BY SABIRA KHAN
Published November 7, 2010
The environment has long been a concern to faculty and administrators at the University. It can be seen in efforts to encourage recycling in the residence halls or in policies that require eco-friendly construction of buildings. But amid growing national support for sustainability, President Mary Sue Coleman has recently vocalized her desire to increase the amount of effort and attention the University community places on the environment.
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"With the pressing challenge of climate change, we are elevating our emphasis on sustainability at Michigan,” Coleman said in a 2009 press release. “From teaching and research, to hands-on engagement, we are going to leverage our many strengths so we can make significant contributions to solving a genuinely complicated problem.”
To accomplish these goals, the University is taking a three-pronged approach that explores a balance between daily activities and lifestyles and Earth’s resources and processes, focusing specifically on education, research and campus operations. The ultimate goal is to manage the development of both the University and the world at large in a way that will promote the health and wellbeing of the planet.
Campus Sustainability Integrated Assessment
To ensure this goal is a University-wide commitment and not simply a student-activist effort, Coleman created the Office of Sustainability last year and established a new position, Special Counsel to the President for Sustainability. Engineering professor Don Scavia, who also serves as director of the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, was the first to be chosen for the role.
Scavia has been using resources provided by the Graham Institute — an interdisciplinary partnership that manages and coordinates the University’s sustainability initiative — and working with the Office of Campus Sustainability to evaluate the campus’s current carbon footprint. This work comprises the Campus Sustainability Integrated Assessment, through the Environmental Sustainability Executive Council Coleman created in October of last year.
“The long-term goal is to support the kind of research that can help tackle some of those complicated sustainability problems in the globe and to have a more sustainable campus so that we’re actually walking the talk as we go forward,” Scavia said in a phone interview.
To accomplish these goals, Scavia is working alongside faculty, staff and students on the Campus Sustainability Integrated Assessment to research and make recommendations in seven core areas: buildings, energy sources, transportation, land and water, food, purchasing and recycling and culture, according to the Graham Institute’s website. A final report will be printed and shared once the assessment is completed.
Despite the chaotic schedule that accompanies his multiple roles at the University, Scavia is passionate about the environment and his ability to help it. He has been interested in the subject since he was an undergraduate, and had worked for the federal government on environmental policy for 30 years before coming to the University as a professor.
“One of the things that I came to learn through all that process was that focusing on the environment by itself is not going to get us very far in terms of overall sustainability,” he said. “But you really need to bring together perspectives from the environment, from the economy and from the social structures and policy making to really move forward in sustainability.”
In order to bring together these different perspectives, Coleman’s sustainability initiative is just as dependent on student minds as it is on distinguished faculty. About 45 students hired by the Graham Institute were divided into seven faculty-led teams to discuss solutions to these various issues. Their ideas were then divided into five main categories: climate, human health, ecosystem health, materials footprint and community awareness.