Online version of UW-Eau Claire's magazine for alumni and friends  

The greening of the blue and gold

University makes commitment to sustainability

By Nancy Wesenberg

UW-Eau Claire's Campus MallIt’s nearing the end of the spring 2008 semester, and 10 students from eight different disciplines are in a conference room in Schofield Hall preparing to make a presentation to Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich and other campus administrators. They are clearly a little nervous, laughing and joking quietly as they ready their PowerPoint presentation, but there is a sense of excitement and anticipation in the room as well.

Just beyond the large conference room windows is UW-Eau Claire’s famous footbridge, spanning the Chippewa River as it winds through lower campus, but both bridge and river are almost entirely obscured now by the tops of several large trees fully leafed out after generous spring rains. The view outside these windows is one long expanse of green, and as another semester on “Wisconsin’s most beautiful campus” is winding down, the students inside this conference room are not only seeing green but thinking green as well. 

This is UW-Eau Claire’s first Carbon Neutrality Team, and its members are about to present the chancellor with research they conducted as part of associate professor of biology Kristina Beuning’s advanced interdisciplinary study course, “UW-Eau Claire Campus Carbon Inventory.” For an entire semester, these students worked with people like Terry Classen, director of facilities planning and management, and Ricardo Gonzales, campus facilities planner, to collect data that allowed them to determine the size of the university’s carbon footprint.

A carbon footprint is generally defined as a measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced. Measured in units of carbon dioxide, the footprint is considered useful for individuals and organizations trying to understand their personal or organizational contribution to global warming.

The students get up one by one to speak about their findings regarding the university’s use of coal, oil, gas and electricity; the amount of waste generated on campus; the carbon “offsets” the university can claim through land preservation and other energy-saving measures; their findings about transportation used by students, faculty and staff; and, finally, their recommendations for reducing the university’s carbon footprint. As the students answer the chancellor’s thoughtful questions about their research, it’s obvious that they share a sense of purpose and an awareness of having been engaged in something of historic importance. They have just completed one of the first steps necessary to make UW-Eau Claire a more environmentally responsible and sustainable campus. 

The university first made a public statement about its sustainability efforts in August 2007 when the chancellor joined 350 other universities (now closer to 600) in signing the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment to set and attain sustainable energy and environmental goals for the university. This commitment includes planning to reduce or offset campuses’ overall input of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere until an ideal of carbon neutrality is achieved, as well as integrating sustainability education into campus curriculums.

Engaging the campus community
One of the first steps mandated by the ACUPCC was to complete the comprehensive inventory of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the university and its operations within one year of signing the commitment and to update it every other year thereafter. The chancellor assembled an initial five-member Climate Commitment Advisory Team of faculty members to help guide these efforts, and Beuning, as one of its members, volunteered to offer the class that led to UW-Eau Claire’s first carbon inventory. The presentation the students made in May will be presented to the chancellor as a written report this fall.

“I felt it was especially important that we have our students involved in the climate commitment right from the start, and they certainly proved to be up to the task of completing this carbon inventory,” Levin-Stankevich said. “It’s important that there be a strong educational component to any university initiative.”

And while this step is an important one, it is not the only initiative aimed at making the home of all Blugolds greener. UW-Eau Claire’s students, faculty and staff have joined others from college and university campuses around the nation in working toward a more sustainable environment with a passion and commitment that has been compared to the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s. Newer initiatives are being combined with conservation measures that have been quietly in place for many years to create a newly focused and integrated sustainability effort, albeit with many complex parts.

According to Gonzales, an important part of these efforts will be the university’s new yearlong master-planning process for the campus and its facilities. In June 2008 UW-Eau Claire submitted a request for proposals, to be reviewed and approved by the UW System, which would allow the university to hire a firm to support these efforts. The firm chosen will be qualified to emphasize sustainability and make alterations to UW-Eau Claire’s campus and facilities so that they complement the goals of the university’s newly adopted strategic plan, now known as UW-Eau Claire’s Centennial Plan, “Transforming Our Future.” The plan aims to make UW-Eau Claire the premier undergraduate learning community in the Midwest, noted for rigorous, integrated, globally infused undergraduate liberal education and distinctive, select graduate programs, all on a campus committed to stewardship and sustainability. The strategic plan states that stewardship “entails making prudent choices about all our resources — human, physical and financial”; that as stewards of place, “we can positively enhance our environment by optimizing our facilities, our energy use and our creation of green spaces”; and that UW-Eau Claire has the opportunity “to model sustainable practices, pilot innovative approaches to resource use and work with our community to create solutions to environmental challenges.” (To read the entire plan, visit the chancellor’s Web site at www.uwec.edu/chancellor, and click on the left-hand link for “strategic planning.”)

The complementary master-planning process, according to Gonzales, will include examining and performing life-cycle cost analyses on every aspect of the campus environment.

“In addition to the most obvious changes, like planning new or remodeled buildings on campus with green building practices in mind (the new Davies Center is being planned to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards), we might think about offering priority parking for green vehicles or carpoolers,” Gonzales said. “Or we might plant more trees to reduce heat islands and strategically shade buildings. There are many, many parts to this process that need to be considered as we look for new ways to save energy, conserve water, and create less waste and pollution.”

In many ways, Gonzales seems like the ideal person to help coordinate this effort. Originally from New Mexico, Gonzales said sustainability has always been a part of his life and thinking.

“In New Mexico, the only things we had in abundance were sand and heat, so I was brought up to always think in terms of conservation and recycling,” Gonzales said. “To me, being ‘green’ just means being socially responsible.”

Gonzales also has worked for universities in other states, so he has dealt with the practical realities of differing state regulations and the fact that every time an operating change is proposed on campus, the ramifications of that change must be carefully thought through and dealt with.

For example, Gonzales pointed out that some 2,500 florescent light tubes were strategically removed from McIntyre Library to save energy, and those remaining will gradually be replaced with more efficient bulbs, a measure currently in progress in Schneider Hall. But according to associate director for facilities operation Mike Traynor, that “green” project created another problem: thousands of light tubes to be disposed of. Although the change will benefit the university in the long term, in the short term the labor and expense involved in packing and shipping the old bulbs to be recycled have to be factored into the cost of reducing and replacing them with more energy-efficient ones, Traynor said.

But such complications have not dampened the enthusiasm of campus greens focused on everything from helping the university reduce its carbon footprint to promoting water conservation or the use of more locally grown food.

Bringing sustainability to the classroom
Many faculty members are incorporating sustainability into their curriculums — and not just in the environmental public health or science classrooms you might imagine. Kate Hale, adjunct assistant professor of English, said she has been using ecological thinking as the focus of her English composition class for almost 10 years because she sees it as something that affects all students, regardless of their differing interests and majors. Using Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” as the thematic heart of the course, Hale assigns the students a wide variety of essays that ask them to think about the kinds of problems the lack of a land ethic has led us to at the beginning of the 21st century. The students then write essays and a longer research paper about different environmental problems that directly relate to their lives.

In addition, Hale, recently named Campus Sustainability Fellow by the chancellor, worked with chemistry professor Jim Phillips to create an environment, society and culture minor, a more humanities-connected minor that complements the science-oriented environmental science minor. Assistant professor of public health professions Crispin Pierce works with them as an adviser for the minor.

Phillips and Hale also joined other faculty and staff members, including biology professor Paula Kleintjes Neff and geography professor Sean Hartnett, to propose the creation of the Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies. The institute aims to foster interdisciplinary education, scholarship and community outreach related to the natural world and the place of humans in it, with UW-Eau Claire serving as the environmental information portal and common meeting ground for campus and community.

In their proposal, institute members explained that the term “watershed” is significant not only for its meaning as a large, distinct geographic unit of water, air and land systems, but also for its metaphoric meaning as a decisive turning point, signifying a transition between two stages.

“We chose the institute’s name to emphasize our connection to this place on the Chippewa River, to recognize the critical turning point society faces now and to signal our intention to work for a healthier future,” said assistant professor of chemistry James Boulter, another faculty member involved in the institute proposal. “Institute members also pursue studies in other geographical locales and of the global environment, because when you consider the interconnectedness of environmental systems on this planet, in some sense, the entire world is our watershed.”

UW-Eau Claire students have proven they are ready and willing to think globally and work locally for that healthier future. Sarah Peterson, one of the students on the Carbon Neutrality Team, said that given the financial challenges that the state of Wisconsin and the UW System have faced in recent years, she was impressed that the chancellor had signed the Climate Commitment agreement early on.

“Our students understand that we have to work within financial constraints, and not everything we would like to do to make UW-Eau Claire more sustainable can happen today or even tomorrow, but I felt it was important to make the moral commitment to try to do everything within our power and set an example of stewardship for both our current and future students,” Levin-Stankevich said. 

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Water and energy conservation
Many university projects and practices, from those in place for years to newer initiatives such as the lighting changes mentioned in the main story, have taken energy and water conservation into consideration, according to Terry Classen, director of facilities planning and management. Funding for a lighting retrofit project has been obtained for Schneider Hall, and there are plans to replicate that project campuswide. McIntyre Library is the next priority, and the removal of the 2,500 florescent tubes was a preliminary step in that process, Classen said.

Extra steam heat produced by the campus heating plant has been sold to the Chippewa Valley Technical College, Sacred Heart Hospital and a hilltop state office building for decades, Classen added. Aged heating systems in Bridgman and Sutherland halls have undergone complete renovation for energy efficiency coupled with resident comfort.

Such water-saving fixtures as new toilets have more recently been installed in all buildings. Thermostats have been set higher in summer and lower in winter, with rigorous set-back modes used during holidays, and employees have been asked not to use space heaters. Students and employees also have been asked to turn off or use power management features on computers in residence halls and offices. Electric meters were replaced campuswide to enable facilities management to read them and adjust heating, ventilating and air conditioning system operation instantaneously during peak electrical power usage.

The latest contract for vending machines on campus included a provision requiring energy-miser devices that can save as much as 25 percent in electricity usage by shutting down lighting and cooling functions during low-use times, and the Carbon Neutrality Team also recommended putting a limit on the number of mini-refrigerators allowed in residence hall rooms.

Separate chillers that cooled water for air conditioning in many upper-campus buildings are being replaced with one central chiller, eliminating older, less efficient air conditioning systems in buildings like the McPhee Physical Education Center and Towers Hall and providing instead an upper-campus chilled water loop. Another project was recently designed to improve the energy efficiency of the chilled water loop for lower campus.

More changes, such as upgrading older, less efficient windows on campus, are planned for the future.

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Transportation issues
The university recently added a Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle to its fleet for employee use, and there are plans to add another hybrid next year, said Terry Classen, director of facilities planning and management. In a related move, the UW System recently announced that it would allow employees to rent hybrid vehicles when traveling in state for university business. Two totally electric Cushmans, the small utility vehicles used for maintenance work on campus, have also been ordered, Classen said.

In spring 2007 a group of faculty and staff members committed to encouraging more responsible commuting to reduce the university’s carbon footprint formed the Clean Commute Initiative. By that fall the group had solicited the signatures of roughly 200 faculty and staff members pledging to walk, bike, carpool or use public transportation to travel to and from campus as much as possible.

Led initially by committee chair Bob Eierman, professor of chemistry, and now by co-chairs Kristin Blake, an admissions counselor, Crispin Pierce, assistant professor of public health professions, and Doug Faulkner, associate professor of geography, the committee continues to work with campus administrators and facilities staff as it makes recommendations for further encouraging green commuting. This past spring Clean Commute members provided information about bus routes and bike trails to the campus community and assisted anyone interested in planning a personalized, safe route to campus. They continue to look for ways to make the campus more alternative-transportation friendly, including providing more covered bike racks, bike lockers and ramps; adding a covered bus terminal; and exploring incentives for clean commuters, such as working with local businesses to provide bike discounts to students who don’t bring a car to campus. They also are working to encourage the city of Eau Claire to improve and extend the bike trails in and around Eau Claire, add bike lanes to local roads, and identify crosswalks and pedestrian corridors that need improving.

The University Senate added to the Clean Commute effort by passing a resolution asking the city of Eau Claire for an expansion of bus services to UW-Eau Claire, especially during peak hours and the winter months. Andy Soll, UW-Eau Claire’s former vice chancellor for business and student services, said bus ridership by students rose significantly during the past year.

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Food and waste
An active student organization, the Foodlums grew out of the class “The Geography of Food,” taught by associate professor of geography Paul Kaldjian. The course examines the importance of place and geography in the production, distribution and consumption of food, how that is changing and why it matters. About 30 of the students were so interested in the subject that after the class ended they formed the Foodlums, a campus club that encourages everyone to eat more locally grown, healthy food and often collaborates with like-minded people in the surrounding community. Co-advised by Kaldjian, assistant professor of geography Joe Hupy and assistant professor of economics Eric Jamelske, who has helped conduct studies characterizing the local foods landscape in western Wisconsin, the group plants and tends a garden on campus and has donated its produce to various student groups putting on fundraisers or other events. It also works with campus food service managers to incorporate more locally grown food in campus meals. The group has put on a natural local foods dinner for the past two years, and this fall it will assist with a local foods dinner to welcome new faculty members to campus. Kaldjian said the group has become so well-known in the community that last spring it was asked to organize all the food for the local Earth Day celebration. The group also has helped the university produce less waste by negotiating an agreement with Intermezzo’s (formerly Jazzman’s Café) in Davies Center and Sodexo food service to collect and compost a portion of the shop’s spent coffee grounds.

In another food-related project, an associated group of students recently began organizing to participate in the Campus Kitchens Project, a national organization that works to combine unserved food from university food services with food donations from local businesses and farmers markets and turn them into nourishing meals for people in the community in need of food.

Both student-led organizations also aim to provide valuable service-learning opportunities for students, nutrition education for children and families, and culinary training for unemployed adults.

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Green ideas welcome
If you have ideas for ways UW-Eau Claire can further its sustainability efforts, we’d like to hear from you. Alumni may offer input by contacting Kate Hale, Campus Sustainability Fellow, at 715-836-2761 or halecl@uwec.edu.

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Support the cause
The UW-Eau Claire Foundation has created a Sustainability Initiatives Fund to help advance the university’s green efforts. Alumni and friends are invited to contribute to the fund, which will support the many student-, faculty- and staff-led initiatives focusing on the sustainability component of the university’s strategic plan. For details, call the Foundation at 715-836-5630 or visit www.uwec.edu/fndn.

Nancy Wesenberg is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

 

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