About 50 students and professors filed into Rosenfeld Hall on Thursday afternoon for a panel discussion featuring three environmental experts from various institutions of higher education discussing the challenges of implementing sustainable policies at universities. The discussion concluded Yale’s Sustainability Summit, a four-day conference that began March 31 with the aim of furthering the pursuit and understanding of sustainability on campus.
The panel featured Davis Bookhart, director of the Johns Hopkins Sustainable Initiative since 2006; Leith Sharp, who started the Harvard Green Campus Initiative in 2000; and Yale’s own Julie Newman, who has directed Yale’s Office of Sustainability since 2004.
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“We thought it’d be interesting to think really critically about how each school approaches sustainability,” panel organizer Sara Smiley Smith FES ’13 said.
Among Yale’s methods for remaining environmentally friendly are the operation of the Yale Farm, efforts to encourage students to use fluorescent light bulbs and use eco-friendly computers, and the opening of the new all-organic Thain Family Cafe. Yale has reduced its carbon emissions by 17 percent since 2005, University President Richard Levin announced in January.
Harvard’s initiative follows an entrepreneurial model, which emphasizes the financial benefits of environmental mindfulness, Sharp said. In the fiscal year 2007, the initiative saved Harvard more than $6 million at the cost of only $1.7 million, Sharp explained.
Sharp said this business-like model is a strength of Harvard’s initiative, as it provides the financial wherewithal and manpower necessary to implement sustainable changes at the university.
Johns Hopkins has a more decentralized campus than the other schools, being divided into various academic divisions. Bookhart said sustainability is among administrators’ highest priorities.
“The sustainability committee is the one thing we have that bridges all 10 academic divisions,” he said.
Newman discussed her problems in making Yale a “leader in sustainability” while the University is at the same time pushing for physical expansion. Oftentimes, Newman said, she has to remind other administrators about the long-term effects of Yale’s growth on the environment, including the increased consumption of resources.
After discussing their respective green initiatives, the panelists shared thoughts on sustainability in general, specifically how universities can collaborate in designing successful programs.
“How do we address sustainability individually and collectively?” Newman asked. “Collectively is more difficult, but it is what drives this program.”
All three directors agreed that the process of making a school sustainable hinges on three things: resource efficiency, education, and faculty and student involvement. Although these require that the universities change the way they operate, Sharp said the directors “are here to take the pain out of the change process.”
Bookhart said sustainability initiatives are especially challenging because of their interdisciplinary nature, as they require specialists in economics, psychology and sociology, among other fields.
Those obstacles aside, however, the directors said they are optimistic about the continued success of the sustainability programs at their schools.
“We’re really here to talk about what to do as a school 20 to 30 years from now,” Bookhart explained.
“For the first time, we’re having our university presidents saying that this is not only in academics,” Newman said, referring to Levin’s role in Yale’s sustainability initiative. “We’re reshaping our institutions through sustainability.”
Levin testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about the dangers of global warming Thursday.
In addition, Sharp said, universities can contribute to the betterment of society as a whole by providing models of successful sustainability. But Bookhart said the energy and initiative behind each university’s green program comes from outside the administration.
“Anything that happens with sustainability comes from the students and the faculty,” he said.
Student reaction to the panel was generally positive.
“I think that this was a really important opportunity to share ideas between institutions,” Sean Pool ’08 said.
Jason Rauch FES ’12 said he was interested in the paradoxical relationship “between sustainability and expediting change.”
Laura Frye-Levine FES ’08 said she learned that environmental programs require outside input to survive.
“The idea of getting departmental buy-in and community buy-in is important to sustainability initiatives,” she said.