‘Sustainability’ a catch phrase among universities

Many students may think Yale is the only school in the country with a separate office devoted entirely to sustainability — but they are mistaken.

Harvard has had a program devoted to sustainability since 2001, and Stanford’s first executive director of sustainability and energy management will begin his job on Nov. 7.

An increasing number of universities across the country are taking steps to improve campus sustainability, a goal Yale has embraced since the establishment of the Advisory Committee on Environmental Management in 2001. But while many top-ranked universities, like Yale, stress the importance of sustainable development and ongoing dialogue between students and administrators, schools attempt to make their campuses environmentally friendly in different ways.

Following the April 2007 creation of the Ivy Plus Sustainability Working Group, the University now pools plans and resources with other institutions in the Ivy League and beyond. The working group — which includes the eight Ivy League schools, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago — is intended to encourage the adoption of best practices by member schools.

This fall, Yale followed the lead of schools such as Harvard, Dartmouth and Stanford in creating a Sustainability Leaders Program, which will focus on promoting faculty and staff involvement in issues of sustainability.

Julie Newman, the director of Yale’s Office of Sustainability, said schools across the country are increasingly introducing initiatives to bolster campus sustainability.

“As campus sustainability becomes a more prevalent aspect of our campus missions, we are finding that not only is Yale committed to this, but so are many of our peer institutions,” she said.

Newman said the Yale Office of Sustainability has focused its resources on opening dialogue on sustainable practices within Yale and with other institutions in higher education. In April, Yale hosted the inaugural Ivy Plus Sustainability working group conference, and University officials attended the Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium Conference at Bowdoin College on Oct. 8-9, at which schools from across New England discussed strategies for reducing their negative impact on the environment.

“We really build ourselves up as the role of convener,” Newman said. “We are unique in that we have a comprehensive approach to sustainability, so we’re interested in engaging with people from all across campus.”

Other schools say they are working to emulate Yale’s “unique” approach.

At Cornell, university administrators said the school’s size mandates an inter-disciplinary approach to sustainable development. Cornell Sustainability Coordinator Dean Koyanagi said Cornell has decided to embed responsibility for sustainability in several different offices and staff rather than creating a separate sustainability office. He said this approach has worked well for Cornell because different departments on campus, such as the utilities office, have been working to make the school more sustainable for several years.

“It’s a more distributed hierarchy,” Koyanagi said. “I can help them as a coordinator, [but] it shouldn’t be that my office should be running around telling them what to do.”

At Stanford, the arid location has made sustainability one of administrators’ top priorities since the school was founded, Cleary said.

Both Cornell and Stanford differ from Yale in their approach to sustainable construction. Yale has mandated that all new buildings adhere to a set of standards known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which rank buildings as certified silver, gold or platinum in five different categories, ranging from sustainable construction to low energy emissions. Since 2005, the administration has required all new buildings at Yale to surpass the silver standard.

At Cornell, Koyanagi said administrators have instead focused on the retrofitting of existing buildings, which use less energy-efficient technology than new buildings. Koyanagi said retrofitting might provide “bigger bang for your buck” than focusing only on a handful of new buildings that are erected in a decade.

Stanford has rejected LEED standards altogether, Cleary said, because they do not adequately address the university’s unique programs and its northern California climate.

“We prefer to put the dollars we would spend on certification back into the buildings to increase their high-performance potential,” he said in an e-mail.

Still, Cleary said Stanford has analyzed its buildings to determine the equivalent LEED standard they would likely meet. The typical building at Stanford would likely receive at least a LEED silver designation, he said.

Cleary said the Graduate School of Business has sought to win LEED certification for a new building that would likely meet platinum standards, but he said, “it will not give them a higher performing, more sustainable building than what can be achieved through our guidelines.”

Instead, Cleary said, Stanford’s individualized protocols enable the university to be more environmentally friendly when designing a building than do the LEED standards.

“Our experience shows that blind adherence to the LEED standard can result in less than optimal choices for our buildings,” he said. “Our focus is on designing and building high-performance buildings, not chasing LEED points.”

The universities share a belief in the need for student involvement. Yale, Cornell and Stanford administrators all praised the activeness of student groups in promoting sustainability concerns.

Yale’s Office of Sustainability holds monthly “Student Sustainability Forums” in order to facilitate the exchange of ideas between different student groups focused on environmental issues. John Hinkle ’09, co-president of the Yale Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership, said the Yale organization serves as a liaison between students and the Office of Sustainability.

Similarly, members of environmentally-conscious student groups at Stanford said they benefit from their connections with the school’s existing Sustainability Working Group, which brings together staff, faculty and students in monthly meetings.

Kevan Christensen, president of Students for a Sustainable Stanford, said he has enjoyed working with people from across the university as the undergraduate representative on the Sustainability Working Group. He said the decentralized structure of the group has made it easy for members to work with different administrative departments.

While Yale students, faculty and staff do not hold joint meetings, Hinkle said, such meetings could be “a good thing to have.”

Carlos Rymer, president of Cornell’s “Sustainability Hub,” said student groups have found they are most productive when they work as a team with the university.

At Cornell, student groups are extending their reach beyond campus and have banded together to organize the “New York Climate Summit,” a convention being held from Nov. 16-18 at which students and other activists expect to draft an action plan that will urge the New York state government to significantly reduce emissions by 2050, Rymer said.

He said he would like to see more student groups from across the Ivy League working together to advance sustainability.

Despite differences in their structure and approaches to sustainability, student and administrative groups at the different schools said it is important for various campus groups to work collectively to increase awareness of pressing environmental issues.

“Our goal is to facilitate a culture of sustainability at Yale in the student body,” Hinkle said.

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