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Peer Survey Finds UVM a Model for Sustainable Campuses

By Jon Reidel Article published September 14, 2005

UVM is among the nation’s top five institutions as a leader in the field of environmental sustainability, a Cornell University survey of 28 leading institutions, including all Ivy League schools, Stanford and Duke, reported this summer.

The recognition was particularly noteworthy due to the backgrounds of the respondents it was based on. A group largely composed of directors of green campus programs placed UVM second only to Harvard in response to the question, “what institutions do you look to as leaders in the environmental field?” Leith Sharp, director of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative, says the opinion-driven survey was a reflection of the amount of time people like her spend with other sustainability practitioners such as Gioia Thompson, who helped staff UVM’s Environmental Council as a graduate student and remains Council coordinator.

“Each university uses a different model for sustainability and focuses on specific areas,” Sharp says. “Any university that hasn’t dedicated resources to new initiatives is definitely doing business as usual. UVM isn’t one of them. I’m very impressed with Gioia’s ability to network and articulate the vision of UVM amongst our peer group. Vermont’s campus reporting efforts (Tracking UVM; an environmental sustainability indicators report), is a flagship effort that other universities aspire to, but quite frankly, haven’t been able to pull off yet.”

The survey, conducted in the summer of 2004, had three goals: to compare environmental sustainability programs; recommend improvements to Cornell; and establish connections between active individuals and institutions. In the recommendations section, a number of methods used by UVM, the only land-grant institution included in the study aside from Cornell, were mentioned, including UVM’s tradition of letting grassroots efforts, such as the new Eco-Rep Program, take seed, with administrative support coming later, although not always.

Other citations included the utilization of a small grants program, which awards up to $10,000 annually for campus greening projects involving faculty and students; green and local purchasing of environmentally sound products, and the engagement and coordination of all campus and off-campus stakeholders by Environmental Council.

“There’s always been a culture of environmental responsibility at the university,” says Thompson. “Most environmental sustainability efforts at UVM have started at the grassroots level; they sort of bubble up from faculty, students and staff and make their way up to the administration where the leadership has been receptive. It’s not top-down, which is different than many other places, and part of the reason I think we did so well in the survey.”

Another element the report described as unique to UVM is the Environmental Council’s ability to blend on-campus stakeholders and members of the surrounding community. It also noted the importance of the relatively early establishment of the council in May 1996 after Stephanie Kaza, professor at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and longtime faculty co-chair of the council, promoted the idea upon her return from an environmental summit at Yale.

“Stephanie was the driving force behind the founding of the council,” says UVM’s survey respondent Ralph Stuart, a manager at the Environmental Safety Facility and staff co-chair of the Environmental Council. “Our successes are based on a lot of ongoing work with stakeholders in the community. I think it has forced us to define what exactly an environmental university looks like.”

One answer to that question came in the form of the Growing the Environmental University presentation created by the Environmental Council for Provost John Bramley and President Daniel Mark Fogel. The 22-page document outlined a number of past, present and future initiatives, and recommended some specific goals in the areas of service learning, laboratory hazardous waste, recycling, greenhouse gas emissions, and a pilot Green certificate program led by Kaza. These goals were listed under four main categories: environmental academics; environmental culture; environmental campus; and environmental accountability. “The report was well received,” said Stuart. “There’s some work to be done and we’d like some numerical goals. But they (administration) said yes to it on a conceptual level and to the format.”

Some of the report's suggestions have become a reality since the Cornell study was released in June. The university’s informal commitment to LEED certification for all new buildings, which was also cited in the study, was made official on Sept. 1 at convocation when Fogel signed a new Green Building Policy, which states that new buildings, at a minimum, be equivalent to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. The policy also recommends that the university purchase Vermont goods and services whenever “possible and financially feasible.”

"We are gratified that UVM is so well known among its peer institutions in campus sustainability," says Kaza. "This doesn't mean we can sit back on our laurels though. Our new green-building policy is an important sign of commitment and progress, keeping UVM at the front of the pack."