UW Oshkosh

Sustainability 101: Higher Education Goes 'Green'

By Jaime Hunt

A buzzword in the late 1980s and early 1990s, sustainability has risen again to the forefront, particularly in higher education.

And that's a good thing, considering that 63 percent of the 14.4 million college students in the United States say they consider a campus's commitment to green principles when making a decision about attending a college or university, according to the Princeton Review Green Ratings.

"Students are asking their schools to do more," said Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in an interview Sept. 18. "When you combine that with communities looking for leadership and businesses looking to hire people with an understanding of sustainability, it really becomes an issue for higher education.

"Higher education really has three major roles in the sustainability movement," Dautremont-Smith added. "One is providing graduates who understand sustainability. Another is providing research. The move toward sustainability is going to require research into a variety of subjects from behavioral change to new energy. Finally, higher education can provide a model of sustainable practice - whether by building buildings, using renewable energy, conserving water or using green products."

Changing curriculum
Inspiring students to be critical thinkers who can bridge the gap between understanding sustainability and actually making progress toward a more sustainable future is a critical role of higher education, said David Barnhill, the environmental studies program chair and a strong advocate of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh's green efforts.

"Teaching students about sustainability is a complex thing," Barnhill said. "But that is more important than reducing our energy consumption or, really, anything else we do. What's most important is our role engaging the idea of sustainability and its values and philosophy. We get students thinking about sustainability, and that is what makes change happen."

Students who have a keen interest in sustainability can go a step further and pursue an environmental studies major or minor. Gaining major status in 2002, the program has grown from 20 students to 80 students in five years.

Taking a multidisciplinary approach, the program offers coursework not only in the sciences, but also in the social sciences, philosophy, business and English.

"We want well-rounded students to come out of the program," Barnhill said. "We want scientists who are able to talk about the philosophy and ethics of sustainability or business leaders who will have an understanding of how their actions affect the rest of the world. It's truly a unique approach."

Leading the nation
But sustainability is not only about the environment; it encompasses social justice as well. This fall, UW Oshkosh made national headlines when it announced it would be the first Fair Trade University in the country.

By making the commitment, the University has resolved to sell Fair Trade Certified coffee, tea and chocolate in all its dining establishments, at catered functions and in department offices whenever feasible.

Fair trade products have been produced by providing artisans and farmers with a living wage for their work and humane working conditions, while also protecting the environment.
For the past seven years, the University also has been a member of the Fair Labor Association and works only with vendors who have been inspected by the organization and certified as not subjecting employees to sweatshop conditions. That means all clothing sold on campus has been made in humane conditions.

"Becoming a Fair Trade University is a natural next step for us," said Petra Roter, vice chancellor for student affairs. "This is part of who we are and demonstrates what we believe."

Becoming a model
Becoming green may seem an overwhelming endeavor. Encompassing waste management, energy efficiency, water conservation and carbon emissions reduction, sustainable practices require thought, planning and, often, cash. Many university campuses are as large as small cities, creating an environment ideal for modeling green practices.

According to AASHE, 550 college and university presidents representing about 30 percent of college students have signed the organization's Presidents Climate Commitment, pledging to eliminate their campuses' greenhouse gas emissions in a reasonable period of time. The steps universities that sign on to the pact are required to take include establishing a committee or task force to guide the process, completing an inventory of greenhouse gases within one year, creating a climate neutrality plan and integrating sustainability into the curriculum.

"Higher education is the only industry that has made a sector-wide commitment to carbon neutrality," Dautremont-Smith said.

Charged by Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle to eliminate its dependence on fossil fuels by 2012, the University took a major step in its own quest toward achieving carbon neutrality by partnering with Johnson Controls Inc. to analyze its current carbon footprint. The analysis is designed to help the University develop a clear picture of its greenhouse gas emissions by rigorously inventorying campus carbon emissions.

Combining those emissions into a campuswide inventory allows the University to determine the most cost-effective way to attain carbon neutrality. According to the carbon footprint study, the University emits 52,647 metric tons - or 4.15 tons per student - of carbon dioxide annually through building energy usage, student and staff commuting, solid waste disposal, fleet fuel consumption, business travel and refrigerant leakage. The University compares favorably with others who have self-reported their figures, according to a Sept. 22 article in Inside Higher Ed. The University of Colorado at Boulder reports 5.5 metric tons per student, while the University of New Mexico reports 8.5 and the University of Arkansas reports 10.6.

"The carbon footprint study is invaluable to us as we seek to better understand how we can get off the fossil-fuel grid in the future," Chancellor Richard H. Wells said. "Achieving carbon neutrality is a long-term proposition. In order to develop a realistic plan, it is necessary to establish a current baseline and also to forecast the likely increase in emissions as the University grows its programs, student body and facility footprint."

The University will continue to work with Johnson Controls to determine the most cost-effective ways to achieve carbon neutrality.

"As we look across the country, more and more colleges are beginning to develop programs to reduce their carbon footprints with the desire of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting our environment," said Jim Simpson, director of higher education/state government solutions for Johnson Controls. "UW Oshkosh has taken concrete steps to develop a plan and actions to execute the plan. Keys to success include knowledge and initiative; analyzing your carbon footprint is that important first step. Understanding current and projected emissions allows colleges and universities to prioritize and execute the best emissions reduction strategies."

"With all the discussion around sustainability, I appreciate Johnson Controls' assistance in developing an action plan with defined goals that will allow us to deliver results," said Tom Sonnleitner, chief financial officer.

UW Oshkosh also has taken a leadership role in Wisconsin by committing to construct its new, 175,000-square-foot academic center to gold LEED standards. It will be the first large, gold-certified green building in the state.

In addition, the University is in the process of hiring a campus sustainability director to help ensure that progress continues.

"We are committed to this," Chancellor Wells said. "We are not just 'greenwashing.' We are taking very real steps toward improving the sustainability of our campus."

"The University's efforts toward sustainability are very important," added art education junior Jane McKenzie. "They give substance to what a university should be: a positive place of change, action and direction for the entire community from local to global scale. We can be an example for others to follow through demonstrating good stewardship of our environment and through taking on humanitarian efforts.

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