Mission: Sustainable

The University of Minnesota transfers possibility into practice.

Anyone who’s made a trip to the western Minnesota town of Morris in recent years will have noticed the 230-foot wind turbine that rises from the prairie. It attracts attention—and even a bit of a social scene. In the evenings, groups of students sprawl on blankets under the whoosh of the turning blades.

But the turbine is more than a local landmark. It’s a symbol and an integral part of the University of Minnesota, Morris’ efforts to become a sustainable campus.

The campus, which has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2010, is drawing on local resources of wind and biomass to move toward complete energy self-sufficiency. The turbine generates nearly half of the campus’ electricity. And when Morris’ first-of-its-kind biomass gasification facility is completed, it will provide energy for more than 80 percent of the campus’ heating and cooling.

Add in recycling, green buildings, a hybrid fleet and several other initiatives, and you’ve got a gold-star standard of campus sustainability.

Jacqueline Johnson, chancellor at the U of M, Morris, attributes this progress to the school’s rural and agricultural ties, highly motivated students and general openness to collaboration. “Whatever a campus does has to be tied directly to its mission,” she says.

Morris’ action-driven mission is echoed across campuses. In fact, the U of M has been at the forefront of implementing sustainability programs, including a new sustainability minor within the College of Liberal Arts, award-winning composting and recycling programs, and early membership in the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Still, without a comprehensive plan, such ambitious efforts remain fragmented. Sorting out what’s already working, where the gaps are and how to bridge them is no small feat. The sheer number of programs and initiatives at the U of M, referred to collectively as “Sustainable U,” presents a challenge in itself.

Enter the Sustainability Goals and Outcomes Committee, which convened earlier this year. The committee is charged with determining exactly what sustainability means for the U of M and how to achieve it.

As the new sustainability coordinator at the U of M, Amy Short is helping to steer the committee’s efforts. She sees challenges ahead, but also an obligation based on the university’s guiding principles and a mission to move forward.

“The U already has a strong policy. We need to model what works,” says Short. “All of higher education is taking on this responsibility.”

Of course, “strong policy” is a relative term. That’s why many schools are turning to organizations such as the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education to make sure they’re on track. Right now, the association is developing a framework using data collected from 90 institutions, including the Morris campus.

Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the AASHE, suggests that higher education institutions should be models of sustainability in both principle and practice.

“Campus sustainability isn’t just about building greener buildings and using less energy,” says Dautremont-Smith. “Those things are really important, but the biggest contribution that higher education can make is in education and research.”

STEPHANIE XENOS is a writer and editor with the U of M’s College of Biological Sciences and a regular contributor to Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

Sustainable Campus Upswing

Nearly 500 schools nationwide, including the U of M, have already signed on to the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment—an agreement to work toward carbon neutrality (i.e. balancing the amount of carbon released with the amount absorbed or otherwise offset).

In 2008, the University of Vermont and the University of Washington were recognized for their leadership in the College Sustainability Report Card, released each year by the Sustainable Endowments Institute.

Harvard, Carleton, Dartmouth and Middlebury have also earned high marks for their sustainability strides.

Outside the country, the University of Leeds has won accolades for its waste recycling program, and the University of British Columbia for its sustainability curriculum.

The University of Glasgow gets almost half of its energy from renewable sources, while schools such as the College of the Atlantic in Maine and EARTH University in Costa Rica are built entirely on the concept.