Sustainability 101: Higher Education Goes ‘Green’

A buzz word in the late 1980s and early 1990s, sustainability again has risen to the forefront, particularly in higher education. Universities play a critical role in advancing the “green” movement by conducting research; by providing graduates who understand sustainability; by serving as models for sustainable practices; and by exposing every student, faculty and staff member to sustainable principles.

The move toward sustainability requires research into a variety of subjects from behavioral change to new energy. Higher education can provide a model for sustainable practice -” whether by constructing energy-efficient buildings, using renewable energy, conserving water or using green products.

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.

Teaching students about sustainability is a complex thing, but that is no less important than reducing our energy consumption. What’s most important is our role in engaging the idea of sustainability and its values and philosophy. We get students thinking about sustainability, and that is what makes change happen.

But sustainability is not only about the environment; it encompasses social justice as well. This fall, the University of Wisconsin 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 use Fair Trade-certified coffee, tea and chocolate in all of its dining establishments, at catered functions and in department offices whenever feasible.

Fair Trade products have been produced by artisans and farmers who receive 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 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.

Charged by Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle to eliminate its dependence on fossil fuels by 2012, UW Oshkosh 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 the sources of campus carbon emissions.

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

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. The new building will be equipped with solar-thermal, photo-voltaic and green-roof technologies.

In addition, an existing former food-service building on campus is being converted to a student support center for advising, counseling and career services. The new facility will be served by a geothermal heat field, making it four times more energy efficient than a typical campus building. The University has hired a campus sustainability director to help ensure that progress continues in both curriculum offerings and operational efficiency.

We are not just “greenwashing.” We are committed to this. We are taking very real steps toward improving the sustainability of our campus.

Tom Sonnleitner, vice chancellor for Administrative Services at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, is one of the leading forces behind the University’s ongoing mission to make the campus more sustainable. He can be reached at [email protected].