"A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines."
– Frank Lloyd Wright
Volume 74 | Issue 3
May 2006

Forming student-staff partnerships to reduce energy emissions

Victoria Gannon

Students and administrators often find themselves on opposite sides of an issue. Students want later hours at the college union; administrators have to worry about hiring more staff. Administrators raise annual tuition rates; students protest what they believe is an unjustified hike. But there is one view both groups unequivocally share, and that is an uncertain environmental future. While students spend their free time on Facebook.com, and administrators reading issues of The Chronicle of Higher Education, neither group wants to face a planet devoid of clean air, dominated by smoke-spouting factories, underneath an ozone layer that, each year, provides less and less protection from the sun.

At institutions in the United States and Canada, sustainability-related projects are proving to be a reliable way of bringing students and staff together. The energy and passion of one, coupled with the institutional know-how of the other, has achieved some impressive gains toward a better environment for everyone. In 2004, students at University of California campuses successfully pushed for the university system to adopt a comprehensive clean energy policy. In 2004 at the University of Colorado–Boulder, students petitioned for the university to convert three buildings to wind power. Initiatives such as these are taking place with increasing frequency at institutions large and small, as current events and environmental conditions make the need for more efficient energy use impossible to ignore.

Campus Climate Challenge

One environmental coalition is counting on the effectiveness of student-administrator collaborations to reach its goals. Energy Action is a coalition of more than 20 student and youth environmental groups; members include global organizations such as Greenpeace and regionally focused ones such as Arizona’s Black Mesa Water Coalition. Its latest project, the Campus Climate Challenge, is specifically designed “to encourage student-faculty-administrator partnerships,” said principal organizer Billy Parish (personal communication, January 23, 2006), with the goal of engaging “hundreds of campuses in aggressive efforts to create global warming solutions.”

Parish, himself in his early 20s, believes young people carry the greatest responsibility and potential for slowing global warming. “We want to empower young people to be front and center in solving this problem because we’ll have to live with the consequences,” he said (personal communication, January 23, 2006). The Challenge is structured to capitalize on the potential of students and administrators working together. “In our experience, the best results have come when students find allies in the administration and work together to make the necessary changes,” he said.

Parish has long focused on collaboration and unification, between students and administrators and among students. Before leaving his undergraduate studies at Yale University to focus on environmental activism, he helped organize cross-regional summits and training sessions for various student environmental groups, hoping to foster a powerful and centralized student climate movement. He helped develop the Climate Challenge in 2003, shortly after leaving Yale, as a continuation of that work. The Challenge addresses student environmental groups with the desire to bring clean energy initiatives to the highest levels of college administration.

University of Washington–Seattle

Tara Migliore, a senior at the University of Washington–Seattle, is part of the Earth Justice Coalition, a consortium of various UW student environmental groups that undertook the Campus Climate Challenge in April 2005. The group met with Gus Kravas, vice provost for student relations, early in its campaign. The students sought his help partly because he had been involved in getting the campus to approve a fee for the construction of a new college union, and the coalition was interested in the feasibility of a mandatory student fee to benefit sustainability projects.

Prior to their first meeting with him, members did a great deal of research on the campus’s current energy operations. “About 40 percent of [the campus’s] energy use is from electricities,” said Migliore, who is enrolled in UW’s Program of the Environment, a multidisciplinary environmental studies department (personal communication, December 7, 2005). “And 14 percent of that electricity use is dirty electricity, meaning that it comes from fossil fuels, nuclear power, and waste.”

By arming themselves with up-to-date knowledge, members were prepared to convince a wary administrator of the validity of their ideas. But luckily they didn’t have to. Persuading Kravas that the school would benefit by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions was not an issue. “I think everybody agreed [sustainability] is the right thing to do,” Kravas said (personal communication, December 8, 2005). “It’s a matter of how we do it. The discussions occur around the processes.”

“He was so friendly, and he wanted to hear about what we’re doing,” Migliore said (personal communication, December 7, 2005). He “had a firm understanding of energy issues in general, and what dirty energy is.” Such pre-existing knowledge allowed the group to spend less time explaining details of environmental issues, and more time strategizing.

Their strategy, which Kravas helped shape, has been to collect a large number of signatures supporting the fee, then bring them before the student government and eventually the university regents. Rather than present Kravas with a finished proposal, the students sought his advice on the most effective strategies for drafting one. By involving him in the most elemental stages of their campaign, they secured a partner in the administration in the beginning.

That’s how it’s supposed to work

“The model is for a campus group to take on the campaign in partnership with a faculty or administration ally and work to create a multistakeholder team” from the get-go, Parish said (personal communication, January 23, 2006). In fact, that action is specifically recommended in the Climate Challenge tool kit. Although the tool kit emphasizes that each campus’s path and specific agenda will vary, it provides five steps as a “suggested roadmap” for student groups to follow in getting their clean-energy proposals accepted (Climate Challenge, 2005):

  • Take the challenge.
  • Build a challenge team as candidates for recruiting (students, faculty, administrative staff, student leaders, and organizations).
  • Set your challenge goals (e.g., significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050).
  • Make a proposal and get it approved (know who the final decision-maker is and demonstrate wide-campus support for the proposal).
  • Implement your global warming solutions.

Getting an administrator to endorse the idea of the project is one thing. Drafting an actual plan and getting it approved by all necessary parties is another. The main hesitation among most administrators is finances. “They’re afraid that reducing emissions will cost too much,” Parish said (personal communication, January 23, 2006).

To address this, Energy Action has been working to spotlight the efforts that have reduced emissions in ways that are revenue neutral or even save schools money (B. Parish, personal communication, January 23, 2006). To call attention to successful sustainability efforts, Energy Action and the Apollo Alliance (2005), a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations, have released an overview of 40 on-campus efforts, titled “New Energy for Campuses.”

It includes a section on financing strategies and gives examples of cost-effective initiatives that have succeeded. For instance, the University of Michigan, which recently implemented energy-efficiency projects in 123 buildings, expects to save $9.7 million in yearly energy costs from its upgrades (Energy Action & Apollo Alliance, 2005). Eastern Illinois University installed 10,000 high efficiency ballasts in its buildings, as well as 300 occupancy detectors. These will save the school between $250,000 and $300,000 annually, meaning it will recoup the cost of the project in four years (Energy Action & Apollo Alliance, 2005).

Like the Campus Climate tool kit, the New Energy report provides an outline for action. It addresses areas of inefficient energy consumption and lists possible solutions. For example, “University buildings spend at least 22 percent of their energy budgets on electricity,” according to the section on clean power (Energy Action & Apollo Alliance, 2005, p. 3). This percentage can be reduced using solar electricity, wind power, or photovoltaic arrays. Heating costs in new buildings can be lowered by building geothermal heat pumps, an energy-efficient and environmentally friendly method for heating and cooling spaces. Water-heating costs, on average 24 percent of a building’s energy budget, can be reduced with solar water heaters (Energy Action & Apollo Alliance, 2005).

For efficiency upgrades, campuses can simply make adjustments to current systems. Most changes involve reducing energy input to machine when they are not being used. Examples include “Vending Misers,” a product that turns off vending machine lights when not in use; occupancy sensors that turn off lights when classrooms are empty; and energy-efficient “Exit” signs that operate on significantly lower wattage than others.

The report breaks down the details of each conservation area, providing statistical data relevant to all campuses and examples of specific institutions’ actions. The examples reinforce both the practicality and long-term feasibility of the technologies. When you learn that St. Olaf College is building a wind turbine to power its campus, or that Oregon Institute of Technology has used geothermal energy for heat since 1964 (Energy Action & Apollo Alliance, 2005), these options no longer seem far-fetched or futuristic. Instead, they appear attainable and their implementation overdue.

By making its agenda and resources widely available, the Campus Climate Challenge aims to enable student groups and administrators—both those at large public universities and small private colleges, in states with progressive energy policies and those with extensive polluting records—to address a common set of concerns and hopefully implement complementary energy-saving initiatives (B. Parish, personal communication, January 23, 2006).

University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia, featured in the New Energy report, is a model of efficient and environmentally conscious operations, and exemplifies the compatibility between sustainability and student-staff partnerships. Collaborative sustainability efforts are not just encouraged, but institutionalized on the Vancouver campus, where a comprehensive sustainability program has been in operation since 1998.

The Campus Sustainability Office, the center of the program, is notable for the breadth of its efforts, addressing issues at both an institutional and student level. Institutionally, UBC has made a firm commitment to smart growth. In 1997, UBC was Canada’s first university to pass a sustainability development policy. The policy, drafted by the UBC Board of Governors (2005), outlines the institution’s commitment to integrating “ecological, economic, and social considerations at all levels of strategic planning and operations within the university” (p. 1).

Hardly an empty pledge, the institution has completed two major retrofit projects since 1998, ECOTrek and ELECTrek. ECOTrek, begun in 2002, overhauled the campus’s electrical, steam, natural gas, and water systems, as well as its air-conditioning, heating, ventilation, and lighting facilities. ELECTrek, completed in 2002, was a $4-million lighting system upgrade carried out in all of the campus’s buildings.

The Sustainability Office is staffed by professionals with backgrounds in environmental studies as well as several part-time students, said Ruth Abramson, the office’s communications manager (personal communication, January 19, 2006). The office’s Sustainability Coordinator Program trains faculty, staff, and students to spread environmental awareness in their respective departments and residence halls. It operates under the premise that people are most likely to change their habits when the suggestion comes from within their communities (personal communication, January 19, 2006).

“It’s basically community-based social marketing theory,” Abramson said (personal communication, January 19, 2006). “The basic explanation is that you can’t just give people information and they’ll change. … The people who know them best, know their barriers the best.” Coordinators remind their peers to recycle, turn off the lights when not in the room, and all those things that environmentally conscious people intend to do, but sometimes overlook.

The office seems particularly well attuned to students’ needs and ideas. The four students who work in the sustainability office operate their own programs, said Abramson, and initiated their own version of the Sustainability Coordinator Program several years ago.

The Sustainability Mentorship Program, another student-generated idea, pairs students with “people who have regular careers and have figured out how to incorporate sustainability into them,” Abramson said (personal communication, January 19, 2006). Professions represented include environmental engineer, social marketer, and artist, among others.

Colleges as ideal settings for change

Universities occupy a position at the forefront of society. The best thinkers teach at them, the brightest students attend them; new ideas and philosophies are born within them each day. Their actions serve as models and guides for the rest of society. Given this, campuses’ attention to sustainability issues is especially influential. Others are watching to see how they act, what policies they adopt, and what practices they deem outmoded (Harvard University, 2006).

This awareness, coupled with ample educational resources, has given campus climate movements particularly strong foundations. Students and faculty are motivated not by just the deteriorating state of the environment, but also by an acknowledgement of their powerful positions.

The Green Campus Initiative at Harvard University, an organization that works to identify and control sources of energy inefficiency on the Harvard campus, mentions many of these reasons when explaining the impetus of its formation. Its Web site states: “Academic institutions play a particularly crucial role. … Institutions of higher education have an excellent opportunity to inform people about global climate change and enable them to address this critical threat” (Harvard University, 2006, ¶ 1).

Additionally, the Harvard initiative identifies today’s college students as bearing the responsibility for environmental problems in the future, saying: “The future leaders of industry and government … are attending college now. By fostering their appreciation for the problem now, they will be more likely to help mitigate it in the coming decades” (Harvard University, 2006, ¶ 2).

The initiative also suggests that universities are indebted to society for their privileged positions, and their end of the deal involves being socially conscious.

Society has granted a special charter to universities—academic freedom, tax-free status, and government resources—‘in exchange for the dissemination of knowledge and values to ensure the health and well-being of society.’ Because climate change has the potential for disastrous consequences for people around the world, it is within the mission of academic institutions to teach students about their significant role in the problem. (Harvard University, 2006, ¶ 3)

Abramson offers another perspective on why universities have a responsibility to adopt progressive energy policies: “Universities have helped create foundations for consumptive lifestyles. They’ve also convinced a lot of students to go after high-paying jobs, to make a lot of money and buy more stuff,” actions that can lead to pollution and resource depletion, she said (personal communication, January 19, 2006). However, she added hopefully that universities, realizing their role in creating this culture, are beginning to understand they have a responsibility to change it.


Climate Challenge. (2005).
Campus Climate Challenge organizer toolkit. Retrieved January 9, 2006, from: http://www.campusclimatechallenge.org/documents/challenge_toolkit.pdf.
Energy Action & Apollo Alliance. (2005). New energy for campuses. Available at www.energyaction.net/documents/new_energy.pdf.
Harvard University. (2006). Teaming up for campus sustainability: Programs that cultivate student-staff cooperation. Retrieved March 30, 2006, from: http://www.greencampus.harvard.edu/greenteams/academia.php.
University of British Columbia Board of Governors. (2005, June). Sustainable development. Retrieved March 31, 2006 from: http://www.universitycounsel.ubc.ca/policies/policy5.pdf.