|Vallie Lewis Edenbo ’02 is enthused about the new environmental push on campus.
Dickinson is a small school, right? But look at the numbers: It’s more than 200 acres with 120 buildings where nearly 2,000 people live and learn and another 800 or so come to work.
That’s a big operation.
Imagine the yearly electric bill. ($1.2 million.) How about fossil fuels? ($800,000.) Water and sewer? ($350,000.) Trash and recycling? ($100,000.)
When oil prices spiked in late summer, college officials did the math and realized energy costs were going to jump by as much as $900,000. But they were in the enviable position of having environmental initiatives and practices already on the table. Energy conservation had become a key component of financial well-being, as well as the right thing to do by Mother Nature.
For years the college has had a solid, if underreported, record of environmental awareness and action. With a new strategic plan in place, there’s been an aggressive call to action. And every member of the campus community is responsible for the outcome.
Conservation initiatives require the efforts of many, and they develop over time. Going green doesn’t happen by accident.
The strategic plan that Dickinson adopted for the years 2001 through 2005 included five characteristics that define the college: community of inquiry, global perspective, useful education, citizen-leaders and diversity. The new plan, adopted for 2006 through 2010, includes all of those and a sixth—accountability and sustainability. With this new characteristic, Dickinson made the leap, taking its commitment to sustainability to a whole new level.
But what is sustainability?
“In a popular sense, it means having economic and social systems in place that allow the status quo to be maintained without drawing down on resources,” says Marcus Key, professor of geology.
As a paleontologist who studies the interactions of organisms with their environment through time, Key concedes that true sustainability, by academic definition, isn’t possible.
“It’s an anthropocentric concept,” he says. “Let’s say I decide not to heat my house with natural gas. I buy 40 acres of forest and harvest the firewood at a certain rate. I may be able to make that sustainable for my needs, but the trees won’t fall down and rot for the use of other animals. It doesn’t work for the earthworms.”
Dickinson’s use of the word has to do with living and working responsibly. The strategic plan declares a respect for the natural world and asserts that the college’s planning will include the integration of environmental accountability throughout the institution while ensuring economic viability.
Plenty of institutions support sustainability, but getting this language into the official strategic plan—a move that is somewhat unusual—was a grassroots effort.
In 2004, after much thought and research, Vallie Lewis Edenbo ’02, Dickinson’s program coordinator for environmental studies, and Laura Walters ’04, an environmental-studies major who spent a year postgraduation working as the college’s environmental specialist, wrote a proposal for sustainability on campus.
“Environmental awareness gets treated like a fringe issue,” Edenbo says. “But sustainability is a civic responsibility—like voting and contributing to the local economy.”
It wasn’t a new idea—Edenbo’s colleagues in departments like environmental studies and members of other leadership groups, like Alliance for Aquatic Monitoring (ALLARM), the student garden, Treehouse, Earth Now and Dickinson’s Commission on the Environment (COTE), had been working on sustainability issues for years. But the revision of the strategic plan offered an opportunity for Edenbo and Walters. They pushed the proposal with the support of those environmental leaders.
“At first we thought we were overshooting,” Edenbo says. At the time, President William G. Durden ’71 was holding town meetings to gather feedback on phase two of the strategic plan. “We asked [faculty, staff and students] who supported sustainability to stand up at those meetings and speak,” she says. “And we had a potent network of alumni who wrote e-mails to the president, the planning and budget committee and COTE.”
Thom Wallace ’99 was one of those alumni. As a student he had lived in the Center for Sustainable Living, aka the Treehouse, a student-directed learning community. Students concerned with conservation issues live together and do their best to model environmentally aware ways of living.
“We were more than a bunch of hippies playing drums,” Wallace says of his college days as a Treekid. “It was a stereotype we had to live with. We were not all of one description. I was an American-studies major. But we were all interested in making the campus a more efficient operation.”
After graduation Wallace joined other impassioned grads in founding Alumni for a Sustainable Dickinson to encourage the college to move toward a more environmentally friendly future. He describes it as a core group of about 10 people who “stay on things” and can quickly call into action more alumni when needed.
“We are just people in the business world who care about their college,” Wallace says of the group. “In supporting sustainability, we were taking on the call from President Durden to connect with the college community.”
Last year, Wallace got the chance to connect with Durden in Seattle, where Wallace owns Ecofusion Multimedia, a communications and media company.
“I ran into the president getting coffee at the Elliott Bay Bookstore,” Wallace says, still amazed. “He was in town for a meeting. We had a great talk about the issues.”
Today Wallace is thrilled that the college has elevated sustainability to an official part of its strategic plan. “Dickinson is part of the revolution. Sustainability is a liberal-arts issue. It’s more than environmentalism. It’s about livability and people being healthy. And there is a dollar value, too. Sustainability is good business.”
The Mascot’s New Clothes
The next step was to get people involved, college-wide. So the President’s All-college Task Force for Energy Conservation and Sustainability, comprised of faculty, staff and students, was created in late 2005.
Led by Ken Shultes ’89, associate vice president for campus operations, the task force’s job was to develop short-term ideas to cut the energy-budget deficit and long-term recommendations to support sustainability. After a month’s work, it presented the president’s office and the student senate with 80 well-organized ideas.
Many of the group’s suggestions were implemented immediately. For example, there’s a “Turn me off” campaign. T-shirts sport the mantra, as do stickers posted above just about every light switch on campus. The logo includes the three-arrow symbol for reduce, reuse and recycle, along with the Dickinson Red Devil—appropriately garbed in green.
The task force also recommended that computer monitors be shut down when not in use. Durwin “Whitey” Ellerman, associate director for operations, facilities management, conducted an audit on his own computer. During separate two-week periods, he compared the difference in energy usage between shutting off his monitor at night and leaving it on. The test showed the savings could be $20,000 per year, if one estimates there are 3,000 to 4,000 computers on campus.
A host of other ideas have or will become evident on campus, including an energy audit requested by the task force to determine existing expenses and to help to determine future priorities.
“We’re encouraging people to live and work in ways that are more economical and friendlier to the environment,” Shultes says. “We’re asking for active participation and accountability. Behavioral changes like turning off the lights and monitors may seem simple, but the total saving could be huge—perhaps 20 percent of the college’s total utility costs, meaning we could save more than $200,000 per year. Just by shutting things off at night.”
Responsible energy use is not a new concept at Dickinson. “We’ve concentrated for two decades on the conservation of energy consumed per student and energy consumed per gross square foot,” says Shultes. “These are benchmarks that we achieve very well. The college gets 12.5 percent of its energy from wind power. And we’ve been strategic in getting the best rates on fossil fuels and electricity.
It’s an excellent starting place, but convincing people they can make a difference is a challenge. Key, a member of the task force, says you have to hit people where they live—in their wallets.
“All organisms are inherently selfish,” he says. “At home, I get the gas bill, blow my top and tell my kids to put on sweaters. It’s immediate. But at work, we don’t get the bill. Money gets people’s attention. So, maybe the high costs of energy will interfere with an employee’s raise, or maybe it’ll hike a student’s tuition. People generally understand that.”
Key says it’s also possible to appeal to one’s moral sensibility. “For example, oil is used for everything from fertilizer to the lid of this coffee cup,” Key says, indicating a to-go cup. “If we use too much oil, the price continues to rise, and perhaps a poor farmer in India can’t fertilize his field and so can’t feed his family. People care about things like that—it gets through to them.”
Behavioral change might be the most immediate source of headway on conservation, but people can’t pull off a greening of this magnitude without some carefully executed help from the college’s physical plant.
One of the biggest changes on campus this winter was an expanded energy-curtailment program over the 10-day holiday break, when the temperature inside most buildings was reduced to about 45 degrees. A similar program continues to curtail energy use in campus offices and academic buildings every night.
“The college has an energy-management system,” Ellerman says. “It’s a nerve center that operates through the Ethernet (a local-area network) on fiber-optic cables, and there are built-in temperature setbacks. Computer systems control the valves. It’s a big change from the old, hard-wired system with pneumatic controls.
“But it still takes a personal touch,” he adds, smiling. After 30 years at Dickinson, he should know. “If it’s man-made, it can fail. So we’re out there all the time. I can walk into a mechanical room and tell by listening that a bearing has gone bad. It’s what we do; we have a great staff.”
Energy efficiency will receive an even greater boost with the construction of a $5 million central energy plant, one block north of the Quads. The plant will be operational by this fall and will provide more capacity, greater conservation and central cooling to a large part of campus. It also will be able to support the new science complex, which will be a source of sustainability pride—the college is seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for it from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Dickinson also has invested in a somewhat less expensive but more visible symbol of conservation—a fleet of red bicycles. They’re stationed outside the HUB, available for free use as a means to reduce driving and to serve as a reminder of the kinds of behaviors that make a difference. And keep an eye out for a bow-tied bike rider on campus, because the president has his own.
“The alumni should know they’re not the only ones who are concerned about this,” says Key. “The college is concerned as an institution, but it’s also part of what we teach,” he adds, referring to his own class in energy resources and those of many others, like Professor of Environmental Studies and Geography Michael Heiman’s course on energy policy.
Nicola Tynan, assistant professor of economics and task-force member, points out that the campus community will feel the benefits now, “but we’re also thinking longer term. It’s a matter of how you look at it: sustainability is not a cross we bear, it’s what we’re proud of.” •
For more information, go to: www.dickinson.sustainablealumni.com.