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Walking the talk: community colleges are spreading the sustainability message and putting smart practices to use.

IN 2005--WHEN AL GORE was still most well known as the candidate who lost to George W. Bush and the tipping point for national awareness on sustainability hadn't yet passed--staff at Miami Dade College's Earth Ethics Institute decided to hold a conference on green building. Miami and the greater South Florida region had not been particularly aggressive in integrating sustainability into architecture and building operations, and the institute, which provides resources for MDC and the South Florida community to integrate knowledge, values, and skills for sustainable practices, could play a motivating role.

The problem was that MDC--like so many community colleges--didn't have tons of money to throw around. Passionate about the environment and about promoting sustainability, the institute's director, Colleen Ahern-Hettich, started compiling a list of people who might be interested in sponsoring the conference, or in donating time or services.

In the winter of 2006, the "Tropical Green" conference stormed South Florida, giving hundreds of people an opportunity to hear from such prominent speakers as Rick Fedrizzi, founding chairman of the U.S. Green Building Council, and Chad Oppenheim, a buzzworthy architect in the region. "I often don't have the money to bring in people," says Ahern-Hettich, who works with an administrative assistant and one other part-time employee as well as volunteers throughout MDC to run the institute. "We had a $300,000 conference for nothing. We had it for 500 people in the community; the college had 70 faculty attend. That's what a community college could do."

Okay, so the Harvards and Dukes of higher ed have the lock on sustainability research. But what about Miami Dade? Or Nicolet Area Technical College (Wis.)? Or Cape Cod Community College (Mass.)? These institutions, as well as a growing number of their two-year peers, are aggressively pursuing sustainability through operations, workforce development, academics, and community events.

In the AASHE Digest 2006 (put out by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), 35 community colleges were noted for their initiatives, compared to 13 in the year prior. The board of directors of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has passed a resolution in support of education for sustainable development, and the association has joined the nascent Higher Education Associations' Sustainability Consortium. What's more, community college presidents have been among the first higher ed leaders to sign the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, which provides a framework and support for America's colleges and universities to reduce and ultimately neutralize greenhouse gas emissions on campus.

"It's about taking action, not just sitting around and saying we're worried," says Debra Rowe, president of the U.S. Partnership for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and a professor at Oakland Community College (Mich.).

Community colleges are undoubtedly pushing the sustainability movement forward. Here's why they make ideal institutions for creating a better, healthier existence on the planet.

Skill Developers

As emerging industries such as alternative energy, green building, and sustainable landscaping grow and flourish, community colleges are training a new generation of skilled workers. "We try to keep on top of what the changing needs of business and industry are," says Noelle Studer, sustainability coordinator at Portland Community College. PCC is part of an innovative new consortium that is honing sustainability education in Oregon, "working on how we get our instructors up to speed and provide really rich educational experiences for our students so that they leave with the skills they need," says Studer.

Beyond the consortium, PCC professors integrate sustainability principles into classroom lessons. Credit and noncredit courses related to sustainability are offered in such fields as building construction technology, architectural drafting, interior design, landscape technology, environmental studies, and social sciences. Students can also choose from an array of environmental service learning opportunities with such organizations as the Community Cycling Center, which provides bicycling programs for low-income youth and adults and sells refurbished bikes.

Work-study provides another way for students to pick up skills, as well as a way for Studer to get help. Several work-study students have been analyzing data and crunching numbers to complete a carbon emissions audit of the college. "We're providing really good research and hands-on learning opportunities," says Studer.

At Lane Community College, a few hours south of Portland in Eugene, Ore., students can complete a two-year professional technical degree in energy management or a two-year degree in renewable energy technology. "As energy prices continue to rise and the public becomes more concerned about conservation and climate change, there will be many more job opportunities," says Jennifer Hayward, the college's sustainability coordinator. Those jobs will be in fields such as energy management, water conservation, recycling, green construction, and sustainability coordination. "Many community colleges are well positioned to train this workforce of the future, and some are already doing it," Hayward adds.

Community colleges that don't have their own programs or sustainability coordinators can build opportunities through partnerships and resources. The Partnership for Environmental Technology Education, or PETE, connects community and technical colleges with the resources of industry, business, and government to assist in the development of curricula for training environmental health and safety technicians. And the Consortium for Education in Renewable Energy Technology has developed online courses that institutions can use to build their own offerings on campus or through distance learning.

Partnerships with four-year colleges and universities also make sense. According to Carolyn Teich, senior program associate for workforce development at AACC, Arizona State University has teamed up with community colleges to provide a seamless education for sustainable energy.

Big Buyers and Energy Users

There are approximately 1,200 community colleges (and about 400 more branch campuses) in the United States, educating 11.6 million students at any given time. These institutions have enormous buying power and use a vast amount of energy.

The Los Angeles Community College District is a great example of how a community college can have a major impact. The district runs nine colleges educating more than 140,000 students a year. That's a lot of power. And as the district grows, it will need even more. LACCD is in the midst of a building campaign adding about 3 million more square feet to its campuses.

LACCD is using sustainable principles to make smart building and energy decisions. All new and retrofitted buildings will meet LEED standards, thanks to a resolution from the district's board of trustees. Due to a tight budget, the district does not have an operations budget for the new space. The solution? Install photovoltaic, or solar, panels that produce electricity for each campus.

The new panels will cover parking spots or go on rooftops and will generate enough power for the district to use during the day without having to buy power from any utility. The district is also incorporating cutting-edge electrical storage technology that will store energy captured during the day to power classrooms and buildings at night.

While installing photovoltaic panels can be expensive, LACCD is using a package of tax credits and incentives to reduce the total price from about $9 million to between $900,000 and $1.8 million. Beyond the first couple of years, the panels will have paid for themselves, generating cost savings that will also cover building operations expenses, says Larry Eisenberg, executive director for facilities planning and development for the district.

LACCD is also using its influence to promote sustainability in business and industry. When Eisenberg's department put together a centralized procurement program to purchase new furnishings, it integrated environmentally friendly practices into its requests. "We put out a bid to the national furniture community and said we would only buy things that are recyclable, encouraging maximum use of recycled content in the product, and guaranteed take back at the end of useful life so nothing will go to a landfill," says Eisenberg. The district got what it wanted and even came in $40 million under budget. Two major furniture manufacturers--KI and Hayward--changed their factories entirely to meet the district's standards and then began using those standards for all customers.

Money Savers

Strapped by tight budgets, community college administrators and staff are used to working within constraints. They are finding creative ways to finance sustainability initiatives and to illuminate how sustainable operations can save money.

Studer has found that volunteer faculty, staff, and students can turn a one-person sustainability department into a collegewide movement. Working without a budget, she networks with teams of volunteers and existing programs and also identifies point people in each division of the college to help meet important goals and share knowledge. "There are lots of people who are deeply concerned, and rather than start panicking about things, this gives them an outlet so they can do something," she says.

"Green Teams" at five PCC locations take significant responsibility for projects, education, and outreach, and for integrating the college's sustainability vision into many aspects of campus life. "The Sylvania campus Green Team recently completed a waste audit, partnering with the city of Portland to determine how much trash on campus is actually recyclable.

At Lane Community College, sustainable practices have saved big money. The college--which is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050--decreased its energy usage last year by 16 percent, began purchasing 10 percent wind energy from its electric utility, and installed 1.4 kilowatts of solar electric power, according to Hayward. While Lane is facing a potential cut of more than 10 percent of its budget over the next two years, the Sustainability Office has been responsible for about $240,000 in energy savings and $60,000 in savings from recycling during the 2005-2006 fiscal year. These savings pay for the three full-time salaries in the Sustainability Office, says Hayward.

Community Connectors

All higher ed institutions network with their neighbors. But for community colleges, educating and serving the community comprise their primary reasons for being. As the movement to integrate sustainability into everything we do grows, community colleges can have a considerable impact.

"Community colleges play a crucial role, not only in educating the technicians and designers that we need to make this transition but also in educating the general public," says OCC's Rowe. "This won't happen unless the public gets informed and demands different kinds of products and processes."

Eisenberg of LACCD also believes two-year institutions can have major influence. "The goal is to transform our society so that sustainability is just something everybody does," he says. "Community colleges are really well positioned to handle that goal."

Caryn Meyers Fliegler is a former editor at University Business.

Resources

American Association of Community Colleges, www.aacc.nche.edu

American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org

Consortium for Education in Renewable Energy Technology, http://matcmadison.edu/ceret

Higher Education Associations' Sustainabitity Consortium, www.heasc.net

Lane Community College, www.lanecc.edu/sustainability

Los Angeles Community College District, www.laccd.edu and www.propositiona .org/green room.html

Miami Dade College Earth Ethics Institute, www.earthethicsinstitute.org

Partnership for Environmental Technology Education, www.ateec.org/pete

Portland Community College, www.pcc.edu/sustainability

U.S. Partnership for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, www.uspartnership.org
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Title Annotation:SMART and SUSTAINABLE
Author:Fliegler, Caryn Meyers
Publication:University Business
Date:Jun 1, 2007
Words:1846
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