Carbon Neutral Universities

Metropolis Magazine writes about the maturing and deepening of the university campus sustainability in Carbon Neutral U:

Higher education has emerged as a thrilling proving ground for a sustainable society. Schools of all statures and sizes—from the Ivies to red-state community colleges—are making the most of their fiefdoms, leveraging their educated and politically engaged populations, long-term outlooks, and self-managed (the often significant) physical footprints to make substantial changes. But with those changes comes a surprising reversal in academe’s typical stance: the mechanics of the campus are occupying the brightest spotlight. Students, administrators, and faculty are obsessing over the cleaning products the janitors use, how dining-hall potatoes are grown, and which dorms consume the least energy. Infrastructure is hot—hotter arguably than research or teaching about sustainability. It is as if the ivory tower has looked out to the world and seen a choking planet, and its first response is to look inward again at its own activities—building designs, power plants, and transportation systems. …

Schools are also looking to one another for help, increasingly collaborating in realms where they have traditionally competed. “There’s long been an incredible amount of peer benchmarking across higher education, but that’s not the same as collaboration,” says Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, the publisher of the College Sustainability Report Card 2008, which evaluated 200 schools on their environmental activities. “Collaboration, while quite widespread in the academic side of the university, has been less prevalent in operations,” he adds.

The range of projects is staggering. After a decade of bring-your-own-coffee-mug student environmentalism, the opening salvo of a new, more glamorous era in campus sustainability came in 2001, when the daughter of famed Berkeley, California, chef Alice Waters enrolled as a freshman at Yale. Waters’s initial disgust at the cafeteria steam tables evolved into the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which today manages an organic campus farm, directs a sustainable dining program, and serves as the base for a series of academic classes. It’s also been a lightning rod for PR—“A Dining Hall Where Students Sneak In,” crowed the New York Times—and dozens of schools have launched similar programs. More recently, as campuses have turned their attention to carbon reduction, no detail is too small: dorms are providing laundry racks for no-energy clothes drying, offering free bike maintenance as well as shared bikes, encouraging students to disconnect their dorm appliances over vacations, and recycling their organic potato French fry grease into biodiesel fuel for campus buses.

… For the cadre of campus sustainability coordinators, “creating a culture of sustainability” is one of the measures of success. The administrative structures for sustainability offices vary school by school, with some coordinators reporting through facilities, some through the provost or president’s offices, and some through both. But they all have the mandate to bridge the university’s operational initiatives to its teaching and research—to make the nuts and bolts count toward the big teachable ideas. With the wave of interest sweeping the students and faculty, new projects are coming from everywhere. The sustainability coordinator plays traffic cop, diplomat, and “facilitator.” As Yale’s Newman puts it, “What’s so fascinating about these positions is that we don’t directly oversee any of these functions. We have no power to do any of it. Our role is to be a sustainability generalist and then to develop questions and frameworks to understand how these systems work independently and together—so that, in the aggregate, does it lead to a sustainable Yale?”

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