Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2008
This spring, with little fanfare but great pride, Smith is bringing forward one of the most important campus infrastructure projects of recent decades: an innovative and ambitious co-generation system that will provide the campus's electricity and heat from a single fuel source. The benefits are clear and immediate: dramatically improved energy efficiency, a consistent and secure source of power, and annual utility savings of $1 million or more. On practical terms alone, it's the right thing to do.
But moving to co-gen, as it's called, will also cut the college's greenhouse gas emissions in half. In the context of Smith, past and present, that is more than a side benefit: it places the $13.7 million investment squarely in the context of a longstanding consciousness of the educational value of the natural environment.
In referring to the site chosen for Smith's campus, Laurenus Clark Seelye, the college's first president, spoke of the mountains whose summits define the campus's southwesterly vista as pedagogical partners in the new enterprise, "unsalaried professors, whose lessons richly supplement the poverty of our human teaching." In developing the entire campus as an arboretum, in promoting the study of botany and astronomy, in establishing programs in environmental studies and landscape studies, Smith has long anticipated concepts of resource stewardship and preservation that are the center of urgent societal concern today.
A sustainable future is a powerful organizing principle for liberal arts education. The study of the environment and the search for sustainable solutions provide a meaningful, unifying context for learning and research. The challenges we face won't be solved through science or economics or politics or engineering alone. Rather, we need to position students for learning at the points where each of these fields intersects—urgently and significantly—with another.
A sustainable future also presents an educational imperative. As Oberlin's David Orr explains in Earth in Mind, "[T]he worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival—the issues now looming so large before us in the twenty-first century. It is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us." With an established culture of faculty collaboration and an explicit commitment to the integration of knowledge, with an engineering program that places sustainability at the core of its curriculum and a history of marrying research to action, Smith is strongly positioned to emerge as a model for advancing environmental stewardship and policy.
The Smith Design for Learning, the college's curricular and resource plan for the coming decade, places environmental sustainability among the central strategic directions for Smith. Plans are accelerating to create a Center for the Environment, Ecological Design, and Sustainability, joining students and faculty across the college in addressing questions of environmental stewardship and design. A physical and intellectual crossroads of environmental concerns, the center will serve as a model for multidisciplinary study of environmental policies and stewardship, positioning graduates for futures in education, law, business, architecture, engineering, government, and advocacy.
While based on the campus, the center will also have a physical presence at the college's field station in nearby Whately, a stunning 200-acre woodland that in the 1970s housed the college's observatory. In early May, the board of trustees dedicated the site as the Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station in honor of two dear friends of former Smith President Jill Ker Conway who shared with Jill and her husband, John, a deep appreciation for the beauty of the Pioneer Valley. Speaking at the dedication ceremony, senior Alexandra Webster described how forest ecology research she conducted at the site enabled her to ground her ideas in physical realities.
"Although I greatly appreciate the efforts of all my professors at Smith, I admit that—in this last year at least—I have been the most dedicated student to these woods," she said. "They taught me many lessons. It was immediately obvious when I left the classroom and spent time in these woods that the narrow disciplines we peg ourselves to have very little application to how forests really work...I anticipate that this field station will allow students, as it allowed me, to see how what they learn in their varied liberal arts education at Smith weaves together in the real world."
The arguments for sustainability are pragmatic and political, ethical and educational. For Smith, they are ultimately rooted in mission. From its inception, Smith has prepared women to fulfill their responsibilities to the local, national, and global communities in which they live and to steward the resources that sustain them. In the development of a sustainable future, as in all they undertake, Smith women are leaders in responding to society's challenges.