How important are sustainability practices and environmental policies at a particular college or university to prospective students?
Well, if you believe the folks at the Princeton Review, the answer often is: very important.
For 19 years, the Princeton Review — those good folks who help you prep for the SAT and other such tests — has been publishing a guide to America's institutions of higher learning to help students select the school that's the best fit for them. This year, though, for the first time, the PR crew published a guide to the nation's greenest colleges.
Because many students, at least in part, are taking a school's green-ness into account when trying to decide where they'll go to get that degree.
In a survey of 16,000 college applicants, the Princeton Review reported that 66 percent of respondents said "they would value having information about a college's commitment to the environment." Of that group, 24 percent said a school's environmental policies and programs would "very much" affect their decision regarding which schools they would apply to or attend.
"Clearly," write the authors, "the green movement on college campuses is far more than a passing fad. There is a sincere and growing interest among students in identifying and applying to colleges where there is a demonstrated commitment to sustainability."
For a generation of students who came of age at a time when Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth helped bring the problems of global climate to the fore, and all but the must deluded deniers have accepted that the phenomenon exists, there is a rather pressing reason to place a priority on living greener: the possibility that life as we know it is going to be irrevocably altered unless there's a sustained and concerted effort to change our ways.
But you don't have to keep your eye on the global picture to see the benefits in greening your matriculation.
Maybe it's living in a green dorm that, instead of being an energy hog, offers an abundance of natural light and efficient ventilation. Maybe it means a place where an emphasis is placed on developing alternative forms of transportation. Or attending a school that strives to serve locally grown organic fare instead of the standard cafeteria chow.
"If you choose to attend a school with a commitment to sustainability," the authors conclude, "the academic, research and extracurricular opportunities available will put you a step ahead of the competition when it comes to getting one of the green jobs of the future, not to mention make your college experience that much more enjoyable."
So, given that, what kind of green efforts can be found at some of the universities in this region? To answer that question, we turned loose a group of talented college students — editorial interns spending their summer here at Metro Times — to find out.
This is what they learned.
University of Michigan
The good news at the University of Michigan is that it took a big step in a green direction last October when university president Mary Sue Coleman launched a multifaceted initiative that included creating a position titled "special counsel to the president for sustainability" and opening the Office of Campus Sustainability (OCS).
"The pressing challenge of environmental sustainability is a huge global concern," Coleman said at the time. "From teaching and research, to hands-on engagement, we are going to leverage our many strengths to make significant contributions to an urgent and extraordinarily complex problem. We aim to inspire students, faculty and staff to become involved in these issues that affect our lives and our future."
Helping achieve that goal is the Student Sustainability Initiative, described on its website as "a collaborative group of leaders in campus organizations, environmental groups, and student governments interested in making the University of Michigan a more sustainable place. We are not just a student group, but rather a part of the university designed to bridge the gap between students and the administration."
Such collaboration is key to taking on a monumental task.
The Ann Arbor campus occupies 3,070 acres and has a population of about 78,000 students, faculty and staff. In the 2009 fiscal year, the university used 6.5 trillion BTUs of energy and produced 17,400 tons of solid waste, according to the annual environmental report. U-M recycles only 30 percent of its waste stream every year, compared to some other Big 12 schools such as Penn State, which has a a recycling rate of about 50 percent.
So, there's a lot to make sustainable.
Terry Alexander, executive director of the OCS, says that to create headway, the emphasis is as much on attitude as it is on concrete measures.
"I've always been more in favor of the term 'environmental stewardship,'" Alexander says. "A steward means you're responsible for resources that don't really belong to you."
Alexander is quick to point out that U-M has had "strong environmental programs on campus for decades" — the university just celebrated 30 years of carpooling — "but there's never been really a central point of contact to be able to reach out between the operational side of the campus and the academic and student side."
The OCS is currently working to finish an integrated assessment that will offer four or five major sustainability goals. Alexander says he expects those to include energy reduction, increases in green transportation alternatives and the ability to purchase more green products, including more locally produced food.
The academia side of the equation is housed in the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute (GESI), which funds research in sustainability, both on campus and around the world. The institute has researchers collaborating with the city of Detroit in its redesign, and with the U.S. Department of Transportation on sustainable transportation policy. Other effforts are focused on climate, water and health in developing countries.
But Don Scavia, who holds the title of special counsel to the president for sustainability, says it's important to look close to home.
"We can't teach our students about energy efficiency inside energy-hog buildings," he says. "We really have to walk the talk on campus."
The university now offers a "Sustainability and the Campus" course, in which undergraduate research can affect university policy. Scavia cited a project that determined there would be both an environmental and cost benefit to forgoing the use of a cafeteria."So," he says, residence halls are moving toward tray-less dining as consequence of that."
Given U-M's scale, Scavia thinks the Sustainability Initiative's year-long assessment is "a model for the kind of analysis that modest-sized cities can do." He considers it a "microcosm of what we're trying to train the students to do when they leave here and begin their careers."
While true sustainability may still be in its nascent stages, the 2009 environmental report lauds the university's 6 percent average reduction in energy consumption and 596 vehicles running on alternative fuel. Even with large-scale expansion projects, U-M's water use, energy use and emissions have remained stable over the past five years. Stability may not equal sustainability, but it's a start. —Simone Landon
Eastern Michigan University
Eastern Michigan University may have been a relatively new arrival to the sustainability party that's been taking over college campuses across the country, but now it's doing everything short of literally painting its campus green to catch up.
The effort shifted into high gear in March 2008, when Steven Moore was hired as the Ypsilanti school's first energy and sustainability manager, becoming another major Michigan university to designate a specific office to deal with environmental and energy issues. Moore oversees green building projects and the school's energy budget, and educates on-campus groups about sustainable initiatives.
Since Moore took the reins, EMU made strides in greening its campus, reducing overall energy consumption by 5.6 percent while cutting steam use 17.6 percent.
Key to the reduction effort is a commitment to making projects green enough to obtain LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
"For all new, large construction projects, EMU is committed to designing the buildings to achieve LEED certification," Moore says. "Currently, EMU has two projects that are going for LEED certification: the Mark Jefferson Science Complex and the Pray-Harrold classroom building."
The renovations on the Jefferson building total $100 million, making the project — and its 72,000-square-foot addition — the largest in EMU history. The structure will include chilled beams for cooling, a more efficient ventilation system and a rain garden designed to detain and filter storm water runoff
In a way, a project like the one under way at the Jefferson serves a dual purpose. Along with the environmental benefits derived from incorporating state-of-the art green technologies, it also serves as a type of teaching tool — albeit a very large one.
"Colleges and universities remain on the cutting edge," says Kristin Simmons of the U.S. Green Building Council. "These [buildings] are our living laboratories for sustainability."
Along with a commitment to green construction, Moore says that an effort to make recycling easier has so far resulted in an additional 30 tons of material being recycled annually.
"We have placed new recycling stations in each building to make it more convenient for everyone on campus to recycle," Moore says. "We have also spent a lot of time educating the campus community on recycling, including explaining all of the items that we are able to recycle."
Despite the bright spots in the fight to become more sustainable, EMU faces the same hurdle as many colleges: money. Although the school was able to fund a number of large construction projects in the last five years, budget constraints have made purchasing clean energy — such as wind or solar power — extremely difficult. The university has formed a partnership with Chevron Energy Solutions to help reduce its energy budget. As a result, it was able to cut energy costs by $3 million during the last two years.
With a smaller operating budget than, say, U-M or Michigan State, EMU has fewer resources to work with when it comes to finding the cash to invest in environmentally friendly projects. Nevertheless, its fledgling push for a more sustainable campus appears to be slowly but surely gaining ground on its larger counterparts, getting to where it should be in the fight to make the ivory tower a little greener. —David Uberti
University of Detroit Mercy
When it comes to going green at the University of Detroit Mercy, the philosophy is to focus on the little things. From replacing light bulbs, windows and planting trees to recycling bottles, carpet and electronics, the university believes it all adds up.
You might say that, when it comes to conservation measures, the private Catholic university with a student body of about 5,600 is taking a cautious approach. That's certainly the impression left by the environmental mission statement posted on the school's website:
"The fad word today is 'Green.' As we study ways to help improve our environment and reduce our overall energy usage, we must also use caution not to invest in green fad schemes that do not reduce our carbon footprint. We will look at what is actually 'green' as compared to what is 'mean' as it relates to our environment and sustainability.
"Working with a limited budget, UDM is making strides in improving energy efficiency and environmental impact," says Johnfrancis Twomey, the school's energy and environmental coordinator. "We don't have the personnel or resources of a larger school, but we are focused on making sustainable decisions for our facilities."
According to Twomey, who is occupying a recently created position, the school has replaced outdated incandescent lighting fixtures with new, energy efficient T8 bulbs in every building. In addition, many lighting fixtures have simply been removed in areas lit by other sources.
In another effort to conserve electricity, the university is installing motion-sensing lighting controls in each building that turn off when no one is in the area.
Low-flush toilets, urinals and sensor faucets have been installed in most bathrooms to reduce water consumption, and 100 percent recyclable carpet, tile and broadloom has been added to the floors of renovated buildings.
Twomey adds that new heating and cooling control measures have been put in place to reduce the school's natural gas use.
"Using our energy management system, engineers can monitor our buildings to keep temperatures within our specified range," he says. "We have also replaced old steam absorbers with more efficient centrifugal chillers at the McNichols and Corktown campuses."
Twomey points out that the simple act of replacing doors and windows has been a top priority the past few years, and has been an integral part of heating and cooling efforts. "Leaky doors and windows waste energy," he says. "Our new efficient windows have insulated panes and a tinted film to reduce the transfer of heat through the glass."
It seems the founding fathers of the university had the environment in mind, too. Many buildings on the McNichols campus date back to the 1920s, and as a result have mission-style clay roofs. Those roof's tiles last for up to 80 years, and Twomey estimates between 70 and 90 percent are reused when the roof is replaced, creating less waste.
The school's more modern flat roofs employ cool-roof technology, which reflects solar radiation to keep the building cool in the summer.
Though constrained by a tight budget, even these fledgling efforts are already achieving noteworthy results. Electricity use at the school's three campuses has decreased by 6 percent over the past year, and water use is down by 14.5 percent.
"We are proud of the energy savings we have achieved so far, and we are looking forward to increased efficiency and sustainability in the future," Twomey says.
In fact, UDM's green efforts extend beyond its buildings. The Department of Public Safety recently purchased an energy efficient patrol car, used primarily on the Corktown campus. The Smart Fortwo Passion Coupe — an 8-foot-long, two-seat vehicle — is rated as the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid gasoline powered vehicle in the United States.
Improved recycling efforts — highlighted by an electronics recycling day sponsored by the IT department — and ongoing projects to replace disease-ridden trees round out the school's programs. —Michael Martinez
Wayne State University
At the inaugural meeting of Wayne State University's Office of Sustainability recently, roughly a dozen people — mostly university employees, along with a few graduate students and one member of the school's board of governors — joked about their new office space on Woodward Avenue next to the Detroit Historical Museum.
Most professionals would be bitching about getting stuck in a cluster of run-down rooms with half-painted drywall and ratty carpeting. But for the environmentally conscious people in this conference room, it's fitting that their furniture is someone else's castoffs. These are people who thrive on turning apparent junk into valuable resources.
While enthusiastically knocking on the scratched surface of one of three desks pushed together to make a conference table, Walter Pociask says, "These tables were pulled from junk and considered good enough to use. The chairs you are sitting in were saved too."
Pociask, associated director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, oversees recycling projects for the new Office of Sustainability. He says having an actual office to house the program will greatly improve his ability to promote sustainability efforts.
"This is brick and mortar, where you can knock on a door and meet a real person," he says. "You can't depend on an outdated website or a pamphlet to generate interest."
Recycling initiatives are one of four broadly defined environmental initiatives that fall under the new office (the other three: transportation, energy and academic engagement). Individual improvement projects within these four categories range in size and aim from rooftop urban gardens to multimillion-dollar green building renovations. Also, the Office of Sustainability will serve as the umbrella organization that all these efforts come under.
"The purpose of this office is to provide a single, unifying space that people outside and inside the university can visit to see what we are doing with our sustainable efforts," says Carol Miller, chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.
In some ways, the office is the culmination of a drive toward more sustainable practices that started in 2007. That year, an 11-member Committee on Environmental Initiatives began identifying areas where Wayne State could reduce its environmental impact.
For Pociask, an environmental task force was long overdue at Wayne.
"I started to watch all the universities around us that had sustainability departments and I thought, 'That's kinda odd, [we have] some 31,000 students and a lot of employees, and we are not very green. You can talk about being green or you can be green, and I wanted to be green."
Since its creation, the committee has implemented many successful sustainability programs, such as an e-waste collection that recycled more than 250,000 pounds of unused electronics last year. However, the most impressive improvements may be renovations that have incorporated energy conservation measures at three major campus buildings.
Two multimillion-dollar projects were completed last year, one at the College of Engineering and the other at the School of Medicine, outfitting buildings with sustainable systems, such as movement-sensing lights and high-efficiency water heaters. Both projects are on track to receive LEED certification.
Similar renovations to Wayne State's chemistry hall began last September. Today construction teams swarm the huge research facility on Cass Avenue. In addition to a considerable building expansion, crews are installing highly efficient cooling, heating and ventilation systems. The project is expensive, estimated to cost as much as $36 million, but with much work still to be done, the results are impressive already.
"We believe it will be state-of-the-art upon completion," says Larry Fodor, director of Utilities and Energy Management, while touring the facility.
Because the chemical-laden air must constantly be circulated and filtered, the energy use associated with that is intensive. But according to Fodor, new high-tech fume hoods are helping to keep the costs down.
The goal is to make the most wasteful building on campus as efficient as possible, he says of the challenge.
In the conference meeting, the discussion eventually shifts to ways of solving some of the challenges facing the new office, like how to incorporate student groups such as SEED Wayne into the office, and using free food to lure community members through the office's front doors. (SEED Wayne seeks to create "sustainable food systems" on the Wayne campus and in Detroit communities.) Members agreed that the office's form and function is a work in progress, but the overall goal is clear.
"This [new office] is a first step for us, and an exciting first step," Pociask says. "I see this room as a place that has open doors. People will be able to come in here and ask, 'Is there an energy program at Wayne State?' or, 'Where can I get involved in that?'" —Michael Walton
In the lush, wooded setting of Rochester Hills, the Oakland University campus doesn't need help looking green.
But we're not concerned with just looking green, are we? What we want to know about is being green. In that regard, OU can thank the U.S. Department of Energy for helping the school assume a more intense shade of emerald.
With a $2.75 million grant, the university is funding the installation of a geothermal heat pump in the new Human Health Science Building, where construction began this summer with the goal of obtaining a "platinum" LEED certification — indicating the building has received the highest sustainability and energy efficiency rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. The pump is a ground-sourced HVAC (that's an acronym for heating, ventilating, air conditioning) system that uses what's known as "variable refrigerant flow technology," which somehow enhances internal heat recovery while significantly reducing the energy costs associated with heating and cooling. Adding to the already green-friendly system will be a solar thermal dehumidification component.
At the prospect of building the first platinum-certified educational structure in Michigan, OU president Gary Russi previously noted, "A top priority here at Oakland is to nurture the kind of scientific advances that have very tangible beneficial impacts. It is only fitting that as we grow, we also demonstrate just how meaningful these advances can be in real-world applications."
Another sign that OU is concerned about more than just the landscape being green is the sight of facilities management staff whizzing around campus on zero-emission electric trucks instead of gas-guzzling pickups or impractical golf carts. The vehicles have a dual benefit, simultaneously cutting costs and reducing the carbon footprint.
"An objective of both facilities and the university is to find and use products and equipment that are more sustainable, cost-efficient and green," says Terry Stollsteimer, associate vice president for facilities management. Custodial and grounds manager Jon Barth adds, "My hope is that through the university's commitment to a 'cleaning for health' or green philosophy, our programs become systemic."
Part of that approach involves education. Long before An Inconvenient Truth shook up America's ideas about our planet and the climate change it is experiencing, Oakland's B.S. program in environmental science has prepared students to tackle earth's problems for more than 25 years, offering specializations in occupational health and safety, public health, environmental and resource management and toxic substance control.
"We've been training students on identifying and remediating pollution for a long time," says chemistry professor and program director Linda Schweitzer, Ph.D. "Our fastest growing programs are about resource management, sustainability, and conservation of resources like water, soil and energy."
And it's a practical field of study: 100 percent of graduates have either found jobs or been admitted to graduate school, according to Schweitzer. Some have gone on to study toxicology and forestry, while others have landed jobs in environmental compliance, public health sanitation, water treatment and environmental restoration, among other fields.
Oakland has a campus-wide recycling program that's managed by University Housing and student representatives from the Sustaining Our Planet Earth (S.O.P.E.) task force. Incoming junior and S.O.P.E. officer Heather Ferow coordinates the regular emptying of recycling bins in residence halls and student apartments.
The Oakland Center, OU's student union, recycles much more than empty pop bottles and scrap paper. Fluorescent light bulbs, plastics, batteries, cooking grease, tin cans and cardboard are all recycled. The future Health and Human Sciences Building will incorporate similar policies upon completion.
And turning to the reduction page of the reduce, reuse and recycle handbook, OU has recently installed a state-of-the-art "hydration system" at its Oakland Center building to cut back on those damned plastic water bottles that are turning a vast sector of the Pacific Ocean into a kind of polyethylene cesspool.
By "hydration system," they're not referring to the standard water fountain we all spit our gum into back in our elementary school days. This hydration station fills reusable containers with water twice as fast as those old fountains and the water coming from it — filtered to remove sediment, chlorine taste and odor — is as good as anything coming from a bottle.
OK, class, here's a question: About how long does it take for a plastic bottle sitting in a landfill to biodegrade?
Everyone who answered "about 500 years" gets an A. —Sallyann PriceSallyann Price, Simone Landon, Michael Walton and David Uberti are editorial interns at Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org