Getting Schools to Think and Act Green

TIME     Friday, Aug. 10, 2007 By Sonja Steptoe

When Professor Douglas Crawford-Brown needs reassurance that his work has had an impact, he looks at the picture on his wall of a group of beaming students from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill posed in front of City Hall in Cambridge, England. The shot was taken two years ago, moments after the Cambridge city council unanimously approved the strategies recommended by the students for reducing the city's carbon emissions by 60%. Field projects, a summer rite for UNC undergraduates interested in environmental studies, are run by the school's Institute for the Environment, which Crawford-Brown directs. The students, who analyzed the operations of Cambridge businesses, residences and public agencies to devise CO2-cutting policies, relish the opportunity to use their classroom knowledge to make a difference outside the ivory tower. "They sense that they are the generation that's going to effect massive changes in society in this area and they like the applied aspect of the work," Crawford-Brown says.

Following the lead of global warming crusader Al Gore, forward-thinking corporations, energy-conscious consumers and assorted Hollywood hipsters, colleges across the nation are going green, with more research, courses and projects devoted to environmental issues. This past June, some 280 university presidents dramatically demonstrated their commitment to the cause, signing a pledge to take the often costly steps to make their campuses carbon neutral. "The types of things that we and other universities are pledging to do are not cheap. And because of that, there were a number of presidents who refused to sign it, after looking at the cost and deciding they couldn't afford it," says Jonathan Fink, chief sustainability officer at Arizona State University. "We are all doing it because society, both on-campus and off, is saying this needs to be a priority and that universities have to take a leadership role since the federal government isn't doing it."

Environmental studies have been a staple of course catalogs at schools such as MIT, Yale, Duke and University of Michigan for years. But on a growing number campuses across the U.S., a relatively new idea known as sustainability — an interdisciplinary concept incorporating values, systems and activities that are ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable — is becoming a driving force in institutions' missions, a guiding principle of campus operations and an academic discipline in its own right. In a trend that began about five years ago, over 200 schools now offer either courses, certifications, concentrations, undergraduate degrees, or post-grad studies on the subject. "The surging interest in environmental issues by students, scholars, corporations, foundations and society in general has fueled academic and extracurricular initiatives, and is making sustainability and environmentalism a matter of institutionalized campus policy," says Deborah Rowe, president of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, which promotes the integration o sustainability concepts throughout society.

Colleges also are eager to dip into the deep well of foundation grants earmarked for innovative research in the area of sustainability. Says UNC's Crawford-Brown: "The entire energy infrastructure of the U.S. is going to move toward renewable energy in the next 20 years, and there are hundreds of millions of dollars out there to be raised to support studies of sustainability at universities."

Along with their U.S. News and World Report rankings, MBA programs now tout their placement in the Beyond Grey Pinstripes Index, which assesses the efforts of business school courses and research to impart principles of environmental stewardship. And one of the hot topics at this summer's annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation Agencies was the idea of adding both compliance with and the teaching of sustainability principles to the list of accreditation criteria for universities and their academic departments. Some university leaders want to go so far as to make research and instruction around sustainability principles a part of tenure evaluations.

The programs and policies can give a school instant cache as a cutting-edge institution, which can be a competitive advantage in student recruiting. They also contribute to society's overall environmental literacy and can lead to important research breakthroughs. At MIT, student activism was a catalyst for most of the projects tackling local climate-change problems. "The heart and soul of the sustainability initiatives here are students and we're influencing the administration," says Jialan Wang, a PhD candidate at the Sloan School of Management.

As a practical matter, however, the green philosophy isn't always warmly embraced by everyone around the quad. Even in progressive Chapel Hill, the development of an academic program at UNC was a contentious issue among various deans skeptical about the scholastic legitimacy of such interdisciplinary work and worried about the added competition for budgetary funds and student enrollment in their classes. To end the resistance, Crawford-Brown shelved plans for a separate school with its own curriculum and faculty, agreeing instead to establish the research institute and focus on lab and field projects.

Some schools have avoided such squabbles by making sustainability a part of the core academic mission. One university at the vanguard of the trend is Arizona State, which aims to distinguish itself as a leading institution for interdisciplinary work focused on studying and producing global sustainability solutions. ASU unveiled the nation's first school devoted to sustainability earlier this year, offering a certificate program, two master's, a PhD and starting next fall, two bachelor's degrees. It grew out of the sustainability initiative, launched by university president, Michael Crow, five years ago.

ASU is involved in a number of collaborative research projects between academic departments and local school districts, corporations, non-profit institutions and public agencies, covering such subjects as water management, environmental analysis of urban ecosystems and the history of socioecosystems in the Mediterranean. The home base for the research as well as the school is ASU's well-endowed three-year-old Global Institute of Sustainability. Says Fink, ASU's sustainability chief: "We've been able to incorporate more and more of the university into a growing set of projects giving us knowledge about a complex and socially essential set of issues that are relevant in Arizona and around the world."

Sustainable Programs

University officials are dreaming up eco-friendly school programs and policies that go beyond recycling, responsible trash disposal, organically grown cafeteria food, low thermostat settings and power-use monitoring to minimize their carbon footprints. Here are a few of the more creative examples:

Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York is developing an interdisciplinary PhD program in sustainability. Funded by a Henry Luce Foundation grant, the program melds public policy, business management, engineering, industrial development, architectural design and economics. Nabil Nasr, the director of RIT's Sustainability Institute, also touts a cutting-edge remanufacturing process that engineering students and professors are developing. Used products such as disposable cameras, airplanes, auto engines and electronic products are disassembled and mined for components that can be reused in manufacturing new products; what's left over is recycled. "Through this process we [can make] products that carry half the cost of new production and that leave a significantly lower environmental footprint," he says. "It will change the rules of production as we know them."

MIT's "Walk The Talk" initiative creates campus programs to significantly reduce the estimated 270,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions by the university each year, says Steve Lanou, deputy director of the sustainability program. One project that could make a big dent is the student-led biodiesel@mit effort to install a solar-powered biodiesel processor at the school that converts the vegetable oil waste from campus dining facilities into biodiesel to be mixed with regular diesel to power MIT's fleet of diesel vehicles. Additionally, the chemistry department head, the facilities director and environmental health chief are taking policy cues from a student thesis to drastically curtail the energy consumed by 1,200 chemical fume hoods in campus labs. One finding: By merely keeping the hoods closed when not in use, MIT could save $1 million in energy costs.

Carleton College in Minnesota used a chunk of its working capital fund three years ago to buy a $1.8 million green-power wind turbine because administrators determined that the return on such an investment would match what they could get from mutual funds.

Unity College, a tiny liberal arts school in Maine, conducts an annual campus CO2 audit and brags about the steps—such as the construction of two LEED-certifiable buildings, the purchase of all of its electrical power from renewable resources and the use of a student-built wind turbine and a solar generator to power a small dormitory — it has taken to lower per-student emissions to 4,000 lbs a year. Unity has also designed an interdisciplinary course in human ecology and sustainability that's now a graduation requirement for every student.

Stanford University biological sciences professor Chris Field claims that the global ecology lab he runs on campus for the Carnegie Institution is the "greenest research lab in the world." According to him, the facility's carbon emissions are 1/6th that of a typical new lab in California. "It's not carbon neutral because we don't have our own power generation equipment — yet," he says. The lab employs nightsky radiative cooling, a system using small roof sprinklers to create thin films of water that are chilled in the night air and then collected into a tank for pumping through the building during the day to add cooling. Energy efficient glazing on windows reduces heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer. Additionally, the lab's infrared-reflecting Kynar roofing reflects the solar heat back into space and lowers the temperature inside.