College campuses were once thought to be hotbeds for environmental activism. Now rather than activism, many people see universities as the primary location for both research and courses on the environment, as well as projects that show how a large institution can be environmentally sensitive. But a new report is giving mixed reviews of U.S. college’s environmental efforts. In the first of a two-part series, The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl explores the issues of greening a college campus:
College campuses were once thought to be hotbeds for environmental activism. Now rather than activism, many people see Universities as the primary location for both research and courses on the environment, as well as projects to show how a large institution can be environmentally sensitive. But a new report is giving mixed reviews of U-S college’s environmental efforts. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports.
(Ambient sound – physical plant)
This coal-fired power plant is the primary source of power at Ball State University in Munice, Indiana. Like many college campuses, Ball State relies on this less than clean source of energy to power dozens of buildings for thousands of students and faculty. But unlike many other schools, Ball State has a team of people working on ways to clean up this plant. Team members are also working on other environmental problems the school faces. John Vann is Ball State’s Green Initiatives Coordinator. That’s a new position at the school this year. He says his title has already made things easier for those in the campus community who are looking to improve the environment.
“If I were just another faculty member that said, ya know you should really program your computer to shut down the monitor, it doesn’t carry the same weight if I am dealing with a Dean or with someone else that having this position does. So that really helps to facilitate my implementation of the initiatives.”
Vann’s position is not common among colleges and universities. A new report by the National Wildlife Federation shows that less than ten percent of campuses have a position similar to his. That’s one finding in the wide-ranging survey that looked at about a thousand campuses across the country. The Federation developed a report card to assess how well schools are doing in several areas. The NWF is giving schools a C minus for Transportation issues, largely because schools tend to buy large gas guzzling cars for faculty to use on road trips, and inefficient trucks for campus work fleets. The report card also includes a B minus for landscaping efforts. The report says most campuses are still using massive amount of pesticides and fertilizers to create those flowerbeds of school colors found around campus. Few are using native plants that require less water and fewer chemicals. Kathy Cacciola is the Campus Ecology Coordinator for NWF. She says things are not completely bleak. Schools are receiving A’s in some important areas.
“Energy conservation measures and efficiency upgrades are a key area where there has been improved environmental performance, with 81 percent of colleges and universities instituting lighting efficiency upgrades and 20 percent having plans to do more. That really demonstrates that higher education institutions have taken the lead on really making advances toward a sustainable future.”
But Cacciola points out that cost savings are likely the motivating factor for those areas of improvement. With high-energy prices, a campus wide program to purchase more efficient lighting, for instance, is often more about money than about the environment. She says in other areas where the financial benefit may not be so great, campuses did not do as well.
The National Wildlife Federation hopes the study will encourage colleges to take a closer look at their environmental practices. Tom Lowe agrees. He’s a Dean and assistant Provost at Ball State. He says there is many things colleges should be doing to improve their sustainability. He says one example would be to use more of the multi-million dollar budgets of colleges to buy recycled and environmentally sensitive items.
“And if we could just direct a small portion of those purchases toward sound environmental items, we could stimulate a market in those items, plus we could enable small businesses what are starting up producing those items to make a profit.”
Lowe says colleges have a responsibility to lead the way for other large institutions such as corporations and medical facilities. He says campuses can be showcases for how to be environmentally friendly in an economically practical way. The report from the National Wildlife Federation shows some campuses are already on that track. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.