Green acres: University’s sustainability grades improve

By on September 29, 2008

By Dennis O’Neil

Sitting on a couch in her office, Barbara Burns discusses many environmental issues she feels currently plague the University of Louisville.

When the subject of energy conservation arises, Burns gets up from the couch and switches off the lights, transforming her well lit office into something resembling a dark cave.

Over lighting, Burns said is just one of many sustainability problems that need to be corrected at U of L.

“I know at one point we were spending a million dollars a month on energy at U of L,” Burns said. “People leave their computers on or they don’t turn the lights off in their offices or classrooms. It’s just habit.”

Burns will now have the opportunity to find solutions for these problems though, as she was appointed head of the new Sustainability Council created by Provost Shirley Willihnganz over the summer. According to Vice President for Business Affairs Larry Owsley, the Council will address areas such as education, finance and community outreach in order to improve sustainability practices across the university.

Burns, the head of the Psychology department, said the response to the Council’s creation has been extremely strong thus far.

“I just got a call from someone in the dental school wanting to see if they could create courses in sustainability,” Burns said. “Every day something equally crazy is happening with someone calling saying they want to be connected with this Council.”

U of L’s sustainability practices were recently given a grade of B- in the Sustainable Endowment Institute’s annual report card, an improvement on its C+ grade from 2007. The university received higher grades from a year ago in areas like Food & Recycling, where it went from a B to an A, but saw certain grades remain the same, such as a C in Climate Change & Energy.

Despite the improved marks in recycling, Owsley said he feels the university can still improve a great deal in this area. With energy, he said U of L recently contracted Siemens Building Technologies to do an audit of all university energy practices. When the audit is completed, Siemens will recommend equipment for the university to purchase and install in its buildings to reduce energy consumption. Owsley said this should save U of L a significant amount of money in the long run.

With the SEI report card behind them, Burns and Owsley are now turning their attention to a future evaluation from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) sometime late next year. Burns said this evaluation was one of the primary reasons for the Sustainability Council’s formation.

Owsley only said the Council’s

formation was “internally motivated,” but did say he anticipates a much more thorough evaluation from AASHE than the one received from SEI, which doesn’t give universities much feedback on how to improve their sustainability practices.

“AASHE is more thorough in terms of the breadth of what they look at,” Owsley said. “The SEI asked questions and doesn’t provide many guidelines for how to improve. It is a valuable piece, but it isn’t as helpful to move forward or make progress on.”

According to Alexandra Adler, a communications fellow with SEI, the Institute doesn’t provide guidelines for improvement because it evaluates so many different colleges and doesn’t want to create the sense that there is only one way to get a good grade. She also said the report card’s results were published online, which allows universities to research one another’s practices and come up with new ideas.

Student Government Association President Rudy Spencer said he was encouraged by SEI’s improved grading of U of L, but also said he feels there is need for significant improvement, particularly in recycling. Spencer mentioned an encounter he had with a transfer student from California, who told him the differences in recycling opportunities between her home state and Louisville are substantial.

“In places like that, recycling is so institutionalized that you always have a choice between throwing something away and recycling,” Spencer said. “That is the type of thing we want to offer here. We, as individuals, are going to have to begin making that change.”

For Philosophy Professor Avery Kolers, another member of the Sustainability Council, recycling is just one of many problems that need to be addressed on campus. One problem he mentioned was that of fossil fuel-powered landscaping equipment such as leaf blowers and a solution he has come up with for it.

“One thing I have suggested to get rid of leaf blowers is to offer free smoothies or coupons for free smoothies to any student or faculty member who rakes leaves for an hour,” Kolers said. “We could make some serious improvements just by addressing some obvious problems like that one.”

Kolers said he has encountered many environmentally-conscious students on campus, but that they often think recycling is the only sustainable practice they can engage in. Junior philosophy major Joey Baker said he felt, for some students, supporting green movements may just be a new fad.

“A lot of students support these green movements, but don’t do anything to promote it in their daily life,” Baker said. “Students need to take a bigger part.”

Burns said one of the Council’s chief objectives is to educate students more on sustainability practices. They will be holding a Sustainability Day event on October 22 in the quadrangle where many environmentalist groups will provide an information fair for students. They are also discussing new sustainability curriculum and a possible major or undergraduate certification to be offered for the subject.

“This is a good example of U of L really putting its money where its mouth is,” Burns said. “This is a whole new way of connecting with the community. We could really put U of L on the map with this work.”

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