Seeking Sustainability A student-led effort has helped make the U campus a leader in being green.

On a breezy November afternoon in 2006, a small group of students waited in the Olpin Union Building theater on the University of Utah campus. Alexandra Parvaz, Lindsay Clark, Shane Smith, and other students affiliated with Sustainable Environments and Ecological Design, a group that goes by the acronym SEED, were frustrated. For more than a year they had fought for better recycling, less water waste, and more space for community gardening at the U, but with little success. The campus administration, they believed, wasn’t doing enough to work with them on their efforts.

“I felt the prevailing culture of the campus then was resistant to change,” says Parvaz BA’06 BS’06 MS’11. “They didn’t seem to account for wasted water, energy, and over-consumption.” The students had invited campus administrators to a public discussion about a “Sustainable Campus Initiative” on this November afternoon. For the meeting, the students planned to use a charrette method, a group planning technique for helping brainstorm with all stakeholders, with the aim of defusing confrontational attitudes and eventually coming together to promote joint ownership of solutions. The students wondered, though, whether anyone would even show up.

Soon, a crowd of more than 70 staff, faculty, and community members, as well as students, filled the small theater. The audience included a representative from the Utah Office of Energy Development, a Salt Lake City Council member, and a Utah legislator. The students with SEED were elated. They talked to the group about their frustrations and discussed the need for different interests to unite. They asked for the group’s ideas on what needed to be done to make the U an environmentally sustainable campus.

Alexandra Parvaz, who oversees the U’s organic gardens, stands in front of amaranth on the campus. As a student, she helped lead overall sustainability efforts. (Photo courtesy U Office of Sustainability)

The forum broke barriers. “Our perception of an administration closed to creating something like an office of sustainability was shattered,” Smith BA’01 BS’01 MAr’07 says. “It became clear that many staff at the University were already working to integrate ecological principles and that administrators were working hard to provide the necessary resources to support these activities.”

Indeed, just a month before their forum at the Union Building, Lorris Betz, then senior vice president of Health Sciences, had asked Bruce Gillars, the associate director of Space Planning and Management, to host a campuswide teleconference on sustainable practices for universities. After the October teleconference, and unbeknownst to students, Betz then had begun recruiting a group of faculty members to develop an action plan for what sustainability might look like at the U. At the forum, the students learned that faculty members and administrators were moving right beside them in support of campus sustainability. The U’s Facilities Office had already been taking measures toward sustainability, such as improving energy efficiency across campus. “Facilities was very much out ahead of us, but over time I believe SEED got everyone in the same room,” Smith says. As a result of that November meeting, and with the concept of campus sustainability firmly planted, the administrators, faculty and staff members, and students organized more forums, and they created a task force for designing an Office of Sustainability.

Six years later, the seeds of those efforts have grown. The University of Utah has a formal Office of Sustainability, and the campus is now nationally recognized for energy innovation and energy efficiency. The campus is on track to “water neutrality” by 2020 by capturing and using for irrigation only water that falls naturally on campus. The U is leading state efforts to design and construct energy-efficient, LEED-standardized buildings. And students have worked to legitimize their campus gardens as a valuable landscape feature and outdoor laboratory for academic research projects.

Last year, the U was one of five U.S. universities invited by the White House and the U.S. Department of Energy to be inaugural partners in the Better Buildings Challenge, a national initiative that has a goal of making American buildings 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranked the University of Utah third in the nation on its most recent list of college and university “green power partners,” for taking extraordinary efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of electricity use and support renewable energy development.

Paul Rowland, president of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), an advocacy group based in Colorado, says the University of Utah’s achievements are nationally significant, but the U still has room for improvement. The U is one of about 200 institutions that currently participate in the group’s Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System. The number of institutions that participate is only about 10 percent of all U.S. colleges or universities, so the U’s efforts are noteworthy, especially in the area of co-curricular education, he says. “The whole host of activities they do with students—that’s clearly one of the places where they shine.”

Compared with other Pac-12 schools, the U ranks somewhere in the middle. Rowland’s group gave the U a “Bronze” rating last year for campus sustainability efforts that include education and research, operations, planning, administration, and innovation. The only other Pac-12 schools to complete his association’s voluntary assessment last year—the University of Colorado and Oregon State University—both received “Gold” ratings. Another group, the Sustainable Endowments Institute, gave Utah a B+ on its “Green Report Card” in 2011. To determine its grades, the institute evaluated more than 300 colleges in the United States and Canada in the areas of climate change and energy, green building, food and recycling, student involvement, and transportation. However, as The Chronicle of Higher Education noted in an article last year about the report cards, “sustainability is an inherently difficult thing to measure, and some sustainability advocates have worried that sustainability-rating systems may—like the U.S. News & World Report rankings—do more harm than good.”

Utah Transit Authority TRAX light rail stations, such as this one near Fort Douglas, are part of the University of Utah’s ongoing sustainability efforts. (Photo courtesy U Office of Sustainability)

Back in the late 1990s, sustainability was on few people’s radars, at the University of Utah or on most other campuses nationwide. But as a U undergraduate student in 1998, Kevin Emerson BS’02 remembers discovering a student group through the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center called Terra Firma (which means “solid earth” in Latin). The group was a collection of students involved in environmental awareness and activism. They took on controversial local issues such as the then-proposed Legacy Highway, and they worked to tackle environmental problems at the U, including campus waste. “There basically was no campus recycling when I was involved with Terra Firma,” says Emerson. “We actually dug through bags and bags of waste doing waste audits, to get a feel for how much recyclable material we were throwing away.”

While the group struggled to get administrators excited about recycling, Emerson and Elise Brown BS’04, serving as co-directors of Terra Firma, found more success with another project: a campus wind-power campaign. In the fall of 2001, they began promoting the concept that a $1 student fee each semester could help the University purchase renewable energy certificates to help offset some of its electricity use. “Part of that campaign was to help educate students about the story of our electricity, that it comes from fossil fuels, and primarily coal,” says Emerson. “That really motivated lots of students to say, ‘We have the [cleaner] technology today. We want to be responsible with the energy we use at our university that we are proud to go to.’ ”

More importantly, Emerson says, the concept was easy to understand. “One dollar every semester was palatable,” he says, “whereas the challenges with recycling at that point seemed almost insurmountable, because we had to prove where we were going to sell the cardboard and the plastic to make it cost-effective for the University. The wind-power campaign made [students] feel they could have an impact.”

Up until then, students consistently struggled to influence administration decisions regarding sustainability policies. “Students felt like there were major contradictions between what the University was doing and what we were learning,” says Emerson. “Students were saying, ‘We’re learning about all these amazing new technologies, or environmental problems, or entrepreneurial solutions, yet there’s not a clear pathway to help our university lead.’ ”

Yet sympathetic faculty members were also speaking up. “Over the years, there have been students and faculty who cared about issues related to sustainability. But those efforts tended to be isolated,” says Chris Hill, a Distinguished Professor of biochemistry. After Hill saw the widespread student enthusiasm for the wind-power campaign, he encouraged other faculty, staff, and supportive community members to also pitch in. “I realized we could open it up for other people to contribute, because the rate at which the University could purchase [renewable energy certificate] credits was much lower than most average people could, because it’s about economies of scale,” says Hill. At that time, $30 per person, per year of purchased renewable energy certificates was enough to offset much of the University’s overall electricity consumption. The achievement made the University one of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Top 10 Green Power Power Partners, and that national recognition continues today.

By 2005, “sustainability” was being discussed more frequently on university campuses across the country. Groups like AASHE were emerging to support a burgeoning crop of universities now aspiring to be “green.” By this time at the U, Terra Firma had disappeared, and a new group had sprung up to take its place: SEED. Concerned with growing local food and creating sustainable landscaping, this handful of students envisioned making a community garden for campus residents near the Bennion Center building then located on Officers Circle at Fort Douglas. After months of talking with administrators about their idea, they thought they had won approval. Instead, their garden proposal was rejected. The campus grounds supervisor worried about possible disturbances to the historical area, water damage, and the University not having enough manpower or budget to permanently maintain the gardens.

“We felt as if our work had been completely uprooted,” wrote Clark, in an Environmental Studies thesis in 2007 that documented SEED’s efforts. Other students, including Smith, saw the rejection as part of a larger pattern in the campus culture. “Administrators seemed to wait out the frustration [with sustainability issues] until a new batch of students came along,” Smith says. “I’m not trying to point fingers. It was clear that diving in was not the best way to appeal to the administrators and get higher level support.” According to Clark BA’07 BS’07, the garden rejection catalyzed a student movement to create a sustainability center for campus. “We realized that we needed to change our approach to how we would help the University of Utah become a more sustainable environment, and not to perpetuate a legacy of minimal student involvement,” she wrote.

Katie Sikkema harvests beans in one of the U campus gardens in 2011. (Photo courtesy U Office of Sustainability)

Still, individual faculty and staff members and administrators had tilled the ground for making sustainability possible at the U. Beginning in 1991, Norman Chambers, then assistant vice president for Auxiliary Services, and Alma Allred, director of Commuter Services, had steered the campus from building large parking structures by partnering with the Utah Transit Authority and expanding the U’s shuttle bus system. Faculty lecturer Fred Montague, a biology professor, encouraged students to champion sustainability through his Global Environmental Issues classes. Montague also established the University’s first campus food garden outside the Sill Center in 1996, with support of the dean of Undergraduate Studies, John Francis. And librarian Joan Gregory worked to educate colleagues at the Eccles Health Sciences Library about environmental issues and started recycling and composting for her workplace.

Among the most passionate and involved with campus sustainability was Craig Forster. Trained as a hydrogeologist, Forster held a research faculty position in the College of Architecture + Planning with a focus on urban system dynamics and sustainability. “He was kind of an idea man about campus,” says Dan McCool, director of the Environmental Studies Program. “He had to be entrepreneurial and constantly look for projects to work on. Craig was a wonderfully creative and innovative individual.” Early on, Forster encouraged students to generate their own projects and collaborate with administrators and faculty. He championed efforts to improve campus recycling, install an advanced watering system and a co-generation plant, and begin a campus farmers market.

After the faculty and staff members, students, and administrators had their meeting of the minds at the Union Building forum in 2006, students Parvaz, Clark, and Smith, as well as Emerson—who had recently returned from Edinburgh, Scotland, with a master’s degree in sustainability—set to work to craft a proposal for a formal Office of Sustainability at the U. In February 2007, they presented their proposal to the Campus Planning Advisory Committee. They received a unanimous endorsement. By April, University President Michael Young approved a pilot year for an Office of Sustainability. The program was to be a division of Facilities Management, housed in the Annex Building and headed by Forster, and with one full-time staff member, Jen Colby, who had been the SEED students’ staff adviser, serving as a sustainability coordinator.

Among Forster’s initial efforts in the first months of the new Office of Sustainability was helping students begin crafting a fund that would empower them and other students to plan and manage sustainability projects around campus. He envisioned creating a cross-disciplinary sustainability curriculum with degree programs, and he talked about the need for a center for sustainability research. To help achieve those aims, a President’s Sustainability Advisory Committee—composed of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and community members—was formed to provide guidance for Office of Sustainability staff and to review policy recommendations to be forwarded to the president.

A year later, on Earth Day 2008, Young signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. The pledge placed the U among 650 other colleges and universities nationwide that were formally agreeing to achieve sustainability and completely reduce their carbon emissions. “That really demonstrated commitment to the issue,” says Emerson. “It gave University students, staff, and faculty members something to point to and say, ‘We’re going to do this.’ ”

The following November, Forster fell from a ledge and died while hiking in Zion National Park. But his death only strengthened the resolve of the administration and students alike to achieve sustainability goals at the U. A memorial service was organized for him in the College of Architecture’s Bailey Hall. “The room was absolutely packed,” remembers McCool. “There was definitely a sense among the speakers and the people in that room that it would be a disservice to Craig’s memory if we let this thing die on the vine.”

A computer screen inside the U’s natural gas-powered cogeneration plant shows the turbine details. The plant supplies 10 to 15 percent of the U’s electricity. (Photo by Stephen Speckman)

The milestones accrued after that. In April 2009, the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund—an idea modeled on the wind-power campaign—was approved. A $2.50 student fee each semester would allow students seeking to develop economic, social, or scientific solutions to environmental problems. In 2010, the University completed its Environmental and Energy Stewardship Initiative, or “Climate Action Plan,” for steering the University toward zero carbon emissions by 2050. And in 2010, the U added a Sustainability Research Center, designed to bring researchers together from different
disciplines and levels for funded research in sustainability-related topics. A sustainability curriculum and professorship program also was established to integrate sustainability more firmly into the University’s curriculum.

Today, sustainability is an emerging cultural canopy at the University of Utah. “[The change] has definitely been evolutionary,” says Myron Willson MAr’97, who became the director of the Office of Sustainability in 2009. “Something I’ve really come to understand is that people want to do better. They want to be more sustainable. They want to reduce energy use. But oftentimes, they don’t know how. So our office provides a clearinghouse of answers.” Current projects include requiring University-wide green purchasing practices, which now are voluntary. Willson’s office also is working with senior administrators and Facilities Management leaders to create a revolving loan fund to finance more sustainability projects. And the office continues to support departmental Green Teams that encourage administrators and faculty and staff members to adopt sustainable behaviors at work and at home.

With the University’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 now a priority, the campus faces an enormous and exciting challenge, says Bruce Gillars BS’98, the U’s director of space planning and management. “Think about that for a minute,” Gillars says. “We’ve set a goal for the University of Utah having the same exact carbon footprint in 2050 as we did when we turned our first shovel of dirt in 1850. This will take the entire intellectual capital of the University to achieve. But think about what we’ll learn. Think about what we’ll be able to teach.” And think about what a difference for the planet those students, administrators, and faculty and staff members will have made, not just with that achievement, but with their myriad steps along the way.

—Ross Chambless MA’11 interned for the Office of Sustainability before graduating with a degree in environmental humanities from the U. He now works as planting coordinator for TreeUtah, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit group dedicated to tree planting and education in the state.


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2 thoughts on “Seeking Sustainability

  • This is all fine and good but shouldn’t the University be focused on powering the campus in the cheapest way possible. I am all for being “green” but I also want as many people to be educated for as cheaply as possible. Buying renewable energy credits, paying extra for recycling, and an entire staff/office of sustainability? And we wonder why education costs continue to rise.

  • It’s so great to see the whole history of sustainability at the University of Utah chronicled in this article. Kudos to everyone who has been a part of this effort, with many thanks and extra love to Craig and his memory.

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