By Bill Dawson
Prominent Texas officials harshly condemn the federal effort to reduce climate-altering greenhouse gases, while challenging the mainstream scientific conclusions behind those rules.
Some conservative think tanks and commentators in the state add fuel to that polemical fire with critiques of cleaner, renewable energy and the broader concept of sustainability.
A number of Texas’ top universities don’t seem to be getting the message, however, much less getting with the business-as-usual program it might suggest.
Instead, their administrators continue to adopt and boast about new policies and practices that embrace principles of sustainability in building and managing campus facilities. Such activities include some explicitly aimed at reducing air pollutants including the heat-trapping gases that scientists say are warming the atmosphere.
Baylor University in Waco, the largest Baptist university, is one key example of the actions being made toward greater sustainability in campus operations.
Last month, for the first time since establishing a University Sustainability Committee in 2007, Baylor issued a report [PDF] that detailed the “numerous environmental achievements in waste reduction, recycling and energy conservation” that have resulted.
Among them, the university said, was the implementation of energy-saving programs that “reduced greenhouse gas emissions.”
Baylor’s emphasis on saving energy and protecting the climate has helped make it one of the four Texas universities that received the top grade of A for “climate change and energy,” one of the nine areas evaluated in the Massachusetts-based Sustainable Endowments Institute’s 2011 College Sustainability Report Card. The organization gave overall grades to 13 Texas schools on the basis of separate grades in the nine areas.
The other Texas institutions getting A’s for their climate-energy activities were Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas A&M University in College Station and the University of Houston. Each school’s A marked an improvement from its 2010 rating in the same area. A&M had gotten a B for climate-energy on its 2010 report card, SMU and UH had gotten C’s, and Baylor had received only a D.
Baylor’s report: the Christian context
In its own sustainability report, which Baylor said it will update annually, the university prominently noted its improvement on the Sustainable Endowments Institute’s overall grade – from D-minus in 2007, to C-minus in 2008 and 2009, to C in 2010, to B for 2011.
Still more prominent in the report’s first pages was language placing the university’s sustainability work squarely in the context of its “Christian mission and care for creation.”
On the first page were words from Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. … God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”
The Baylor official who chairs the University Sustainability Committee – Pattie Orr, the school’s vice president for information technology and its libraries dean – stressed this spiritual theme in an introduction:
Because Baylor University is a Christian institution of higher learning, care for God’s creation lies at the heart of our calling. Those famous words from Genesis – ‘let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’ – resound through all of our campus activities and call us to a high level of responsibility to be stewards of everything that God has made.
In a statement announcing the report’s completion, Orr said Baylor’s progress toward greening its operations “will benefit our immediate campus community and also will contribute substantially to the broader conversation about sustainability and bless the surrounding communities.”
The Baylor report noted that the University Sustainability Committee’s initial focus after its launch four years ago was on reducing paper waste and encouraging recycling.
As a result, the university said it has saved “millions of pages of paper,” come close to tripling the amount of recycled material on the Waco campus, and more than doubled its “diversion rate” – the portion of the university’s waste stream that is reused after being diverted from its former destination in a landfill.
In an article on the sustainability report, the Baylor Lariat, the student newspaper, noted Orr’s growing awareness of the ways the university could cut paper waste:
Orr said when she arrived at Baylor, she noticed paper being wasted due to a lack of duplex printers. At that time only five percent of printers on campus had duplex capability, so everything printed on campus was printed on only one side of the paper. Orr began working to increase that number.
“A lot of money and paper could be saved on campus by using duplex printing,” Orr said.
In 2007, about 21 percent of all print jobs on campus utilized both sides of a sheet of paper, and by 2010 that number had jumped to 61 percent.
In addition to saving paper, Orr said she also helped inspire the recycling movement.
“I noticed I would be walking around campus carrying water bottles and didn’t really have anywhere to put them,” Orr said.
There were a few recycling receptacles in certain buildings and trash cans for recycling, but she began campaigning for additional recycling options.
Baylor hired its first full-time sustainability coordinator in 2009, the same year that the University Sustainability Committee added energy conservation to its initial recycling focus. The sustainability report described this new emphasis:
With a sustainable recycling program in place, the USC turned its attention to energy conservation in Spring 2009. As with recycling, the committee began with readily available conservation efforts. A “Last Out, Lights Out” campaign encouraged the Baylor community to turn off lights in vacant classrooms and offices. Over 4,000 switch plate stickers were posted in campus buildings in areas where anyone is permitted to turn off the lights. The USC then worked with Information Technology Services to encourage faculty and staff to power down computer monitors when not in use, and coordinated with the Electronic Library to power down campus computing facilities when vacated. A “Bears Take the Stairs” campaign is now underway to encourage the Baylor community to conserve energy by taking the stairs rather than the elevator.
A comprehensive sustainability policy was then adopted in 2010. Having that policy, the report predicted, means that “established practices in the areas of paper conservation and recycling, developing energy conservation programs and new initiatives with campus gardening and water conservation on the horizon, sustainability efforts for Baylor University are poised for growth in the coming years.”
Food services, a green stadium and a web portal
Baylor was not alone in recent months in touting its sustainability achievements.
Texas A&M, in a February announcement, spotlighted an initiative in which its food-services operation, University Dining, is collaborating with Houston-based Terrabon Inc. to make biofuels from leftover food scraps gathered at the two largest dining centers. An A&M engineering professor, Mark Hotzapple, developed the technology that is being used.
The university also detailed other ways in which University Dining is “committed to implementing and maintaining sustainability in all aspects of the [A&M] dining operation.” The cited examples included:
- Using organic and locally grown foods (some from a “student-run sustainable farm”).
- Recycling cardboard and cooking oil (the latter as bio-diesel to power a delivery truck).
- Providing Fair Trade coffees and composting coffee grounds.
- Launching a recent pilot project aimed at operating solely with compostable and recyclable goods, which was introduced at one food court with plans to expand it to other locations.
About 200 miles north of College Station, the University of North Texas is building a new, 30,000-seat football venue in Denton called Mean Green Stadium. The facility was designed to embrace another connotation of green, along with the name’s primary suggestion of the UNT team’s ferocity, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last month:
The $78 million project is blending eco-friendly features into construction to help lessen the stadium’s environmental impact while saving energy dollars.
“Once it is up and running, it is going to be an amazing experience,” said Todd Spinks, UNT’s director of sustainability.
Windows maximize natural lighting. Native oak trees and vegetation need less water for survival. Three 150-foot tall wind turbines, to be installed on land southwest of the stadium this year, will inject about half a million kilowatt hours a year into one of UNT’s power grids. That wind energy is expected to save the university $40,000 to $50,000 a year.
Derek Thompson, 20, a redshirt sophomore who plays quarterback, said the new stadium will serve as a big motivator for the team while creating a buzz.
“Being environmentally friendly is a hot topic around the country,” Thompson said. “It gets the attention of everybody. Some people who don’t care for sports, they will see we are trying to make a difference. I think it’s cool.”
Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Austin announced in March that it was launching a new Sustainability Web Portal, described as “a university-wide website dedicated to sustainability-related initiatives across campus.”
The site provides access to details on campus operations, “opportunities to get involved,” and a searchable database with information about courses and research, developed by the university’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
One representative UT initiative was the completion last fall of renovation work at the William Randolph Hearst Student Media Center, the first renovation project on campus to receive a “gold certification” from the U.S. Green Building Council. The student-produced Daily Texan newspaper reported [PDF] at the time that the $2.35 million project’s conservation benefits would include a 50 percent reduction in utilities costs.
Such projects and a general commitment to sustainable building practices helped UT earn a B grade in the “green building” category and an overall B-plus grade on its 2011 report card from the Sustainable Endowments Institute. That general grade was up from a B-minus for 2010.
Better grades on 2011 report cards
Of the 13 Texas institutions that received 2011 report cards from the organization, there were 11 – UT, Baylor and nine others – that received higher overall grades than they did for 2010. A&M received a B-minus each year, and UNT, which got an overall B-minus for 2011, did not receive a report card for 2010.
A glance at the Wikipedia entry on sustainability will provide an idea of how complex and debated the word “sustainability” can be. The Sustainable Endowments Institute, which says it is “a special project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors,” uses this commonly-cited definition: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The institute says it bases its report cards on “extensive independent research and survey responses” from colleges and universities themselves. Besides “climate change and energy” and “green building,” it also grades schools on their activities in seven other areas – “administration,” “food and recycling,” “student involvement,” “transportation,” “endowment transparency,” “investment priorities,” and “shareholder engagement.”
In addition to UT and Baylor, the Texas campuses getting better overall grades for 2011 than they did in 2010 were SMU (B, up from C-plus), UH (B-plus, up from B-minus), Houston’s Rice University (B-plus, up from B), Southwestern University in Georgetown (B-plus, up from C-plus), Texas Christian University in Fort Worth (B-minus, up from C-minus), University of Texas at Dallas (B-minus, up from C-minus), San Antonio’s Trinity University (B-minus, up from C), Abilene Christian University (D-plus, up from D), and Texas Tech University in Lubbock (C-minus, up from D-plus).
Tech’s Daily Toreador, the student newspaper, reported last month that university administration and Student Government Association officials believed the university deserved and would have received a higher grade if the institute had taken account of additional information.
In any event, the newspaper reported efforts are being planned that might boost Tech’s score, including a student club aimed at encouraging more students to use bikes as a primary mode of transportation and a competition among residence halls, to be sponsored by the university chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.
In its report issued last month, Baylor’s University Sustainability Committee said its 2011 goals include cutting campus energy use by at least five percent; reducing or eliminating use of Styrofoam at athletic and campus dining facilities; introducing more strategies for conserving water in flower beds and on campus grounds; starting to boost the diversion rate annually; and expanding the use of composting.