Green evolution

With some catching up to do, the University brings Chicago-style rigor to an environmental movement taking root in the groves of academe.

By Richard Mertens
Illustration by Mirko Ilic

Ingrid Gould, AB’86, AM’88, keeps worms in her kitchen, where they turn potato peels into soil. She mixes her own cleaning fluids, knits with bamboo yarn, and keeps her thermostat at 64 degrees in winter. When her husband complains, she tells him to put on a sweater.

Gould isn’t shy about taking this same ethic to work. The University's associate provost for faculty and student affairs, she pesters coworkers to switch off their computer monitors, use the recycling bins, and renounce throw-away coffee cups. Five years ago, she got her boss’s permission to make the provost’s dinners honoring new faculty appointees and other guests more environmentally responsible. She instructed caterers to serve only fish approved by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch—no imported swordfish or Chilean sea bass—and, whenever possible, local beers, wines, and produce. At winter receptions, instead of adorning the table with imported flowers, she tried candles, decorative stones, and herbs. She sent honored guests home clutching pots of rosemary. “The men were particularly happy with herbs,” she says. “They don't like leaving with flowers.”

There are a lot of people like Ingrid Gould at the University of Chicago. They include undergraduates who compost leftover food after student cultural shows and recycle bottles after frat parties, the librarian who promotes two-sided printing, and the studio-arts technician trying to make something beautiful out of discarded building materials. Then there’s a procession of alumni who over the years have tried to encourage what Quinn Bernier, AB’06, calls “a culture of sustainability”: urging others to recycle more, turn off unneeded lights, eat organic food, and otherwise pay more attention to the careful use of natural resources.

For many of these people, however, such efforts have not been enough. They hoped Chicago would make ecological concerns more central to its scholarly mission and daily campus life. Some have wanted the University to assert greater leadership in conserving energy and promoting renewable sources. And for a long time they were disappointed. They watched as more and more universities and colleges adopted environmental principles—but not theirs.

Then, in November 2008, Chicago established an Office of Sustainability. The office promotes the University’s environmental efforts, from improving energy efficiency in campus buildings to encouraging greater awareness of environmental issues among students, faculty, and staff. The office has started a bike-share program, undertaken a campus-wide greenhouse-gas survey, and sponsored many other events and activities. One of its biggest projects has been to draw up a “strategic plan” for the University's sustainability efforts.

Is the U of C going green? Perhaps, although it trails many of its peers and seems unlikely to catch up soon. To cite just one example: only two U of C buildings—the Searle Chemistry Laboratory and the Information Technology Services office—have earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Harvard has 23 certified buildings, with another 43 pending.

While some institutions have committed to reducing their carbon footprints through conservation and renewable energy, the U of C’s energy consumption continues to grow as the campus expands. Meanwhile, some of Chicago’s researchers complain that the University has given too little support to environmental research.

Yet many who have labored on environmental issues are optimistic. They believe the University has begun to provide the broad institutional support they felt was lacking. “The University always takes a long time to get on board with things that are fashionable, and when those fashionable things are good, we can suffer for not jumping on the bandwagon,” says Gould, a member of Chicago’s Sustainability Council, an advisory group composed of students, staff, and faculty. “But when we do get there, we’re jump-started, and we do it right.”


Modern environmentalism can be traced to 1970, the year Earth Day started and the Environmental Protection Agency was founded. The green movement on campuses is harder to pin down. Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, dates it to the early to mid-1990s, when recycling programs and environmental health and safety offices began to evolve into something more ambitious. Penn State opened a sustainability center in 1995, one of the earliest such offices. But the movement is mainly a 21st-century phenomenon. Today at least 200 universities and colleges have sustainability offices.

Sustainability offices typically take part in a broad range of issues, including transportation, waste recycling, dining services, and environmental justice. They help shape institutional policy, especially around energy conservation and renewable energy. Cornell, for example, has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. Harvard has pledged a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2016. Others have vowed to build only LEED-certified buildings.

Energy conservation and renewable energy are the two hottest issues on campuses, Rowland says. Some southwestern colleges and universities generate power with solar panels; others, especially in the Midwest and Great Plains, have put up wind turbines. Indiana’s Ball State University, a renewable-energy leader, is digging 4,000 holes to replace its coal plant with geothermal heating and cooling. Ball State says the system will save $2 million a year in energy costs.

As at many colleges and universities, environmental action at the U of C has been driven by students, especially undergraduates, with support from key faculty and staff. Students in the Green Campus Initiative (GCI), formed in 1999, have started recycling batteries, planted a native-plant garden on campus, and audited recycling efforts, talking to janitors and mapping recycling bins.

Increasingly, though, the GCI has focused on energy use. In the “Battle of the Bulbs,” waged yearly among dorms, students compete to see who can save the most energy. Kristin Greer Love, AB’06, JD’09, recalls prowling the campus at night looking for bright windows in empty buildings. “It was really surprising to see lights on at Cobb Hall at midnight, when there were no students or faculty there.”

They also sought to influence University policy. In 2003 the GCI and the Quality Lighting Coalition, another student group, wrote a report calling on the University to commit itself to energy conservation and renewable energy sources. They struggled to get administrators’ attention but began discovering other allies. Workers in Facilities Services were eager to save energy—and money. Dining Services welcomed the interest in organic foods. This support was encouraging, and in 2004 the GCI invited staff, faculty, and students to an informal meeting at Cobb Hall to discuss environmental issues.

“We were thinking of the best practices that a university could—and should—follow, and something we noticed about other universities was that they had sustainability councils that were coordinating a lot of activities,” says Sapna Thottathil, AB’04. “We thought, ‘Wow, we’re a big-name university. We don’t have a sustainability council. Maybe we should put that forward.’” Thus began the University’s Sustainability Council, a group that met regularly to brainstorm environmental initiatives. Still, the council felt limited. “It was sort of unclear what things we could do,” says Michonski. “There was no mandate from above.”

That seemed to change in 2008 when Steve Wiesenthal was hired as University architect. Wiesenthal had started a sustainability office at the University of California, San Francisco, and during an interview with President Robert Zimmer he argued that the University of Chicago should have one, too. Zimmer agreed. Half-joking, Wiesenthal proposed wind turbines on the Midway. Zimmer laughed. “He didn’t kick me out of his office,” Wiesenthal says.

To run the new office, in 2008 Wiesenthal hired Ilsa Flanagan, who had spent two years as a sustainability officer at LaSalle Bank. There, she worked on getting LaSalle’s buildings LEED-certified, instituting double-sided printing (banks use lots of paper), and developing green products: carbon offsetting for commercial clients and green mortgages, which credit a home’s energy efficiency in the contract. She also learned to make the business case for sustainability—an emphasis she has brought to Chicago. “Demonstrating impact on the bottom line can be very persuasive,” she says, and important for developing lasting programs.

"I get a lot of questions about buildings," says sustainability office director Ilsa Flanagan. "People are in buildings a lot of the day. They want to know what they can do."

Flanagan has been busy. Her office is small—it’s just her, a program coordinator, an assistant, and occasional student interns. Much of her time is spent in meetings and responding to questions and comments from people on campus. She gets a lot of e-mails. Why does the University still use leaf-blowers? Does it use green products? Can the dining halls serve more organic food? People talk up urban agriculture, suggest more bike lanes in Hyde Park, and urge more recycling. How can they recycle light bulbs? Does the University have a green building policy? “I get a lot of questions about buildings,” Flanagan says. “People are in buildings a lot of the day. They want to know what they can do.”

She’s also in demand as a speaker. Students and staff want to know what her office is doing. She charms audiences with her energy and good humor. But she gets a lot of tough questions too. At a Divinity School talk this past winter someone asked about heat loss from the new Mansueto Library, an underground storage facility with a domed glass roof going up next to Regenstein Library. Partly because of the domed roof, the new library will fall short of green building standards. “Wherever you have a lot of glass in a building it’s not going to be as effective as without glass,” Flanagan told the audience. Someone else asked about the 61st Street community garden, which the University was preparing to dismantle to make room for the construction of a new Chicago Theological Seminary. “That raised a lot of alarms about sustainability,” Flanagan admitted. (This spring the University donated $26,000 to buy compost for a new community garden on city land a block south of the former plot.) Later she said, “I feel I could be overwhelmed for five years just by reacting to things happening on the campus.”

Spreading the word about environmental projects is one of the sustainability office’s jobs. It has also started a few small programs, such as the ReCycles bike-sharing program, which makes 22 used bikes available at four campus locations. It supports activities such as the annual Earth Week talks and workshops. One of its most successful efforts was the “Free E-Waste Recycling” event, sponsored with the Office of Civic Engagement. A Chicago Heights company brought a forklift and empty semi-trailer truck to the Pierce Hall parking lot one May morning, and for six hours a steady trickle of students, staff, and residents stopped by to unburden themselves. Burly men in lime-green safety vests stacked old computer monitors and cathode-ray televisions on wooden pallets. They dumped old keyboards and printers into cardboard bins. There was miscellany too: old couches, a bulletin board, florescent tubes, a steel bed frame, and a red plastic sled. The company takes apart most of what it collects and sells the pieces for recycling. It melts down the plastic and turns it into parking-lot bumpers.

Many people seemed grateful for the opportunity. “You don’t want to be the one putting it out in the alley,” said Christine Malcom, AB’94, AM’96, an anthropology PhD student, who backed up her Subaru Forester with a load of outdated computer equipment. Rada Tuntasood, AB’02, MBA’10, walked up with a bag containing a light bulb, batteries, broken headphones, and pieces of Styrofoam. Another student brought a plastic bag full of plastic bags. Terry Bowman, a Hyde Park father, stopped by in the afternoon to give up a battery charger, a car jump-starter that had lost its kick, a ten-year-old Palm Pilot, and a 24-disk CD player that refused to relinquish its last three discs. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with them,” he said. “It’s better than going to the landfill. I hope they do this again.”

The sustainability office has also taken on more ambitious projects aimed at guiding University policy. Last summer two student interns began working on a greenhouse-gas survey that will try to account for all campus energy use, from heating and cooling buildings to faculty travel. “We’re kind of in the process of, where are we at?” Flanagan says. “What is our baseline?” The survey is slated to be released this summer. She’s also working on a long-term plan to define institutional environmental goals. This spring her boss, Wiesenthal, held meetings about a proposed green-building policy that would commit Chicago to seeking LEED certification for any major building project. In general, Flanagan says, any policy or goal that the sustainability office puts forward gets a thorough vetting. “Nothing is created in a vacuum and without meaningful campus input.”


Clearly universities are coming under growing pressure to do more for the environment-and to be seen doing so. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the Princeton Review have begun grading them on their efforts. “Students are really paying attention,” says David Soto, the Princeton Review’s ratings director. “We see the students as the driving force on this rather than administrators. Administrations are reacting to students demanding these kinds of initiatives on campuses. Administrations are kind of playing catch up.”

Last year’s Princeton Review gave the University an 86-“a good, solid C,” says Soto (the scale goes from 60 to 99). It scored points for having a full-time sustainability staff, serving local and organic food in the dining halls, and achieving a “waste diversion rate,” recycling and waste reduction, of 39 percent. “That’s actually very high compared to other institutions,” Soto says. But it fell short because it doesn’t require green certification for new buildings and lacks an “environmental literacy requirement,” which would have students take at least one course on environmental issues. Among those that scored 99 were Harvard, Yale, and Middlebury.

Still, those alert to environment issues see a lot happening on campus. “It’s something I’ve seen expand and deepen in the time I’ve been here,” says anthropologist Mark Lycett, who heads the College’s environmental-studies program. “It’s something that’s probably had its major impact in terms of issues like facilities and energy use and recycling and the kinds of things that it’s possible to do on an institutional basis, which have expanded greatly over the last few years and are continuing to expand.” He added, “The impulse is coming from a lot of directions at once.”

One of the first things Wiesenthal did upon arriving in 2008 was persuade administrators to repave the road looping through the main quads, add more landscaping, and turn it into a pedestrian zone. Recently, after much debate over cost-effectiveness, the University decided to mount solar panels on the roof of the new Reva and David Logan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, now under construction and scheduled for opening in 2012. The Logan Center will also be the first new building to seek LEED certification.

Extensive renovations to Searle Chemistry Laboratory made it one of two LEED-certified buildings. Along with automatic light switches and low-flow washroom faucets, it has features especially suited to laboratory buildings—notoriously voracious energy consumers, in part because safety codes require powerful ventilation systems to exchange the air many times a day.

Searle does this exchange more efficiently than many buildings. For example, the labs’ hoods—the chemists’ work stations—have glass panels that close automatically when they’re not used, reducing the air that is sucked out. Four metal chambers sit on the roof, capturing heat from air leaving the building. Deep in the bowels of Searle, in rooms crowded with pipes and ductwork, machines called “air handlers” use the captured energy to help heat the building.

This past year the University has also been trying to figure out how to spend a $2.5 million gift from James and Paula Crown to support sustainability efforts. Some of the money is likely to go to the Henry Crown Field House. On a cool spring day, Venkat Kumar, director of engineering and utilities, shows why. Taking the stairs to the second floor, he looks out over the field house’s spacious upper room, where eight young women exercise in a circle, bathed in the harsh pink glow of overhead lights that resemble those in parking lots and interstate gas stations. Kumar says new lights may be installed in order to simultaneously create a more pleasant atmosphere and reduce electricity usage. It is an ideal project, he says: the improvements would both save money and enhance a public space. But old buildings can be unpredictable. New flaws sometimes appear, making a retrofit more expensive than planned. Glancing up to where the brick walls meet the steel roof, Kumar observes, “There’s probably a lot of air leakage in those areas.”

It’s easier, in a sense, to recycle paper and change light fixtures than to make environmental issues more prominent in the classroom and the curriculum.

There are a lot of small initiatives across the campus. Last year, to make room for the planned Logan Center, an annex to the Midway Studios, home to the University’s visual-arts department, was torn down. Many of the doors and fixtures were donated to the Rebuilding Exchange, a neighborhood nonprofit that offers salvaged building materials for resale and reuse. David Wolf, AB’00, MFA’05, a sculptor who works at the studios, wondered if something else might not be reused. He and a small group of students and artists found their attention drawn to the floor of the painting studio, six inches of concrete stained by more than 30 years of spilled paint. A demolition crew sawed the concrete into four-foot by one-foot slabs and stacked them on wooden pallets. The artists hoped to incorporate the slabs into the new arts center. When that didn’t work out, they decided to make the slabs into benches and set them in campus spots where they'll draw attention to the arts. “Everyone is used to recycling brick and steel,” Wolf says. “Concrete is something you just smash up and take away. This was an exciting idea.”

The GCI-Green Campus Initiative-continues to lead environmental efforts among students. The group organized another “Battle of the Bulbs” this spring. It has been trying to discourage students from using disposable water bottles. This past year, members began collecting cans and bottles the morning after frat parties. But it got to be too much work. “We didn’t have enough manpower,” says group cochair Willy Gu. Next year the GCI hopes to find a way to get the frats to start recycling themselves, Gu says. “It’s another way we can spread this message of sustainability to a group that maybe has not thought twice about it.”


The biggest opportunity to do good for both the environment and the University, according to Steve Wiesenthal, lies in energy conservation. And no one understands that challenge quite as well as energy manager Will Hines. A Navy reservist with a nuclear-engineering degree, Hines oversees campus energy usage with an engineer’s relentless practicality, putting money and effort where it will count most. “Conservation is fine on a moral principle,” he says. “But ultimately the only way we get people’s attention is with dollar signs. I hate to say it, but it’s the truth.”

Hines is as much of a true believer as anyone. Eight years ago, he bought a two-story wood-frame house in the suburbs. Built in 1912, it was insulated with horsehair and wadded newspaper. He launched what he describes as “a pretty aggressive renovation,” replacing the old glass with modern two-pane windows, installing high-efficiency furnaces, tearing out walls to replace horsehair with fiberglass batting. He installed programmable thermostats, weatherstripping, and “a fair amount” of Great Stuff, expandable foam that comes in a can and will plug almost any hole. In eight years he lowered his energy usage by 30 percent, despite adding a wife and two children to the household. “It was something almost any homeowner could do,” he says.

The University is a different story. No quantity of Great Stuff can lower its energy use by 30 percent. In fact, energy bills have been climbing as Chicago adds buildings. Hines estimated 2009’s electricity usage at 300 million kilowatt-hours; it will rise to around 325 million as new buildings go online, including a new hospital pavilion, the performing-arts center, Mansueto Library, and others. “There’s no getting around that,” Hines says. “Can we see energy usage go down in absolute terms, in the current environment, as we add new buildings? The answer is no.”

Still, Hines and his department work to increase efficiency where they can: a multimillion-dollar update for the steam plant, which burns natural gas to heat the central campus; a ten-year project to replace most of the campus's 40-watt florescent lights with 32-watt lights; installing lighting sensors that turn the lights on only when there are people around. Progress is slower there, Hines says—people in buildings don’t like the lights going on and off on their own. Another big project is to install automatic temperature controls—difficult in older, draftier buildings.


One of the hardest challenges for colleges and universities is bridging the gap between operations and academics, says Rowland. It’s easier, in a sense, to recycle paper and change light fixtures than it is to make environmental issues more prominent in the classroom and the curriculum. At Chicago the Department of Geophysical Sciences is the hotbed of environmental research. Pamela Martin, AB’89, has been studying changes in deep ocean chemistry, temperature, and circulation—and energy use on small farms near Chicago. Susan Kidwell uses the marine fossil record to shed light on modern environmental problems. Douglas MacAyeal looks at the role of ice in climate change.

Yet a growing number of Chicago scholars are turning their attention to environmental issues. In 2007 the Center for International Studies started the Project on the Global Environment, which sponsors conferences and lectures and encourages research across disciplinary lines. In 2008 Chicago Booth launched the Energy Initiative, a project to attract researchers from Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory—economists, physical scientists, computer scientists, mathematicians, and lawyers—to study the implications of energy use for policy, national security, and international relations.

Meanwhile, more undergraduates are finding their way into the College’s small but growing environmental-studies program. The program started 12 years ago, and in 2009-10, there were 40 majors and 50 minors enrolled. The courses are almost always full. Each spring students sign up for the Calumet Quarter, during which they study environmental issues intensively by focusing on the region around the northwest Indiana’s Calumet River, one of the nation’s richest areas biologically but also one drastically altered by a long history of settlement and industrialization. On an April morning the seven undergraduates in this past spring’s program were in Hinds discussing Asian carp, bloody red shrimp, and other invasive species with ecologist and lecturer Reuben Keller, who called them “one of the largest conservation issues we face.” Afterward, third-year Lindsey McQuilkin walked across campus to the Reynolds Club, where she manned a table festooned with signs imploring passersby to “Feed the Planet” (by composting), “Dim the Lights,” and stop drinking bottled water. The Calumet Quarter, she says, “is absolutely wonderful. It’s going to be the highlight of my experience here, in terms of connecting with” the U of C.

Despite these and other academic programs, some prominent members of the faculty doubt the University’s commitment to environmental issues as a subject of research and teaching. “I think it’s pretty lukewarm and not very progressive or proactive,” says oceanographer and climate-change researcher David Archer, a geophysical-sciences professor. “It seems like we are being dragged rather than being anything like in the lead.”

Archer and some other researchers point to Columbia’s Earth Institute as an example of how some universities have established centers where scholars from different disciplines can come together to study, teach, and share their ideas. “There’s something about a critical mass and getting people talking to each other that is just explosively nurturing for students,” says Archer. “It’s amazing what takes off when things are right.”

Alan Kolata, an anthropologist who studies the relationship between cultures and their environments, says he has for many years argued that the University should find a way to bring together researchers doing “cutting edge” research in biology, economics, anthropology, and other disciplines—something like the new Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. He says Chicago’s long interest in interdisciplinary studies makes it a perfect place for environmental studies. But he’s felt like a “voice in the wilderness,” he says. “There’s never really been a major commitment to environmental research at the University of Chicago, compared to peer institutions like Stanford or Yale, especially in graduate instruction. I think there are groups of like-minded faculty who would like to see something happen, but to take it to the scale of Yale or Columbia or Stanford requires something beyond an individual or faculty commitment,” Kolata says. “It requires an institutional priority. And that just isn’t the case here.”


Can the U of C catch up? Flanagan says she especially admires Yale, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins, which in March adopted a climate-change plan that details how that institution will halve its carbon emissions over the next 15 years. “A lot of our peers are further down the road,” she admitted to her Divinity School audience last winter. “That’s OK. But we have to learn from them.” Where she hopes the U of C can excel is in bringing intellectual and analytic rigor to its sustainability efforts. This will include, she says, tracking data like water and power usage. More ambitiously, she’s working with faculty members to measure whether efforts by her office, student groups, and others—all those Ingrid Goulds on campus—actually work. She suggests that many programs don’t know if they’re helping meet environmental goals or other important information like what kinds of action will yield the greatest returns.

“Everyone I talk to around the University is very excited,” Flanagan says. “I don’t get many no’s. It feels like a meaningful commitment. But there are still a lot of questions. How can we meet a reasonable conservation goal? This can become a laboratory for different ways of becoming more sustainable.” In other words, environmentalism at Chicago doesn’t have to be like everywhere else. As the sustainability office’s Web site boasts: “We’re not just green; we’re green and smart.”

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