An effort in sustainability: the University's plans for a greener campus

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.

"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. These students work with University Operations staff to examine what is being done on campus now and what can be done in the future.

“(Their job is to) put together a set of recommendations for President Coleman on establishing a set of sustainability goals for the campus,” Scavia said.

Scavia said in a University press release that the first phase of the project was about “generating well-informed ideas that could potentially move the University of Michigan forward in our campus sustainability efforts.” Recently Scavia has moved the project into Phase Two, satisfied with the initiative's progress.

In Phase Two, the University is looking to develop plans in several areas based on the information synthesized from Phase One. One possible goal is developing more sustainable building and renovation plans on projects that cost less than $10 million, decreasing its use of herbicides and pesticides and buy more locally grown food for the University.

Education and Research

The University currently offers several hundred courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level that focus on sustainability, according to the Office of Sustainability’s website, and the Program in the Environment is the fastest-growing LSA major.

But Scavia wants to ensure that education about the environment initiative doesn’t end with only those students who major in the subject. To do this, he put together a provost seminar about sustainability last spring along with the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. He also wants to bring more green education directly into the classroom.

Scavia and the Executive Committee are working with schools across the University to develop new courses in sustainability with the School of Natural Resources and the Environment taking the lead on the research and education front.

“The instruction of sustainability covers a much larger stage (than the campus sustainability initiative). It is essentially global in its orientation and its ambition,” said Arun Agrawal, a professor and research associate dean in the SNRE.

The SNRE has expanded greatly in recent years creating the need for a larger staff and a wider variety of courses to meet its students’ needs. A unique obstacle to SNRE is the ever-evolving issues the environment faces. Offered classes must keep up with new information and issues, Argawal said.

Agrawal further explained that SNRE will expand in newly developing areas of research, like climate change and ecosystem services, to bring the University to “the forefront of research of the most important environmental challenges that emerge.”

Operations and Co-curricular Education

To meet the demands of Coleman’s initiative, Scavia has been working with the Office of Campus Sustainability to study campus behavior and discuss possible initiatives in town hall meetings.

In Phase One of the assessment, the analysis teams received about 200 students ideas, comments and suggestions through these meetings and online, according to a University press release. In order to gather and implement more ideas and information, the University also hosted an event in July to examine similar initiatives at other universities and organizations.

While these town hall meetings are open to the entire University community, many of the participants are members of the Student Sustainability Initiative — an entirely student-based project made up of students across colleges and disciplines to spread environmental awareness and to promote change on campus. SSI also helps organize numerous sustainability projects that various campus organizations undertake.

Lisa Pappas, marketing communications specialist for the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, said the overall campus sustainability initiative, as proposed by President Coleman and directed by Scavia, is about taking action to become a more sustainable society so that it can lead by example in green initiatives occuring across the country. The Integrated Assessment project among others at the University can research and define ways the University can be used as a potential test run and showcase of ideas to help the environment on a larger scale.

“It’s just a very good opportunity to use the campus as a living laboratory for implementing sustainability improvements on campus, kind of like starting close to home,” she said. “And if we can be successful here, then people can go be successful elsewhere.”

The Green Wolverine

Within the masses of the sustainability initiative as well as the individuals in the SNRE, there seems to be a consensus that in order for anything to actually happen, a cultural and social change is necessary.

“There’s only so much you can do with tweaking the technologies, a lot of what we need to do is get people more aware of turning off the water, turning off the light, just changing their behaviors to become more sustainable,” Scavia said.

To this end, there is a team of people doing research on incentives that can be implemented to promote conservation as a way of thinking. Researchers are also working to overcome the challenge of measuring the obscure and elusive factor that is the culture of sustainability.

Agrawal said what the campus needs is to promote awareness of environmental sustainability and sustainability issues, coupled with activities that encourage student participation.

“So I think by participating in work that is environmentally conscious and environmentally positive, we can create a culture among our students that makes sustainability a more important value for everyone,” he said. “Consciousness alone doesn’t do it, you have to encourage things to happen.”

The University has promoted environmental awareness and social change through its annual Energy Fest, where students can learn about “energy conservation, energy efficiency and alternative energy technologies,” according to the Utilities and Plant Operations website. The University also took part in Earth Fest, an event to promote sustainability through various fun educational activities.

Scavia said one of his additional goals is to make the University more appealing for potential students interested in learning about environmental issues to build a foundation for future careers or simply to implement into day-to-day life. But he also wants to focus on making a change in the students who are already here.

Students who attended freshmen orientation this past summer received a 21-page guide called “How to be a Green Wolverine.” The packet, which can be found on the Graham Institute’s Website and in residence halls, provided incoming students with information about buying local produce, conservation and instructions for throwing sustainable parties, among other environmental tips.

For co-chair of the Environmental Law Society Augustus Winkes, it was the idea of shared responsibility that prompted him to get involved with sustainability initiatives in the first place.

“Too often, I think, students are so focused on their chosen areas of study that they can forget about their relationship to the bigger institution they are part of,” said Winkes, a Law student and masters candidate. “SSI reinforces the notion that we all have a stake in how the University addresses sustainability issues … Moreover, sustainability will not be achievable unless we to work together.”