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How Are We Doing? Sustainability Retreat Measures Progress, Sets Goals

Willamette's second annual Sustainability Retreat, held in August at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest lodge on the McKenzie River, brought 32 participants together to take the pulse of Willamette's sustainability efforts.

Four working groups spent three days assessing sustainability as part of Willamette's educational mission, and discussed how many tons of waste are recycled (146 tons a year), how many work vehicles on campus are electric (about two-thirds), and how much energy efficiency measures have reduced energy costs (more than half), all the while escorting stray dragonflies out of rooms and brushing ants off picnic tables.

While participants took early morning walks along the river to see spotted fawns and swapped stories under an almost-full moon, they quickly got down to business. "We're here to develop the tools that will help take us past making decisions based solely on economic considerations," says Economics Professor Nathan Sivers Boyce. "This retreat is intended to be the first of many assessments. It's not a one-shot deal, but something we need to look at every year, just like a budget."

The group set goals, with Political Science Professor Joe Bowersox, who chairs the Sustainability Council, posing the question, "What's the balance between realism and idealism? How much can we achieve?"

Large dreams were given free expression, but the discussion wasn't all pie in the sky. Key decision-makers from across campus were present and engaged, or corresponding from their campus offices. Sustainability efforts, initiated by President Lee Pelton in 2004, have wide buy-in across campus.

The Willamette approach to sustainability is unique. The Sustainability Council not only considers environmental decisions and their economic cost, but also brings education and equity into the discussion, looking at how sustainability is incorporated into curriculum and research, and whether we are creating a sustainable campus community based on social justice. "Our approach is different from anything I've ever seen," says Environmental and Earth Science Professor Karen Arabas.

Under the Microscope
The four working groups developed indicators to assess how issues of sustainability have been incorporated into (1) curriculum, research and campus culture; (2) energy, water, transportation, food and construction; (3) purchasing and waste; and (4) health and well-being. Each group also developed goals, and a roadmap for reaching those goals.

Curriculum, Research and Campus Culture
Bowersox facilitated the discussion about how well sustainability studies have been integrated into curriculum and research. Willamette's faculty have taught and conducted sustainability research for three decades, publishing numerous books and articles on sustainable social, economic and ecological processes. Courses, seminars and class modules on sustainability have been incorporated into the University curriculum since the 1970s, but the last 10 years have seen a proliferation of new course development and modification of existing courses.

"We have a critical mass of about 30 faculty across the university consciously incorporating questions of sustainability into their research and teaching," Bowersox says. However, little has been done to formally track and enhance sustainability studies or assess whether student learning takes place in a culture of service and community outreach--in other words, how much we are helping to sustain our campus and local community. The goal for this year will be to obtain quantifiable data in order to make a meaningful assessment and set future goals.

Energy, Water, Transportation, Food and Construction
Arabas headed up the complex discussions about our physical footprint, which the University has made strong efforts to reduce.

The University's food service contract with Bon Appetit has been good for the environment and the regional economy, with the company buying 80 percent of its food locally, leading to less semi traffic and pollution. Fifteen percent of the food served is organic, and the protein comes from range-fed beef, antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken, and seafood certified by Seafood Watch, according to General Manager Marc Marelich. Sixty percent of all kitchen waste is composted, and all used kitchen grease is recycled for bio-diesel.

With natural gas costs climbing 22 percent last year, energy is a significant drain on the budget. "Energy is a piece we've been looking at since 1985," says Operations Manager Gary Grimm. "This isn't new. We saved $470,000 the first five years alone, after we installed the computerized energy management system. Part of the problem is that we're dealing with building technology from 1854 to 2006." The current goal is to have all campus buildings metered for energy--and water--by 2007 to get a baseline. The larger goal is to reduce energy use by 50 percent by 2020. Grimm, who has a personal and professional interest in sustainability, believes it's doable. He's worked with students the last two years, collecting data on energy and water use, and conducting research into conservation techniques.

Willamette is also looking at fuel use in transportation and working to lessen car dependence. Given the nature of the wildly fluctuating energy-based economy, conservation and conversion to alternative fuels makes sense from a cost-benefit perspective.

Purchasing and Waste
Sivers Boyce's group established the framework for tracking the University's material throughput. The goal is for purchasing decisions to integrate considerations of the environmental and social impact of production as well as the cost, and to minimize waste and the impact of our waste disposal. Efforts will be made to track and reduce waste, including hazardous chemical, construction and medical waste, and to make sure wastes are disposed of in an environmentally sensitive manner. Stormwater runoff is of particular concern, as it ends up in Mill Creek or the already beleaguered Willamette River. "Our goal," Sivers Boyce says, "is to have downstream water quality be as high as upstream water quality."

Health and Well-Being
Psychology Professor Sue Koger headed up the health and wellness component of the retreat. "Not surprisingly, practices and products that harm the environment cause harm to humans as well," she says. "Unsafe or unsupportive working conditions adversely affect well-being, and ultimately impair the institution's effectiveness and even the bottom line."

Of special concern were the toxic materials used on campus, especially in some of the arts and sciences departments, and in Facilities. Campus Safety Director Ross Stout identified three areas of concern as far as hazardous substances: purchase, use and disposal. Members of the group recommended an external assessment and establishment of oversight and enforcement policies. Simple awareness is also part of the solution; Facilities Supervisor Dan Craig has switched to non-toxic cleaning supplies, but some offices still unknowingly order toxic substances.

Ahead of the Curve
The effort to establish sustainability helped build community and commonalities campuswide. "What I like best is the effort to reach all sectors of campus," says Community Service Learning Director Khela Singer-Adams. "We're pulling together with a collaborative effort that will lead to tangible results, and invoking our motto [not unto ourselves alone are we born] in terms of sustainability."

Economics Professor Don Negri was impressed with the focus on attainable outcomes. "People want to do something," he says. "They want to continue to see a change in the culture."

Jesse Finch Gnehm '99, director of Parent Giving, says he's amazed at how much has already been done. "We're a lot further ahead of the curve than most institutions our size."

Bowersox agreed. "We're way beyond recycling paper," he says. "And this gives us a comprehensive blueprint for the next steps. I think it's becoming clear that this push makes sense for us as an institution, and a lot of decision-makers here are ready to move forward."

Some retreat participants have already begun rethinking "business as usual." Administrative Assistant Elizabeth Howe, for instance, has ordered locally produced, fair trade coffee for the University Relations Office and swapped out bottled water for a filter on the breakroom faucet. She says it'll save money, reduce waste, and--according to recent exposes about the quality of bottled water--probably provide healthier water for her colleagues.

The high point of the retreat for Administrative Assistant Andrea Carlson was finding a few moments to hike an old growth trail where a small stream meandered under the rhododendron and Douglas fir. "When you're in a place like this, anything that's wrong all melts away," she says. "Talking about these issues, being out here--this is good medicine."

The retreat was facilitated by Professors Nathan Silvers Boyce, Joe Bowersox, Karen Arabas and Sue Koger, with organizational assistance from Administrative Assistant Andrea Carlson.