At the University of New Hampshire, 'energy captains' teach their classmates ways to conserve energy and water. (Photograph from the University of New Hampshire) At the University of New Hampshire, "energy captains" teach their classmates ways to conserve energy and water.

Planet Earth 101

Why more and more campuses are seeing green in going green.

October 5, 2008
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WHEN HISTORIANS LOOK BACK ON THIS DECADE AND AT WHAT HAD college campuses most fired up, it won't be the war, or the economy, Obama-mania, or even Britney's babies. It will be a color. In the 1960s, students marched for civil rights. In the '70s, they protested Vietnam. In the '80s, they built shanties to fight investments in companies that operated South Africa. More recently, they've debated alcohol use and risky sexual behavior. And now? They're all about green, focused on saving energy, serving organic and local food, and reducing carbon emissions.

Members of Generation Y (loosely pegged as those born between 1980 and 1994) have been accused of having short attention spans - these are kids who can text on their cellphone while typing on their laptop and listening Jay-Z on their iPods - so no one would be entirely shocked if they eventually forgot about saving the earth and moved on. But don't bet on it. This feels different from past crusades in one big way - many schools that once resisted dropping ROTC programs or selling stocks are taking up the eco-challenge. More educators agree that going green can help their schools reduce waste and cuts costs. But they also see a more fundamental reason to follow this path: It impresses parents, applicants, and, most important, donors, as Bates College in Maine learned last month, when a graduate donated $2.5 million to help the school serve more local, organic, farm-fresh foods on campus.

It's happening all over. MIT is cutting energy use and has adopted green design requirements for all of its new campus buildings, but its commitment doesn't stop there. The school is also making it a mission to develop clean and affordable new energy sources, boosting the issue to the top of its research and education agendas. It's a logical response to an urgent global need and by positioning itself as a green leader among colleges and universities under president Susan Hockfield, MIT has also become an immediate draw for students interested in the field and big-money donors who want to see grow. Other schools are responding similarly. Brandeis just announced a new Green MBA for socially responsible business. At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Zipcars and Honda Civic hybrids are popular student rental options, while in Maine, Bowdoin College is dramatically reducing its carbon footprint by ramping up its renewable-energy efforts, mostly from a wind farm.

"Few student movements have been internalized by schools this way," says Mark Orlowski, director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute in Cambridge. "It's happening because student advocates have gotten very effective, and schools are paying attention to energy costs and how their carbon emissions contribute to climate change. There's also competition among schools for the best candidates, and these programs are attracting a lot of attention."

THERE IS NO GREEN BOOK OF ECO-FRIENDLY SCHOOLS, BUT SUSTAINability is already a campus buzzword. And its message - leave enough resources so our children can live as well as we do now - is resonating in ivory towers. More than 550 US schools have signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, requiring them to calculate their greenhouse-gas emissions and draft plans for going carbon-neutral. Many were prodded into action by organizations like the Sunday Night Group at Middlebury College in Vermont, which meets weekly on campus sustainability projects.

These pledges are not rhetoric: Schools must launch multiple efforts, such as cutting electricity use, converting buses to clean fuels, and composting food waste. Many colleges are hiring staff to manage their green programs. "If you want to transform an organization, you need a dedicated team to support staff, student, and faculty efforts," says Leith Sharp, founding director of Harvard's Green Campus Initiative. Characteristically, Harvard is thinking big: Its dedicated staff of 24 manages a $12 million loan fund that departments can tap for energy conservation and waste reduction programs.

These investments have earned Harvard top scores from authorities like the Sustainable Endowments Institute and the Princeton Review, which recently started grading colleges' environmental profiles. Sustainability is not yet a top factor for most students choosing a college, but it's getting attention. Recent polls conducted for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Princeton Review found that 43 and 63 percent of respondents, respectively, were interested in learning about schools' actions to preserve the environment.

Applications are up at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, which is already carbon-neutral. Every student there majors in human ecology - human interactions with the environment. Founded as an alternative to traditional liberal arts colleges, the school is generating new buzz today. "In the past, when we called high schools to set up recruiting visits, counselors often would say, 'We don't have anyone who's interested; call back next year.' Now they're asking us to come," says admission dean Sarah Baker.

Sustainability is also extending beyond some schools' operations and into classrooms. UNH senior Charlotte Todd wasn't all that interested in environmental issues until she took a course on natural resource conservation. "I came out of class thinking, 'Wow, our world is in trouble. I have to change my major,'" she says. Then her professor pointed out that students could apply sustainable ethics in any field they pursued. "Now I'm thinking of all the things I can do majoring in Spanish and international affairs, like ecotourism in Mexico or rain-forest conservation in South America," says Todd.

Effective green campus programs also help students apply what they've learned outside the classroom. As Harvard education professor Richard Light observes in his 2001 book Making the Most of College, that's where students spend most of their waking hours. Projects that bridge the gap make college especially rewarding. Middlebury physics major Jenny Erwin rhapsodizes about helping convert a 1948 Ford tractor from gasoline to hydrogen fuel (the college will use the tractor to plow its organic garden). "Classes can be frustrating when you don't see any real-world application for what you're studying, but I loved this project because we were doing something meaningful," Erwin says. "I wish everyone was required to do something like this."

As environmental issues become more mainstream, students will demand more green credibility from colleges. Kids today grow up recycling and go to Earth Day concerts with their parents. (My 6-year-old daughter came home from camp this summer wearing a Green Team badge and explaining why littering was bad.) Debora Phipps, an English teacher at the Moses Brown School in Providence, was surprised when her first batch of papers came in printed double-sided. "My first thought was 'How am going to grade these?' because I write a lot of comments, but it's great that the kids were used to saving paper," says Phipps. "You can see a generational change coming among school-age kids. Colleges need to be on top of it."

Jennifer Weeks is a writer in Watertown. Send comments to

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