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Making the Case for ROI in Sustainable IT Projects

By Diana G. Oblinger and John Walda

For a longer version of this article, refer to EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 6 (November/December 2009).

Faced with shrinking budgets and a growing realization of the role that information technology plays as both an energy consumer and a potential partner in the quest for a sustainable campus, IT departments in colleges and universities confront a dilemma: Should they ignore potential green initiatives until the financial crisis eases, or can the quest for sustainability be promoted as green on two fronts-leading not only to a more environmentally conscious campus but also to financial returns in the long run?

Making the case for a return on investment (ROI) is not a new exercise for campus CIOs and CBOs, who often collaborate when extra funds need to be squeezed from tight budgets to bankroll high-priority projects that may fall outside the normal operational budget. In this process, CIOs need to clearly articulate the critical importance of certain projects, whereas CBOs need to gain a good understanding of what is involved and the potential outcomes, so that together they can articulate the ROI for the campus and present a persuasive argument for investment.

These same principles apply to IT sustainability projects. In today's economic downturn, presidents, provosts, and boards are less able to allocate resources to sustainability projects for the sole reason of social responsibility. But incorporating these green efforts into a strong business plan that shows a return on investment may result in a winning argument, even when the budget is limited.

It is an argument that needs to be made. In the United States, the federal government is becoming increasingly committed to sustainability and is looking at legislation to address climate change. Likewise, sustainability is growing in importance in higher education as campuses try to use less and conserve more energy, to do their part in the fight to slow the effects of global climate change. As of this writing, 650 college presidents and chancellors have shown their support by signing the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, promising to take steps that will change their consumption practices.

Leading associations in higher education, including EDUCAUSE and the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), are focusing on sustainability. EDUCAUSE designated “Sustainability and Green IT” as one of three key themes to explore in 2009, following the EDUCAUSE Summit on IT Greening and Sustainability in November 2008. For four consecutive years, NACUBO has hosted the Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference, and sustainability was a featured theme at the NACUBO 2009 Annual Meeting in June.

Although many of the changes on the campuses highlighted in the accompanying article were prompted by environmental concerns, most also mean good economics, either through curbing the campus utility bill or leading to less consumption. By procuring energy-efficient equipment, working toward server consolidation, and practicing better cooling techniques in data centers to reduce energy and address waste disposal, campuses can see real savings.

Regardless of where a campus stands in its sustainability efforts-whether creating a baseline inventory or engaging in long-range programs-central and distributed IT must have a seat at the planning table. As consumers of energy and producers of greenhouse gases, IT organizations have a critical role to play in the move toward green IT. In this process, CIOs must work with CBOs. By making the case-by showing that green IT can be truly green, through cost savings or ROI-these leaders can contribute to a campus that is both financially healthy and environmentally conscious.

DIANA G. OBLINGER is president and chief executive officer of EDUCAUSE, and JOHN WALDA is president and chief executive officer of NACUBO.

Return to main article, “Low-Carbon Computing.”