Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter/Spring 2010
It is a rare conversation I have these days -- whether with a student, faculty member, trustee or fellow college president -- that doesn’t touch on sustainability. In ways I might not have predicted even five years ago, a commitment to resource stewardship and preservation has emerged as a powerful organizing principle in Smith’s operational and curricular development and a vivid manifestation of the college’s responsibilities to the nation and the world.
As I write, our community, guided by our Committee on Sustainability, is putting the finishing touches on Smith’s ambitious, 20-year plan to reduce its environmental impact. The document, known as our “Sustainability and Climate Action Management Plan,” reflects the resource-use benchmarks that Smith has publicly pledged to achieve under the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. Smith was an early signatory to that bold initiative.
A central tenet of the Presidents Climate Commitment is each institution’s pledge to reach climate neutrality -- essentially, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero -- “as soon as possible.” This goal is both urgent and deliberately unspecific, requiring colleges and universities to reflect carefully on how they can responsibly challenge themselves toward ambitious energy reduction goals while remaining true to their educational mission.
Not surprisingly, Smith’s greatest carbon impacts arise from its mission as a residential college: providing heat, power and water to student houses and other facilities; operating a dining program; and maintaining buildings and grounds. We began realizing a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions last year when we brought our new co-generation plant on-line, enabling the generation of electricity, heat and cooling from a single fuel source. In a related vein, all of our recent facilities renovations have incorporated green building practices, including high-performance insulation and ultra high-efficiency windows, to ensure minimal losses in heating and cooling.
As we adapt our infrastructure we are also working to change behaviors. House-by-house student contests to shut off power to idle appliances, as well as campuswide drives to put computer monitors to sleep when not in use, have been notably successful. One of our near-term goals is to install visible energy monitors in the public areas of houses and other buildings so that users can easily see their utility usage in real time and recognize the direct impact each of us can have via the choices we make.
Our purchasing decisions, notably in dining, are an area of focus as well. We prioritize local food purchases as often as we feasibly can in the context of western New England’s relatively brief growing season. The Pioneer Valley is a locus of sustainable farming and dairy initiatives; we source some 20 percent of our food and beverage purchases from within a 150-mile radius, with most of the local fruits and vegetables coming from much closer. We will increase the 20-percent figure to 30 percent as part of our sustainability goals.
Signing the Presidents Climate Commitment also dedicates Smith to ensuring that issues of sustainability are part of every student’s educational experience -- an area in which we are already making significant investments. Through our Environmental Science and Policy (ES&P) program, long available as a minor and now a full-fledged major, we prepare students to face complex environmental challenges. In seeking to advance all students’ environmental literacy and foster future leaders in the environmental field, we are uniquely advantaged by CEEDS -- our new Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability -- which serves as a nexus of faculty and student research initiatives and a link among such programs as ES&P, landscape studies, and engineering. Among his priorities, CEEDS Director Andrew Guswa, associate professor of engineering, intends the Center to empower students to take on environmental projects outside of the formal curriculum. With an established culture of faculty (and faculty-student) collaboration and a history of marrying research to action, Smith is strongly positioned to emerge as a model for advancing environmental stewardship and policy.
I am enormously encouraged by the clarity of plan and purpose that our community has shown around the challenges of sustainability. Even absent a public pledge, Smith is among a handful of colleges and universities that achieved significant declines in greenhouse gas emissions over the last decade. Our 2009 emissions levels trailed those of 1990 by more than 10 percent. We have made infrastructure investments whose payoff will be realized over decades to come.
And yet challenges remain. Reducing the environmental impacts of transportation, particularly air travel, remains a topic of discussion, particularly given how central international and off-campus study is to the Smith experience. Some institutions are investing in carbon offsets -- credits by which they compensate for their environmental impacts through investments in alternative energy enterprises or technologies -- to counteract their air-travel effects. Our community continues to discuss whether offsets represent a responsible strategy, particularly given the lack of regulation in that trading market. Similarly, while we assume that biofuels will play some role in our long-term sustainability strategies, we recognize that they may never be available in sufficient quantity or derived from a source that is environmentally acceptable.
A sustainable future is both a moral imperative and a powerful organizing principle for liberal arts education. As we grapple institutionally with the unfolding knowledge about climate change, we are giving students the experience of shaping and observing the evolution of their college as it addresses the major issue of this century. In educating the next generation of society’s leaders, we can do no less.