Greening the Ivory Tower

Campuses Make Sustainability a Core Curriculum


Photo, flowers surround a sign with words: Hampshire College Heirloom Tomatoescourtesy of Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

The hottest color on college campuses these days is cool-the-climate green. One obvious signal: More than 400 higher education leaders have signed on to the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. Ralph Hexter, president of Hampshire College, describes his rationale for participating in the effort: “Human activities are responsible for the problem, and working together, humans have the capacity to solve the problem. Achieving climate neutrality within a reasonable time frame is absolutely essential for our collective future. It is our responsibility as world citizens – one we dare not shirk.”

The presidents’ climate effort is far more than just an academic exercise. As a $315 billion chunk of the US economy, colleges and universities have the potential of prompting widespread societal changes. The ecological innovations taking place on college campuses are poised to influence similar environmental reforms that are occurring within local governments and some businesses. At the same time, the efforts for greener campuses are helping to shape the worldview of an entire generation.

“To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a similar commitment in higher education in US history,” says Judy Walton, director of strategic initiatives for the Association of the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). “I can’t recall another collective agreement, with a reporting structure, signed by presidents of every type and size of institution. The breadth of signatories matches the breadth of this challenge. These institutions recognize the urgency of the situation and understand that their responsibility means going beyond ‘business as usual.’ [To do this] means rethinking the way higher education institutions operate, teach, conduct research, and relate to their communities. It is not simply a research problem, and it will require the largest collective action possible to be a success.”

Not Your Parents’ Earth Day

The quest for campus sustainability is taking place at large state schools, small liberal arts campuses, and elite Ivy League universities, as well as local community colleges. At Hampshire College, known for its experimental attitude, students have started a community garden. Campus activists at the more buttoned-down Dartmouth College recently completed a summer-long sustainability tour in a vegetable oil-powered bus. Within the giant University of California system, students are pushing for a system-wide local food program and have already convinced the regents to reduce the fuel use of campus transportation fleets. Administrators at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, MA built a new biomass hydronic heating system that cuts campus greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent and saves the college roughly $300,000 per year.

Of course, environmental issues have been a popular cause at colleges at least since the first Earth Day in 1970. “‘Greening’ has been out there for a good long time, a relic from the ‘60s and ‘70s Mother-Earth-lovin’ days,” says Marian Brown, the sustainability coordinator at Ithaca College. Today’s swell of environmental activism is different, however, in that it’s occurring as part of a larger societal shift toward a post-industrial economy.

“Student activists and faculty led the charge for the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act,” says Tom Kimmerer, executive director of AASHE. “But this movement is probably stronger, in part because of external drivers. When Wal-Mart and the Dow Jones make sustainability a market factor, you know demand is real.”

Steadily increasing energy prices and growing awareness about the dangers of climate change have made university administrators energetic supporters of student efforts. These huge challenges also allow student organizers to frame their campaigns as ways to address other pressing concerns.

For example, when Carlos Rymer, a senior at Cornell University, helped lead a campus campaign to get the university leadership to commit to becoming carbon neutral, he presented the issue as something that would have benefits beyond just helping the environment. “Many people think ‘green’ when they hear about ‘sustainability,’ but I think about justice, economics, and community,“ Rymer says. “While we work on problems that seem ‘environmental,’ sustainability is clearly about people and not too much about ‘earth,’ other than the fact that we need the planet and all its ecosystems to continue living.”

A similar view influences the work of Claire Robey, a student at American University in Washington, DC. In 2006, Robey led a successful student referendum calling for a $10 annual increase in student fees to help the university pay for using 50 percent wind energy by 2012. After months of organizing, the measure passed by 71 percent. Explaining the success of the campaign across traditional ideological lines, Robey told a reporter for MSN: “These are not liberal, hippie, environmental issues.”

Change You Can Taste

In contrast to past student movements – for example, the Vietnam War protests or the drive against sweatshops – in which students often faced off against unsympathetic administrators, the current wave of sustainability efforts benefit from multi-level support. Three kinds of leadership are fueling the sustainability movement on campus, Kimmerer says: “There’s leadership from the top: college presidents and university chancellors. Then, leadership from the middle – the operations people are practical folks, many of them well educated in sustainability – who often see that LEED-certified buildings or better lighting have a short [economic] payback. And then there’s leadership from the bottom, where student and faculty engagement are linked to one another. The most successful sustainability gains occur when all three levels of leadership work in concert.”

Sometimes action from one of these sectors kicks the other two into gear. “Larry Shinn, president of Berea College, is a visionary in this movement,” Kimmerer says. “Berea was a school with a long history of farming, but without attention to environmentalism until Shinn arrived. On campus, he created an ecovillage for single parents, and retrofitted buildings to become LEED certified.” Usually students are in the vanguard of demanding environmental improvements, as has been the case at Cornell, Green Mountain College, and University of California campuses. Occasionally, particularly energetic or charismatic faculty members – Bill McKibben at Middlebury College, for example, or David Orr at Oberlin College – are the sparks that ignite student movements. “When Bill and David engaged students,” Kimmerer says, “students took up the cause.”

Converting environmental principles into pragmatic improvements often comes down to the quotidian. How and what students eat, for example, has become a common focus of campus greening efforts as students organize campaigns to support local farmers and grow more of their own food. Schools including Carleton College, University of Northern Iowa, and Bowdoin College are mounting local food initiatives. Sodexo and Aramark, the largest providers of campus dining services in the US, estimate that organic food is available on about half the campuses they serve. Because colleges are generally out of session during the height of the farming season, Aramark has begun to build freezer facilities for some local farms to store produce for the fall semester. At the University of Vermont, Sodexo uses local maple syrup and buys about $30,000 of Vermont dairy products per semester. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst participates in Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

Some schools have started campus gardens that give students a chance to grow their own organic fruits and vegetables. Others have instituted bring-your-own-bowl programs. Since 1993, Middlebury College’s composting program has diverted 75 percent of campus food waste into composting operations. The program led to a steep decline in landfill costs, and has saved the college more than $100,000. The compost is used for the college’s grounds and vegetable garden, and some students have made the composting methodology the subject of their senior theses.

Another everyday part of campus life undergoing a transformation is transportation. The University of Colorado at Boulder made free bus passes available to every student, faculty, and staff member. This rendered the bus more accessible for those on campus and ensured a stable income stream for Boulder’s bus system. The City of Toronto established the Bicycle Friendly Campus Project in concert with four area schools – University of Toronto, York University, Ontario College of Art and Design, and Ryerson University. Its goal is to increase the number of bicycle trips made in university communities by 10 percent in one academic year. The city installed bike carriers on its buses while campuses added more bike racks.

“Community Bike” programs are also growing in popularity on campus. Old broken down bikes are repaired, painted bright colors so they are easy to spot, and then made available to students and professors for quick transport between campus destinations. Wellesley College, SUNY-Cortland, and Schreiner University, a Presbyterian school in Texas, are among the campuses that have instituted community bike programs. “Bikes are a wonderful invention that have been ignored by most Americans in place of the car,” says Hampshire College student Jared Benedict, who started his school’s yellow bike program.

Incubators for Progress

The campus greening initiatives are important – not only as a beneficial end in themselves – but also because they have the potential of creating a ripple effect throughout the broader economy. Universities’ role as laboratories for invention means that many of the campus innovations carry with them an academic imprimatur that will encourage other institutions – whether government or business – to copy the colleges’ work. This is already beginning to occur. In Asheville, NC, for example, college staff and administrators are working with town officials to collaborate on carbon reduction efforts. Three recent Oberlin College graduates have started a nonprofit corporation, Sustainable Community Associates, which is using green building designs to rehabilitate the community’s flagging downtown.

The number of similar success stories is growing. Seventy-seven colleges and universities are members of the US EPA’s Green Power Partnership. More than 55 campus buildings in the US have been LEED-certified. New York University buys more green power than any other institution in New York City. And Monmouth University has mounted the largest solar installation east of the Mississippi River, with panels covering the roofs of four campus buildings. The solar panels are saving the school an estimated $150,000 per year and eliminate about one million pounds of CO2 emissions.

Of course, schools with large endowments can more easily take a leadership role, as was demonstrated by the Sustainable Endowments Institute’s “college report card,” in which the only four schools to capture ‘A’s – Dartmouth, Stanford, Williams, and Harvard – are all famously wealthy. But many ambitious programs are also occurring at smaller, less-endowed institutions. In August 2007, East Los Angeles College began construction on a photovoltaic farm that will produce one megawatt of electricity. This $9 million project, which should generate nearly enough energy to meet the college’s daytime electricity needs, is part of a larger initiative by the Los Angeles Community College District to take all nine of its colleges off the grid, making it the first community college system in the nation with plans to become entirely energy independent.

The new attention on infrastructure and systems improvements also dovetails with a growing enthusiasm for environmentally informed curricula. Environmental studies or environmental sciences majors appear to be increasing in popularity among undergraduates. What happens in the classrooms is, as always, an important opportunity for intellectual awakenings. That, at least, is what happened to Jamie Duncan, a recent graduate of Smith College. Duncan stumbled into a horticulture class, and from there into the college’s renowned Landscape Studies Program (the school’s Botanic Garden was designed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in 1893). Duncan, who got deeply involved in the college’s strategic planning process through an independent special studies course, lobbied for landscape preservation initiatives. Duncan says she found a life path “… from looking at cells and the structure of plants under a microscope to identifying trees through the patterns of twigs, bark, and leaves, to ambitions of instilling a sense of agency in community members, and changing society through green infrastructure and promoting stewardship.” Gaby Immerman, instructor for the Smith horticulture classes, explains that regardless of their major, she expects the introductory horticulture course to change every student’s perspective: “By getting students to discern and describe trees, I know they will never look at the world the same way again.”

And when students do start looking at the world in a different way, they often want to share their new environmental enthusiasm with their peers. Marissa Mintzner, a senior at Coastal Carolina University, says that she started giving environmental issues presentations to incoming students “because freshmen will be the rising leaders on campus. By educating them about sustainability as soon as they get to college, continuous progress can be made.” She sees signs that her efforts – and that of the campus sustainability initiative – are proving effective. “I have noticed an increase of recyclables in the bins and that more students are concerned about sources of energy or school supplies.”

At this stage, it’s unclear where all the campus organizing will lead and what the ultimate impact of college-based environmental improvements will be. But Sarah Brylinsky, a junior at Ithaca College, demonstrates how much hope she found in putting her energy into campus sustainability. “I am a success story for sustainability in higher education,” she says. “My interest was piqued during a first-year seminar about global warming and sustainability.”

Before entering Ithaca College, Brylinsky says she was already committed to community service, women’s issues, and economic justice, and had what she calls “passive green habits.” The idea of finding a cause – ecological sustainability – that brought all of her concerns together was “too good an offer to pass up.”

When asked what she is most proud of working on, Brylinsky reveals what may the greatest strength of campus sustainability campaigns: their ability to thread together many different important issues, and, in the process, inspire students. Brylinsky fondly remembers bringing feminists Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards to speak on campus: “These two women have helped move the contemporary feminist front forward by creating commonalities between people of all interests, genders, and ages. Their message was one of general student empowerment, a concept that should be available to every member of the campus community. Each individual should feel that they have the power to shape and contribute to the vision of the whole.”

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a writer based in Northampton, MA. She graduated from Hampshire College and received an MFA from Warren Wilson College.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.