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Area colleges getting greener

SUNDAY, AUG. 24, 2008

Movement brings a variety of benefits

A garden that lives on rainwater. A no-till wheat field on campus. Campaigns against plastic bottles and paper cups.

From cafeterias to research labs, the region’s colleges are making environmental practices and programs a growing priority in every corner of campus life.

It’s not the first flush of green at the schools, some of which have been involved in researching alternative energy for decades. But in many ways, this school year will be the greenest ever, whether it’s as a focus of new programs and initiatives, the design of new buildings or a push to reduce waste in cafeterias.

“It is growing as a research area,” said Howard Grimes, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at Washington State University. “It is driven by the society we live in.”

Grimes is helping to lead an effort to create a Virtual College of Sustainability and the Environment at WSU, something the university hopes will combine an urgency on environmental research with information technologies that allow sharing data across distances and organizations. Part of the project will capitalize on WSU’s long-standing research in environmental arenas, from biofuels to atmospheric science, Grimes said.

Across the border, students and faculty at the University of Idaho are working on the design of a carbon-neutral environmental learning center; the effort attracted federal grant funding for the design, with construction set for 2009. The UI has added new graduate degree programs in water resources and bioregional design and is auditing campuswide energy use to see where it can be more efficient.

Construction is another area of environmental focus. As colleges build facilities, they typically try to achieve “green standards” – maximizing natural light, reducing water use and installing low-maintenance landscaping, among other steps.

WSU is pursuing certification as a green building under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards for the newly renovated $86 million Compton Union Building; it would be the first such building on campus. In its recent alumni magazine, Eastern Washington University touted water-saving bathrooms at its new rec center. Gonzaga University is getting ready for the grand opening of its new PACCAR Center for Applied Science, and the university is seeking green certification for that, as well, with a design that emphasizes recycled materials, reduced energy and water use, and natural light.

A priority for students

Much of the push for greener campuses comes from students – and is focused on their environmental practices.

At GU, a student helped spearhead the Lug a Jug! campaign to reduce use of bottled water. This fall, Whitworth will distribute mugs to students and charge extra for paper cups at its coffee shops. The university’s Web site encourages students to take a “sustainability challenge,” promoted by an image of the Whitworth Pirate, decked out in green.

At Spokane Community College the Hagan Foundation Center for the Humanities has made sustainability its theme – both for last academic year and the upcoming one.

All this activity is important to colleges for several reasons, ranging from the positive impact on the environment to cost savings achieved through efficiency. Not least among the considerations, though, is image – students want a college with a green reputation, and a host of green rankings are springing up to help direct those decisions.

A Princeton Review survey found that 63 percent of college applicants surveyed this year said an institution’s environmental commitment could be a factor in their decision to attend.

But the movement is so widespread that a backlash is only natural. Whitworth University English professor Vic Bobb wrote a piece for Whitworth Today last year addressing that subject – suggesting that the very word “sustainability” has accumulated baggage that might work against it.

“ ‘Sustainability’ has come to be associated with the bullying and the intellectual dishonesty of the more vocal and apocalyptic global-warming activists,” he wrote. “Even though sustainability and climate change are separate matters, they’ve been (not unreasonably) conflated in people’s minds. It’s easy to understand why a person would edge sideways so as not to be touched by the penumbra of the ugly associations of ‘sustainability’ in 2007.”

Bobb suggested that “stewardship” might be a more attractive term.

Critics from the right – who long have complained of a liberal bias on campus – have suggested that sustainability has become a kind of cover for a broader liberal view of the world.

At a panel discussion hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year, the president of Furman University in South Carolina, David E. Shi, said sustainability proponents need to be careful of a “holier-than-thou” attitude.

That’s something that Jim O’Brien, general manager for food service company Sodexo at Whitworth, keeps in mind with any new program.

“If you start pushing a sustainability idea down people’s throats, they react negatively to it,” he said.

Google dreams

For scientists, the questions have less to do with public perception and more to do with trying to respond to a problem. With concern about global warming and energy prices driving widespread economic weakness, researchers at public universities should be applying their expertise to finding solutions, Grimes said.

WSU’s push for a virtual college of sustainability is seen as a way to fulfill the land-grant university mission of addressing social problems, Grimes said.

It’s an idea still taking shape. University officials plan to meet with representatives of Google and Microsoft to pick their brains, Grimes said. But the college is expected to define key environmental problems facing the region and then organize a response to them, which could include public policy proposals. A specific plan is expected this fall, and it could be up and running before the end of the academic year, Grimes said.

“I know about Facebook, I know about MySpace. But what else is out there?” he said. “What else can we do with the information resources that are out there? … I want to know what the Google people are dreaming about.”

The idea of having a “virtual” college – as opposed to trying to create a bricks-and-mortar enterprise – is that WSU already has a wide range of environmental research, and an online enterprise would allow different departments and programs to collaborate. It also would mean the college could draw on resources from other universities, the government and private sector, Grimes said.

The UI has been involved in researching alternative fuels and sustainable practices for more than 20 years. It established a new master’s degree in sustainable community design and a graduate program on water resources.

Robert Farnsworth, who earned his master’s degree at UI last year, got a $10,000 grant from the university to design and build a garden that uses only rainwater. The garden, which includes perennials, trees and shrubs, uses water that runs off the roof of the Art and Architecture building; it’s stored in underground tanks.

He says capturing rainwater makes sense in a region like the Inland Northwest, which gets a good amount of annual rainfall but also has a drought season. He and his students spent the past 18 months designing and building the garden, which is now planted.

Farnsworth has left to teach at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., where he’ll head up a new “green direction” for the program. He says issues of sustainability and the environment are only going to grow.

“Horticulture and landscape programs are jumping on board the green industry, not only for the social good but also for the tremendous opportunities,” he said.

‘A huge push’

The “Back 40” at Whitworth is planted with wheat that may eventually find its way into the students’ diets. But the 60-by-60-foot “field” at the back of the campus is less about food production than promoting the idea of local farming and environmentally friendly techniques, said O’Brien, the general manager for Sodexo at Whitworth.

Sodexo, which also operates food services for Gonzaga and the Community Colleges of Spokane, has undertaken a variety of initiatives to reduce waste and develop sustainable practices. O’Brien said the company likes to develop ideas that grow from the student body.

The Back 40 arose from a local company that promotes sustainable family farming, Shepherd’s Grain. In combination with company founder Fred Fleming, Whitworth planted the field with mustard last spring and winter wheat this spring.

O’Brien said the “farm” is just one piece of an overall vision for incorporating sustainable practices at Whitworth.

“There’s been a huge push over the last two or three years,” he said. “People are just concerned about the environment and want to participate in any way they can.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or


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