The issue of Sustainability at the University of Michigan took on greater meaning last year when President Mary Sue Coleman stated in her annual state of University speech that "U-M is strengthening its long-standing commitment to sustainability across the board – in Education, Research, Operations and Engagement." Kevin Brown of the University Record sat down recently with three U-M sustainability leaders – Terry Alexander, Executive Director for the Office of Campus Sustainability, Prof. Don Scavia, Special Counsel to President Coleman for Sustainability and Graham Family Professor of Environmental Sustainability, Professor of Natural Resources and Environment, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute, and Ryan Smith of the Student Sustainability Initiative – to get updated on what has been happening the past year on this important institutional topic.
Kevin Brown: Let’s start by defining what sustainability is at U of M?
Don Scavia: Sustainability is using the earth’s resources in ways that satisfy our needs, but don’t impede future generations from satisfying their needs.
Kevin Brown: What’s the overarching goal for this initiative?
Terry Alexander: The overarching goal that’s been set by President Coleman is to have the University of Michigan recognized as a world-class leader in sustainability. Internally, I think it goes beyond that in terms of striking the balance between being as green and sustainable as possible from the environmental standpoint, balanced against the mission of the University to educate and perform world-class research, balanced against the economic realities that we all live with.
Kevin Brown: Why is this important to pursue?
Ryan Smith: I think it’s a matter of just caring about one another. Since at its core, sustainability is an issue about the human race, it’s increasing your consciousness to that level.
Alexander: The other piece is it is no secret the world is facing a crisis when it comes to resources, energy, population, and the climate change issues that are happening. So everything we can do operationally to make the campus greener, helping to educate the next generation of leaders who are going to help us fix the world, to world-class research that’s going to lead to solutions of these problems -- all of these combined will help us fix the issues that are affecting us today.
Brown: Planet Blue, The Sustainable Difference, has been unveiled as the brand and tagline for U-M Sustainability. Why was this chosen and what should the campus community take from this?
Scavia: It was chosen for a number of reasons. One, in a simple phrase it really tells the whole story. It is about Planet Blue. It’s also about sustaining the long-term traditions that we have at U-M focused on the environment, and it builds on a very strong, well-recognized internal program called Planet Blue (Operations Team) which has great brand recognition.
Brown: How does this effort bring the core components of research, academics, and operations together?
Scavia: As Terry pointed our earlier, the University is ideally suited to advance the education of future leaders, the research that’s needed to solve problems, and to continuously improve the operations here on campus. But doing them in isolation is not good enough. Bringing them together is where I think we are going to make a huge difference.
One example of this collaboration is the Integrated Assessment project, which has brought together operations people with students and faculty to understand what we are doing now and how we can do better in the future.
We are also advancing this idea in our classrooms. We have a new course called Sustainability in the Campus, where the students not only learn about sustainability and sustainability practices, but are working with the operations folks on real-world problems and real-world projects.
Alexander: I think one of the key things we are trying to get out of this effort is to create more of a living and learning environment for the students, so that when they have something they want to study and research -- and we have the similar problem on campus -- we connect the two and make it happen locally rather than having students go off to another part of the world to try and do the research.
Brown: Talking about the core components of research, academics, and operations, what examples can you give of achievements that have resulted in each of these key areas since President Coleman announced in the fall of 2009 that U-M was strengthening its commitment to sustainability?
Scavia: We have a long list, and I think one of the most important examples on the operations side was making LEED Silver our policy for new construction on campus. It adds to an already strong energy requirement that we have for construction projects..
On the education side, we held the Provost's Seminar on Teaching last spring with a focus on sustainability where 250 U-M faculty with interest and experience in teaching gathered together to share ideas. We are following up on that by looking for ways to better integrate sustainability principles into our curriculum.
We’ve also launched a new undergraduate scholars program in sustainability.
Our first cohort of 25 juniors will be starting in the fall, taking a special series of courses to get a certificate in sustainability.
Smith: I definitely think starting the Student Sustainability initiative back a few years ago really helped solidify the student base for this. Seeing what the students think about the issues and really getting that voice represented, in tandem with the faculty and staff of the university really creates a complete image of sustainability.
Brown: What are the actual numbers of the student initiative?
Smith: Before the SSI existed, there were disparate groups on campus – probably 30 or more -- representing different environmental issues. Now, those groups can come together in a consortium which is the SSI and serve as a single, unified voice to the administration. We have what we call the SSI Roundtable of which 250 to 300 students are in our base with intentions of growing that number as people learn more and more about how important this issue is.
Scavia: I understand there are about 7,000 students in those 30 organizations that are now coming together through the SSI.
Alexander: I want to point out that on the subject of our new LEED policy, we started looking at whether to adopt LEED as a construction policy on campus at the urging of various groups which included students, alumni, and faculty.
There are many reasons -- pro and con -- on this issue with a major one being the additional cost for building to LEED specifications. We have been constructing buildings on campus in a very green manner for a number of years, and we have design guidelines today that include sustainability activities such as energy policies, water conservation and indoor environmental quality.
One of challenges was quantifying the benefits of adopting LEED. What’s the benefit of being able to attract top level faculty, researchers and students to the campus? What’s the benefit of attracting donors that have a very strong leaning towards sustainability and want to do things with the University, but want to be sure the University is doing things in a sustainable manner? These are important subjects, but difficult to quantify.
So it really came down to a qualitative decision by the Executive Sustainability Committee that is chaired by President Coleman, as to the benefits of adding the additional cost for LEED certification. When we did the study, we discovered that based on the policies we already had in place we were almost all the way to being LEED certified.
Smith: LEED Silver was also advocated by the student body as I said before, so really this was a great effort on all sides.
Alexander: You asked earlier of an example of the benefit of this collaborative process? I would say this meeting is a prime example. Until this year, it would have been very difficult to get the student, faculty and operational leadership to sit down and have this kind of discussion because there really was no single leader at the top of each of those areas looking at sustainability. Now we get together several times a month, talk about the issues, figure out how we can act on them, and move forward.
Brown: When President Coleman made her declaration last fall that U-M was strengthening its commitment to sustainability, she referenced the University’s long-standing commitment to sustainability. Talk about this from the University’s perspective.
Scavia: One really good example was the establishment of the Erb Institute, which is now 15 years old. Through the wisdom of the Erb family to support that program, we have probably the best dual Master’s degree with Business and Natural Resources in the country. Well respected by other schools, by the business community, by the natural resource community, and that’s been in place for 15 years.
We have strong natural resource-based programs in our Biological Station and other field sites. Our Center for Sustainable Systems in the School of Natural Resources has been in place for more than a decade. So we have been in this business for quite some time.
Alexander: From the operations side, we have been dealing with environmental issues for decades. We had one of the earliest campus recycling programs and our recycling program at the football stadium has been the largest in the country for several decades. We have one of the largest fleets of alternative fuel vehicles for an academic institution, with a little over 500 vehicles that operate on alternative fuels. Our bus system keeps expanding every year. We have approximately 6 million riders a year on the U-M Bus System, and over the last couple of years we have put programs in place with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority so that faculty, students and staff can ride for free on those buses.
The University subsidizes those rides, but it's a real benefit to get mass transit in place.
We have had storm water programs underway for almost 15 years on campus. We constructed a large wetland system up on North Campus by the Art and Architecture Building that captures the run-off from approximately 80 acres that cleans the water before it infiltrates into the ground.
We’ve been an ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year with the EPA, our power plant has received numerous awards from the EPA for energy conservation -- so sustainability is not new to us.
Smith: I think it's really important to have had this long-term commitment to something that invokes long-term change. Many of today’s changes are for the future, and I think the student body is really excited about it.
Scavia: And that is the essence behind The Sustainable Difference tagline.
Brown: So for the average person at the University, why should they care about sustainability as an issue? What can they do to help move the initiative forward?
Smith: For the average student, sustainability is about understanding how the world works and where things come from and where things go. Usually, people’s minds tend not think about certain aspects of how they live -- say, where their food comes from or where their waste goes after they are done with it. Thinking about sustainable concepts really expands your mind to better understand these things.
Students come here from all over the world to gain knowledge about the world, and thinking about sustainability is one of the ways to do that. It's really something that leads you to think more about how the world works and to challenge yourself to be treat it better for the betterment of not only the planet, but for the human race.
Alexander: From a practical aspect, one of the biggest drivers on this campus from a cost standpoint is energy. Our energy bill on a campus is around $110 million a year, and the more that we can do to reduce that cost the more investment we can make in programs on campus and with our facilities.
We have a project that’s been underway for a couple of years now called Planet Blue, which is where the sustainability tagline grew out of. The Planet Blue Operations Teams go into buildings and work to fine tune the systems and engage building occupants on how to operate the buildings correctly. Out of the first 35 buildings that we have completed so far, we are seeing about $3 million a year energy savings. That’s substantial when you think about the budget situation that we are in.
Scavia: I really want to underscore that in our current budget climate, the less we use resources and the more we reuse and recycle, the more flexibility we have to invest in new education programs, new and better facilities, and new and better research. It's one of these great opportunities where it’s not only the right thing to do, but it's also the economically smart thing to do.
Brown: What is the Integrated Assessment Project currently underway here at the University?
Scavia: This is an example of the partnership between operations and academics, with really strong student engagement. When President Coleman kicked off the overall initiative, one of our charges was to look across the campus to see where we are, with respect to our past and in relation to other universities, and think about how we might do new things to improve campus sustainability.
We established seven teams -- each led by a faculty member, each staffed by students, and each advised and supported by operations folks -- to look at areas like buildings, energy, water, transportation, and other aspects of the campus to benchmark where we are now and to give us some ideas of where we might want to go in the future.
Alexander: The ultimate outcome is for our three to five long-term goals -- probably like ten-year goals -- that we can use to help move the University forward and help change people’s attitudes. A lot of sustainability is changing technology and doing things that you can improve from a physical standpoint, but a huge piece of sustainability is really getting at people’s attitudes and changing the way they think and act.
Brown: What’s been learned from the Integrated Assessment so far?
Smith: I was on the Culture Team, and it was very interesting looking at how people behave and the personal aspect of sustainability and what influences people’s decisions. I was really struck at how often sustainable issues came back to what motivates people to do things. The more we thought about that, the more our wheels got turning about ways we can improve the enrichment of the campus culture in terms of awareness, excitement, and overall interest.
Even more important was translating that culture to change behavior -- recycling more, people riding their bikes more, people walking more. It was really a mind challenge that was exciting for me and definitely led to some, “whoa, I never thought about that” kind of moments.
Scavia: What has surprised me about the process is the level of engagement. We held a couple of town hall meetings and hundreds of faculty students and staff came to those, to give us recommendations and advice on where to move forward.
We had a web site to collect ideas, and more than 200 submissions came in as part of the process. What was really enlightening is how much this campus is engaged in this effort and interested in how it moves forward.
Brown: Can you describe the timeline for the project?
Scavia: Phase 1 was completed at the end of the spring semester, and over the summer the Integration Team developed a strategy for Phase 2 which will start soon. When Phase 2 is completed at the end of the semester, a synthesized set of ideas and recommendations will go to President Coleman in early 2011.
Brown: What's being done at the University to enhance the educational opportunities to learn about sustainability?
Scavia: We talked a little bit earlier about the Provost’s Seminars on Teaching that evolved into a set of ideas that a faculty group is looking at to determine how we might integrate more sustainability principles into existing courses, as well as what new courses might be required to fill some gaps, and even exploring ideas of potential undergraduate majors and minors in sustainability.
We launched the Undergraduate Sustainability Scholars Program, so that’s a new activity for students, and we have been working with the Division of Student Affairs on a whole series of co-curricular activities where we can provide more opportunities for students to learn about sustainability in the places they live, as well as through internships and other programs.
Alexander: I want to follow up on Don’s mention of the sustainability course, which has really been a neat way to engage students with operational problems on campus.
I’ll give you some examples. One of the groups looked at developing a new student guide for how students can be more sustainable. The result is this semester when students arrived at their residence halls there was a pamphlet in everybody’s room that gives them ideas on how to act and be more green now that they are citizens of this campus.
Another student group looked at different bicycle programs and how we might be able to get more bicycle ridership in the campus population. There was a group that looked at the dining services to see if there was a way to improve sustainability in dining.
So all of these class projects are engaging students in things that we have going on operationally and that maybe there are questions we never thought to ask but are great questions worth asking.
Scavia: And student demand for that course is growing. On first offering we had 25 students, the second offering was 45, and now we are doing 45 students twice a year and we still have a long waiting list for the class.
Brown: So how does research figure into the sustainability agenda?
Scavia: Research is ultimately going to be the engine that moves us forward on sustainability. Developing new and more energy efficient technologies, designing better and more efficient building designs, understanding the human dimension, understanding what motivates people, what behavior changes are required to move forward. All of those research endeavors, whether it's through technology, the natural resources or social sciences, are going to be critical for really understanding how we need to move forward.
Alexander: And the Integrated Assessment is essentially a research project. This isn’t something that we have done before, and it’s not something been used to tackle this type of a problem. One of the things going into this was, we wanted to find a collaborative way to engage the community in establishing these goals for the campus. I have talked to other campuses, and they might get a group of operational people to sit down determine what can be established as a water reduction or energy goal. They come up with a number.
But our view is it is better if you engage the community in the upfront part of the process, because they will be more engaged in helping you reach those goals at the back end.
Alexander: And alumni and community members that you may never even think about are giving us input. So we have a lot of stakeholders on this project.
Scavia: On top of that, it’s being done at a scale that I don’t think has been done before. When you think of the scale, the size and scope of the University of Michigan, with a number of buildings, the population that we serve -- it’s like doing a comprehensive analysis for a good sized city. So it should be a model for other places as well.
Brown: Any plans to share the findings from the Integrated Assessment with any policymaking government or civic organizations?
Scavia: Yes. One example was the forum held in July with government, industry and community representatives, to share with them what we have learned and for them to share with us their experiences in sustainability design on their campuses, organizations and communities. The people involved in the overall design implementation are also taking their experiences to conferences and to other workshops to explore and share what’s been learned and the process for how we got to this point.
Brown: What’s the biggest challenge with a program like sustainability at U-M?
Alexander: Well a lot of people might think it’s just figuring out the technology to make things greener and more sustainable, but I found that the biggest challenge that we face is striking that balance between becoming very green, being able to do it without hurting the University financially, and blending this with one of the biggest parts of the University’s mission which is research. It’s about the breakthroughs that are going to solve world’s problems in medical research, engineering, social sciences, and getting to these answers in the most responsible manner possible.
Research takes resources. Research takes a lot of energy, when you talk about having high technology lab buildings that use a lot of energy. But you have to strike that balance between the benefits of that kind of research that’s out there in the world, versus do we just stop doing research because it costs too much and it creates too much carbon? The real issue is finding a way to do this vitally important research as efficiently as possible.
So the biggest challenge I found is finding that balance between all three parts of sustainability -- economic, environmental, and the social aspects.