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Two Tales of Going Green

Ed Poppell, vice president for business affairs at the University of Florida, and Sheri Tonn, vice president for finance and operations at Pacific Lutheran University, compare notes on sustainability initiatives at their two very different campuses.

By Michele Madia

The sustainability stories of Ed Poppell and Sheri Tonn began on different tracks. Poppell's experience made him aware, early on, of the importance of conserving resources, while Tonn's start on the academic side made the idea of sustainability more theoretical.

Where both stories converge is on the factors that make for successful sustainability initiatives: campuswide buy-in and student involvement. Says Poppell: “Our sustainability programs generate the most passion I've seen in our student body in many years.” Poppell's and Tonn's institutions—the University of Florida (UF) and Pacific Lutheran University (PLU)—are both American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) signatories. They're also charter participants that helped test the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS) tool developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

In this interview with Business Officer, Poppell and Tonn share their advice for maintaining enthusiasm for sustainability efforts over the long haul. In a nutshell: “Be authentic,” says Tonn. “And consistent,” Poppell adds.

MADIA: Your institutions have made significant commitments to sustainability. What was the initial motivation for heading down this path?

TONN: In 1994, PLU sent a small group of faculty and students to the Campus Earth Summit at Yale University, and that was probably the seed that began to sprout interest among our student body. This grew into a real grassroots effort by about 2000, and in 2004, our president signed the Talloires Declaration. After some fairly lively discussion, the faculty unanimously passed the resolution, bringing our entire community together. By the time the ACUPCC came along, everyone was pretty much on board.

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Ed Poppell hails from a large public research university where a change in presidency spurred a top-down push to become a national leader in sustainability initiatives. Currently vice president for business affairs for the University of Florida, Gainesville, Poppell says that because of his long tenure in business and accounting, “conservation and responsible stewardship of resources have always made good common sense to me.”

POPPELL: By the early 2000s, we were attempting a greenhouse gas inventory and trying to measure our carbon footprint well before it was in vogue to talk about such things. Signing the ACUPCC was one piece of the overall equation for us to show our commitment not only to our campus, but to tell the nation of our aim to be a sustainability leader. We now have incorporated sustainability into our master plan and developed a campuswide strategic plan for sustainability. This involved holding focus groups at all levels so that everyone had a part in developing this road map. As a result, there are few if any doubts about our expectations and goals.

MADIA: How have you helped administrative leaders, faculty, and students shape a plan that is focused on institution success while it maintains a balance among the specific desires of various constituencies?

POPPELL: If you're really committed, there's no activity that you can't view through a sustainability lens. In one example, we conducted an energy summit at which individuals from across the institution developed a strategy to conserve 10 percent on our water and utility bills. This action alone is saving the university millions of dollars. We also engage in recycling on game days. While the results are not as dramatic, this sends an important message about consistency in behavior and each of us doing our part. It's critical to do the big stuff, but you also must be willing to do the symbolic.

TONN: One concern is that our vocal commitment to sustainability will be seen as “greenwashing.” Leadership is careful to ensure that whatever we do is authentic. For instance, with the pursuit of LEED certification, we've seen a real need to educate our constituencies not only about why this matters, but about the importance of maintaining a different operational mind-set after construction is complete. You can't build a LEED Gold building and then treat it like you would any other facility—without taking into account the special features that went into its construction or doing all you can to ensure that you truly maximize the energy and water savings of which the building is capable.

MADIA: What other hurdles have you faced in recent years?

POPPELL: We've struggled with incorporating sustainability throughout the curriculum, whether that's a poetry class or a chemistry or environmental engineering class. In some cases the difficulty has centered not on the need to do this but on how to go about it. And yet, the students, no matter their discipline, want this to be part of their education. In many respects, sustainability has become a recruitment tool. Another challenge we're currently grappling with is transparency as it relates to investment practices and philosophies—how we balance our goals to maximize our return while remaining true to our core values.

TONN: Ironically, our biggest issue right now is the low cost of electricity in the Pacific Northwest, which makes it difficult to demonstrate a payback on green power investments that would reduce our carbon footprint. If our cost of electricity were similar to that of the rest of the country—in some cases as much as three or four times higher—it would be easy to sell these projects. That said, we're also quite concerned that the cost of electricity may equalize here, so we want to be prepared for that day. And even though our electricity is inexpensive, we still calculate how much money we're saving. In one semester, student residence hall competitions resulted in $16,000 in real dollars saved. That may not sound like a lot, but cumulatively it adds up.

MADIA: Do you think ACUPCC and STARS are good avenues for getting started?

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In contrast to Ed Poppell's career path, Sheri Tonn's entry to higher education was as a faculty member teaching environmental chemistry. “Initially, sustainability held more of a theoretical construct for me, so I've had to learn the practical side,” says Tonn, vice president for finance and operations, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington. At her independent liberal arts institution, sustainability took hold from the ground up as a student-led movement that the university's president was quick to embrace.

TONN: The ACUPCC has done a great job of elevating the issues and rallying together a broad group of institutions committed to tackling our common challenge of climate change. The huge benefit of both efforts is the structure they provide to measure our progress and outcomes. For instance, with STARS you can systematically collect campus sustainability data and compare it with that of others. But, the key benefit is a solid assessment of what your own campus is achieving. 

POPPELL: While involvement in ACUPCC and AASHE is a good idea, it's not absolutely necessary. Some institutions that are very committed to sustainability have not joined for a variety of reasons. I would take all equally committed institutions, with or without their signatures, and say, “Go for it.” Let's work together on these challenges. Sustainability is forever. It's not, “I signed a contract. Here are my deliverables. I'm done.” What if I don't make my 2015 zero-waste goal? I'm still trying. If I'm at 30 percent, that's still progress.

Similarly, our institution was a STARS pilot member mainly because we believe that an institution needs to measure its progress. However, when institutions can compare performance, this can turn off a certain segment of the population that is likely to discredit the process or choose not to participate if they don't get a high grade. The important point is for every institution to focus on its own performance, since ultimately each institution is different. Because I want every institution to participate in sustainability, I don't want it to be seen as a race.

MADIA: What do you see as the biggest challenges that lie ahead for higher education as an industry? 

TONN: In 10 years we may all look back and feel like we were in the Sustainability Stone Age. I do think we'll see some great improvements not only in technology, but also in terms of human behavior and the choices people make. One of the nifty developments on our campus and many others has been a movement toward local food and the reconnection of students and the campus community to food sources and distribution. Those involved in our student-run garden have reached out to local elementary schools to help these kids start their own gardens, and that has been fun to watch.

POPPELL: The specific work will evolve based on the critical issues of each generation. One thing for certain is that sustainability is here to stay, and we as business officers need to continue to educate ourselves about the range of areas important to our institutions and our constituents.

MICHELE MADIA is director, environmental leadership, for NACUBO.