Tuttle Hansen, the college's president. "We don't throw money at problems. We figure out a solution within our means."

At Arizona State, collaboration has been particularly crucial since the state legislature has cut $100 million in university funding. "What we keep pushing is the strength we can have if we continue to collaborate," says Bonny Bentzin, director of university sustainability practice. ASU's approach to funding: Outsourcing some projects that will ultimately bring significant payback. The university is one of several to establish a revolving loan fund that supports campus sustainability projects while raising money for future undertakings. For example, an outside contractor is helping to reduce environmental impact through behavioral changes on campus. Money accrued from the shifts will go back into the fund. "That's expected to give us a return of $2.1 million on one campus alone," says Bentzin.

At the end of the day, environmental impact reduction efforts are becoming second nature. Challenges will crop up, but they won't put an end to progress. "People are tightening their bootstraps," says Buizer of ASU. "When you rally people around something like sustainability or energy savings, people come out of the woodwork because it's helping to save their place." Schatzberg of Cape Cod Community College offers a similarly strong outlook. "It's become such a part of our institutional culture, no one is suggesting we set things aside," she says. "It just might take longer than we wish."

Caryn Fliegler is a former University Business associate editor.