While most students base their college decisions on academic and social factors, 63 percent of students polled by The Princeton Review’s most recent “College Hopes and Worries Survey” cited environmental friendliness as criteria for applying to college.
Among several publications that have recently highlighted the growing trend of campus greenness, Wesleyan Magazine’s article “Sustainability Grows Roots” (Issue II, 2008) and The Princeton Review’s new “campus greenness rating,” of which the University scored a 92 out of 99, illustrate the significance placed on environmentalism in college communities. Environmental sustainability is growing throughout the country, and campuses are leading the effort to modify their impact on the environment.
Last year, President Michael Roth signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which pledges that the University will make the campus “climate neutral” by reaching zero emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. This initiative was pushed both to improve the University’s commitment to environmental sustainability and to distinguish the University from other colleges.
While several other universities have embarked on more ambitious projects to green their campuses—Middlebury now has a biomass plant on its campus—the University’s efforts continue to be limited by its small endowment.
“While we rate well in terms of greenness, we’re still not as green as we should be,” said Jacob Mirsky G’09, a long-time member of the Environmental Organizers Network (EON). “Wesleyan produces a fraction of 1 percent of its own electricity from renewable sources, and only two wood frame houses are geothermal. Compared to other colleges, such as Middlebury, Harvard, or Oberlin, Wesleyan is behind the curve.”
With an annual budget of approximately $160 million and an endowment of approximately $720 million (March 2008), the University trails behind other small, liberal arts institutions, such as Williams College, which boasts an endowment of approximately $1.9 billion, and Amherst College, which has an endowment of approximately $1.6 billion. As a result, Wesleyan has been unable to implement bigger and costlier initiatives.
“Most of what’s being accomplished on campus now is done under the theme of saving money,” Mirsky said. “If Wesleyan had more money to play with, it would be easier to make political and moral statements about the environment, not just economic decisions. Most of the big environmental decisions that happen on campus revolve around the administration’s desire to save money.”
When members of EON recently attempted to reach out to alumni to raise money for a seed fund for environmental initiatives, the response was minimal.
“We sent thousands of letters to Wes alumni from the past decade, and raised $900,” Mirsky said. “Harvard has made similar efforts and now has $6 million in their fund.”
While funding is a significant factor for implementing initiatives on campus, this is not unique to issues of greenness. Nevertheless, according to Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Barry Chernoff, parents, students and alumni need to make a concerted effort to raise funding for green projects on campus.
“The spirit is here to make change, but how do we apportion funding to these projects?” Chernoff said. “Roth is committed towards building a more sustainable institution, but funding is always an issue.”
According to Chernoff, the administration has been very receptive to changing its policies to better the campus’s relationship with the environment.
“The institution has been making many changes in its policies,” Chernoff said. “The Fauver dorms are good examples of the green projects that the school has been building. Every new project on campus is being done in a sustainable way, and the administration is shooting for LEED [Leadership in Environmental Energy and Design] silver for its newest buildings.”
A team of LEED-certified architects is designing the upcoming projects and renovations on campus. LEED, The Leadership in Environmental Energy and Design, is a green building rating system that promotes sustainability.
Several projects were completed on campus this past summer, including the construction of multiple new senior student houses, which were built with geothermal heating and cooling. Additionally, 13 woodframe houses received new windows, seven were insulated, and new hot water lines were installed in High Rise, which will provide hot water while saving on energy and cost.
“These new efforts are particularly important because 40 percent of energy consumed on this campus is by the woodframe houses,” Mirsky said. “It’s good that the school is slowly putting in prototypes and making renovations, but with more than 150 wood frames, it’s going to take a lot of effort and money.”
According to the University’s September 2008 Sustainability Report, solar PV electric panels are planned for the newest senior house opening on Fountain Avenue this winter, a new CoGeneration plant is being installed at the Central Power Plant, and the Davenport Campus Center is being redesigned to LEED’s silver standards for the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life.
But while the University has taken massive steps to lessen its impact on the environment, Chernoff says it still has plenty more to do.
“Are we there yet? No,” Chernoff said. “The University still has a long way to go, but we’ve taken giant steps so far.”
EON has been pushing the administration to hire a director of sustainability, who would coordinate environmental efforts on campus and promote awareness, but according to Mirsky, Roth explicitly said that he does not have money in the budget to hire one. As a result, the University is considering sharing the position with Tufts University, which, like several other colleges, already has a sustainability director in place.
“Unlike other schools, Wesleyan can’t throw around money, which is limiting in what the University can do to better the environment,” Mirsky said. “To promote greenness on campus, the school needs to create additional avenues for fundraising, because right now the University is caught up with finding the $160 million it needs for the new science center. If the University wants to make environmental sustainability a priority, we need a reliable source of capital to initiate these projects.”
Nevertheless, the University is making progress in greening the campus, and while funding may be an issue, several projects are already seeing the benefits and results of going green.
“We do these green projects because they are the right thing to do; sometimes they cost money, and sometimes we save money,” said John Meerts, vice president for Finance and Administration. “As an example, our CoGeneration facility clearly saves us money on an otherwise exploding utility bill, but it also is good for the environment.”
According to Meerts, while the payback on these initiatives—particularly putting solar panels on a new senior house on Fountain Avenue—may take several decades, the University has been making an effort to implement these projects if the funding is available.
“The new senior house going up will have solar panels, and we can do it because the magnitude of the expense is manageable within the context of the overall construction project,” Meerts said. “We have LEED-certified buildings on campus which both cost money, in terms of the certification and the initial investment, and then save money, in some cases, because they are more efficient.”
While larger-scale projects are costlier for the campus, many smaller efforts can still be made to reduce the impact students have on the environment.
“There are many places on campus where the lights never turn off, such as in Pi Café,” Mirsky said. “For one-third of the day, the lights stay on in Pi with no benefit; this is also true in Usdan. In the computer labs in Hall-Atwater, signs are posted that say ’Please don’t turn computers off.’ I go around at times turning them off because it’s such a waste of energy and usually there are only two or three students using the computers.”