Why institutions should invest in sustainability practices
- While many institutions have already embraced practices like recycling, bike share and energy-efficient design for buildings, "much more is needed to achieve carbon neutrality," higher ed facility and operations management expert Ron Gregory recently told Education Dive. What will really make a difference, he said, is building a culture around sustainable practices on campus, like switching off unused lights and turning down thermostats, and even having an institution's IT team "set public computers to automatically sleep when not in use."
- Gregory mentioned that institutions can save significant amounts of money by adopting such practices; for instance, "by simply turning off heating and cooling equipment a few minutes before official 'after-hours' begins in a group of buildings, you may be able to save tens of thousands of dollars annually without anyone even noticing." Being eco-friendly is really not an option for the higher ed business model anymore, he said, as many more institutions are showing they promote sustainability via the Carbon Commitment — an agreement whereby presidents and chancellors of postsecondary institutions commit to addressing climate change.
- Industry leaders like Chatham University President David Finegold have publicly claimed that institutions have a unique obligation to address climate change, explaining "it is our mission to develop the next generation of informed citizens and champions of change [and] participating in global discussions and creating long-term partnerships is one way to do that.”
Incorporating sustainability practices into campus operations can go a long way in signaling to the industry, as well as prospective students concerned about the trajectory of climate change, that the institution is committed to bettering the overall community. When he was presented with a challenge to renovate existing buildings on campus, Goucher College President José Bowen explained that sustainability was at the forefront of his mind, not only to save costs, but to send a message to his students that the school is forward-thinking and committed to building an overall worthwhile positive living environment:
"Students are looking at a lot of things — the curriculum, the dining hall. But where you're going to live is still on the top list of things that matter to students, the quality of the community you're going to build is important to them," said Bowen. And Gregory adds to this sentiment, noting "green programs can engage students, inspire alumni, reduce human exposure to chemical, biological and particle hazards, and deepen your community’s engagement in a healthy, sustainable campus."
To address this reality, schools like Pitzer College have actually created investment committees to make sure the institution isn't investing its endowment in fossil fuel companies, but rather environmentally and socially conscious ones. But institutions can start with smaller steps, said Gregory, like building a culture around how students are using energy on campus, to make small but long-term changes.
"Another inexpensive step is to create landscaping with native plants that thrive with minimum fertilizer or water. You can even make your own mulch from food and landscape waste. Water also can be recycled on a small or large scale, and used to water landscapes, sports fields, chillers, laundry and more," he suggested.
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