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Colleges Lead the Way

The Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges (‘LVAIC’) held its third valley-wide Campus Sustainability Conference in February. Keynote speaker Shana S. Weber, who directs the Office of Sustainability at Princeton University, kicked off the day with a talk on the importance of developing an ethos of sustainability on college campuses. “Sustainability,” she said, “is an ongoing process rather than a series of problems to be solved … an alternative model for how we teach, learn and act.” Following the keynote, students, faculty, staff, and community members presented and participated in presentations, workshops, forums, and poster sessions.

Colleges and universities in the Lehigh Valley have been working towards sustainability for many years. Early efforts aimed to reduce energy use and improve recycling. The tempo picked up in 2007, after a consortium of colleges and universities developed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, which Lafayette College President Dan Weiss signed in 2008. At the same time, the Alliance launched its campus sustainability initiative, with campus sustainability interns on all the LVAIC campuses. Soon after, LVAIC held its first Lehigh Valley Campus Sustainability Conference in 2009.

Campus efforts have been directed primarily towards sustainable food, reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and increasing community engagement. More and more people are beginning to entertain the idea of a culture of sustainability. Below, we’ve listed some examples taken from student presentations at the recent LVAIC conference, the colleges’ own websites, and the archives of the Alliance’s own campus sustainability initiative.

Students and faculty members at Lafayette College started a campus farm and community garden as part of an initiative to ‘close the food loop.’ LaFarm, as it is now called, integrates academic and practical work towards sustainable agriculture for the community by growing food for dining halls during the school year, by providing fresh, healthy food to low income people during the summer (via the ‘Veggie Van’), and by providing opportunities for student research.

Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative developed several community gardens in South Side Bethlehem, hosts a weekly farmers’ market, and worked with students and community members to develop the Esperanza Garden on the Greenway. Lehigh University students recently joined the Real Food Challenge, a nation-wide program that promotes food that is local, fair, ecological, and humane. Muhlenberg College has a student-run community garden that promotes sustainable farming.

To reduce consumption of bottled water—and the plastic waste it creates—several colleges have installed water stations that allow students to fill reusable water bottles instead of buying bottled water. One successful program is Muhlenberg’s ‘Just Tap It,’ a student-led effort that reportedly has reduced bottled water purchases by 92%.

On the energy front, Muhlenberg recently hired a local consultant, the Stone House Group, to explore possibilities for improving the efficiency of buildings and converting their central steam plant to a combined heat and power (CHP) system, which is far more efficient. Students at Lafayette, Lehigh, and Muhlenberg participate in on-campus competitions to conserve energy, and students at Lafayette and Lehigh also compete to see which school can achieve the largest reductions.

Another important aspect of reducing energy use and GHG is replacing incandescent lamps with energy efficient lamps, and all of the colleges have been working on this. Lafayette provides free CFLs to students, and DeSales University has begun an ongoing campus-wide effort to switch all lighting to LEDs, which are even more efficient than fluorescents and avoid the problem of potential mercury poisoning.

It’s not just about operations and student activities, though: the colleges have taken steps to integrate sustainability into their academic offerings, including majors and minors on environmental science and sustainability studies. In fact, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), assesses campuses in academics and research, operations, community engagement, and planning and administration. All of the LVAIC colleges participate in these programs or have them under consideration.

Lafayette, Lehigh, and Muhlenberg all offer affinity-group housing with a focus on sustainability. Muhlenberg’s ‘Tree House,’, for example, houses students dedicated to environmental conservation and hosts activities to educate others about self-sustaining food production, energy consumption, and eliminating waste.

Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative (SSI) focuses academic studies and research and civic engagement working on problems facing the SouthSide Bethlehem community, and their ‘Town Hall Lectures’ bring university and outside experts to discuss issues relevant to the community. Lafayette College’s faculty and students have formed lasting partnerships with the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership, Nurture Nature Center, and the Easton Area Community Center. Five years ago, Moravian College established a new In Focus initiative to make sure the entire college community gets an in-depth opportunity to explore the key issues of poverty and inequality, sustainability, health care, and war and peace. The themes rotate each year, with academic and co-curricular activities focusing on one theme throughout the academic year.

Environmental Studies students at Lafayette College developed a new initiative called ‘Greening Lafayette.’ Based in the college’s Connected Communities Program, it will unite the efforts of faculty, staff, student organizations, and dorm-based Eco-Reps to raise awareness on campus and move towards a culture or ethos of sustainability. We hope to see many more campus projects like this across the Lehigh Valley which illustrate positive shifts in campus culture leading toward a sustainable future.

by Samantha Keenan, editorial intern from Moravian College

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This entry was posted in Climate & Energy, Education & Schools.

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