Going Green, Staying Blue: Sustainability at Michigan

Release Date: 

President Mary Sue Coleman
Going Green, Staying Blue: Sustainability at Michigan
Sept. 27, 2011

Good morning.

Today is EarthFest at the University of Michigan, and I want to celebrate the occasion by talking with you – members of the community most engaged in promoting the sustainability of our planet.

I’m particularly pleased that we have this beautiful backdrop of the Diag, its trees, and the sense of community it gives our university and our students.

The Diag was the destination of an elderly man who arrived in Ann Arbor 100 years ago. He had traveled by train from western New York to celebrate a birthday of sorts.

The gentleman was Andrew Dickson White, the president emeritus of Cornell University. He began his prolific career here, as a history professor, and was returning to Ann Arbor, and specifically to the Diag, to look at the trees.

Fifty years earlier, he worked with U-M students to transform the Diag.  Together, they planted saplings.  Elm and oak and maple went into the ground, changing the Diag from a barren, muddy field to a fledgling park.  The results he came to see in 1911 are the lush canopies that surround today’s EarthFest.

Perhaps more significant than the first trees is where Professor White planted them.  He followed the footpaths that students had cut into the ground. Students knew the best ways to travel the campus, and Professor White simply complemented those walkways.

Students shape the University of Michigan in unexpected and profound ways. They plant seeds of ideas, they forge new trails, and they take us in exciting new directions.

Students are the story of environmental awareness and sustainability at Michigan.  They exemplify our belief that a great public university continually strives to make the world a better place. 

Today we begin an important new chapter – one that will alter the face of our campus and, more important, the character of our teaching, research and impact as a global leader.

* * *

In a few days, I will assume the chair of the Association of American Universities’ Executive Committee for a year.  The AAU encompasses the finest research universities, including the best faculty and the brightest students.

When I meet with my fellow university presidents, I am constantly struck by how many report that today’s students are totally captivated about creating a sustainable planet.  It’s an enthusiasm and urgency I haven’t seen since my days as a student during the space race and the national drumbeat for better science.  

But environmental threats far exceed the challenges of Sputnik and the space race.  They have serious implications for the entire planet, and require unrelenting efforts, worldwide, for the foreseeable future.

Research universities in particular are well positioned to make a difference. Our basic research, expertise in medicine and public health, and pioneering approaches to social challenges, are a powerful arsenal for confronting climate change. We prepare the next generation of scientists, leaders and engaged citizens.

And unlike the space race, teaching and researching sustainability appeals to collaboration across nations.  This is not just about the survival of one country, but the entire globe.

* * *

So how are we contributing at Michigan?

It’s an impressive inventory.  Let’s start in the classroom.

More than 640 courses across our campus have content about sustainability. While we might correctly assume these are in engineering and the sciences, they also reach into psychology, nursing, English, history, and beyond. 

Cutting across academic fields, students in Engineering, Art, LSA, and Business can pursue a minor in multidisciplinary design. Our competitive Graham Sustainability Scholars program began with 25 exceptional undergraduates a year ago, and has grown to nearly 60.  Again, the emphasis is on collaborative learning. 

At the graduate level, the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise provides a unique program for students to earn two degrees: an MBA and a master of science.

Likewise, we are the first university to offer a dual master’s degree in environmental science and engineering.  Together, the College of Engineering and School of Natural Resources and Environment educate engineers and scientists to make sustainability central in their professional work.

And at the doctoral level, the Graham Graduate Fellowship Program is in its sixth year of preparing new scholars, with alumni now teaching and researching at universities and NGOs.

At all levels, our courses are increasingly in the field, with students learning as far away as Chile, Kenya and China, and as nearby as Detroit.

All of this immersive learning is carried out by more than 670 faculty – 670 – with expertise in sustainability issues.  And we are amplifying this with the brightest junior faculty from around the globe.

Of 100 new positions we have funded to expand interdisciplinary teaching, more than one-quarter are grounded in climate change, energy, building design and other fields of sustainability.

Our research enterprise is equally impressive. 

We have seen an explosion in research funding for critical areas of sustainability. In the past 18 months alone, the federal government has turned to the University of Michigan to lead three national centers focusing on Great Lakes climate change, solar energy and clean vehicles.

This expansion in teaching and research has two driving forces: students who demand it, and the leadership of the Graham Sustainability Institute to help satisfy that demand. Professor Don Scavia is director of the Graham Institute, and I want to thank him. Professor Scavia also serves as my special counsel on sustainability, and he has been an immense resource of ideas and advice.

* * *

Just as powerful as our teaching and research is how we conduct ourselves as a major institution and employer. Sustainable operations go hand in hand with our academics and research. To be a leader we must be good citizens of the planet.

Let me quickly share some of our strongest work:

  • Recycling.  We are now in our third decade of campus recycling.  This stretches from collecting 30 tons a season at Michigan Stadium to gathering nearly five times that amount when students move out of the residence halls.
  • Construction.  We have pledged to meet LEED Silver standards for major new construction projects.  Many know we achieved LEED Gold for the Dana Building and LEED Silver for the Ross School. We are hopeful about reaching silver with the new Law School building, the renovation of Crisler Arena, and even the new Mott Children’s Hospital – the largest and most sophisticated building project in campus history. 
  • And our Planet Blue energy conservation program.  This is our gem.  For the past four years, we have moved from building to building, identifying ways to save energy.  Seventy buildings have undergone upgrades, saving more than $4 million each year.

* * *

Talking about sustainability often leads to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.  Many universities have signed this pledge to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions on their campuses.

Let me explain why Michigan has not and will not sign it.

The Climate Commitment‘s ultimate goal of carbon-neutral campuses is a noble one.  And we are committed to doing everything the commitment asks – save one.  After seeking expert counsel, we have concluded we cannot set a date by which we will achieve carbon neutrality.  There is simply no viable way forward at this time to achieve such a feat, and I will not place an undue burden on the backs of future presidents of this great institution. 

What we will do is work to significantly decrease our greenhouse gas emissions going forward.  Given our position as one of the world’s largest research enterprises, these reductions will be challenging for us to meet.  But because of our tremendous scale, the results will indeed be significant.

When we look at the University of Michigan and sustainability, we need to step back and take in the collective strength of our organization.

Ninety-five academic programs are in the top 10.  Our professional schools are nationally ranked.  We teach more than 65 languages.  Our research budget is the largest for a public university.  We have 175 health centers and clinics, three hospitals, and the country’s biggest sports stadium.

If I may paraphrase Brady Hoke, “This is Michigan, for goodness sake.”  We’re not satisfied with just one accomplishment.  Academic excellence and leading by example define our culture.

There are very, very few universities that can match the scope and scale of Michigan, and that depth allows us to make a genuine difference.

Drawing on these strengths, we are prepared to take our next big steps to deepen our impact.

* * *

I began this morning by talking about Andrew White, his trees and his students.  This university has a rich legacy of environmental leadership. 

Douglass Houghton was the inaugural member of our science faculty.  As the first state geologist, he is credited with fully exploring the wilderness and vast resources of the Upper Peninsula. 

Filibert Roth was an alumnus and faculty member who became Michigan’s first state forest warden. He built a nursery that would literally seed the state, whose forests had been denuded by the lumber boom of the 19th century.  That nursery came to produce 22 million trees for the Great Lakes State.

Michigan students played a historic role in launching Earth Day in 1970 and heightening environmental awareness on America’s college campuses and beyond.

Our solar car program, operated entirely by students, has dominated racing for two decades.  In three weeks, our latest vehicle and its innovative technologies will compete for the world championship.

And eight University researchers, including graduate students, shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore for their work on mitigating climate change.

We are now going to accelerate our teaching, research and operations. 

We will be aggressive and relentless.  As a campus, a community, and a planet, there is no other approach to take.

I want the message to be clear: Sustainability defines the University of Michigan.  Combine maize and blue, and you get green.  A great university such as ours does not blink when presented with difficult challenges. 

And so I am excited to announce that the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, our largest school, will now offer an academic minor in sustainability.  This will be one more feature of LSA’s Program in the Environment, which is among our fastest-growing programs.  And this minor will be open to all 27,000 undergraduates, regardless of their academic home.

We will place greater research emphasis on climate, water and communities – areas where we already excel.  This encompasses transportation, energy technologies, the health of the Great Lakes, and much more.  Since 2007, our researchers in these fields have secured $180 million in funding – an increase of 60 percent from the previous four years.  We only expect that number to grow because of our expertise and leadership.  

We are launching the Planet Blue Student Fund, with $50,000 a year for the next three years.  It will support the best ideas to improve our work in the greenest ways. It is entirely in the hands of students to develop, and I’m already hearing a lot of buzz about plans for a campus farm.

And we now have Planet Blue Ambassadors to teach and encourage sustainability practices.  Students and staff will be our boots on the ground, helping the 80,000 members of the Michigan community save energy, reuse and recycle, and reduce waste.

* * *

How we operate as a multi-billion-dollar enterprise is significant.  It matters to the bottom line, which is important to students, parents and taxpayers.  It protects the environment, which is threatened.  And it puts our values into practice.

The physical footprint of the University is twice the size of the nearby community of Plymouth and bigger than Ypsilanti or Saline.  Our buildings, our vehicles, our equipment and how we use them make an enormous impact.

Two years ago, I asked for a far-reaching assessment of our environmental impact. Hundreds of students, faculty and staff have studied campus operations, from greenhouse gas emissions and energy efficiency to how we use water and the types of food we purchase.  I understand our students alone logged more than 10,000 hours; that’s more than a solid year of time.

Working with the Graham Institute, the Office of Campus Sustainability played an invaluable role in this review, and I want to acknowledge Executive Director Terry Alexander.  We don’t know of any other university that has conducted such an extensive, democratic assessment of its operations.

We carried out this evaluation because we must, and we will, reduce our footprint.  This is one time I want the University of Michigan to do less rather than more.

Today we are announcing these major University goals:

We will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent.  It will be as if we remove more than 41,000 cars from the road. 

We will make our campus transit system more efficient – decreasing vehicle carbon output by 30 percent for every person in the car, truck or bus.

We will shrink the amount of waste sent to landfills by 40 percent.  The Olympic pool at Canham Natatorium?  Picture it, filled with trash, over and over, nearly 30 times, and that’s how much will not go to landfills.

To protect the Huron River, a beloved natural feature of our community, we will apply 40 percent fewer chemicals to grass, trees and walkways. We will ensure that at least 30 percent of our stormwater runoff does not flow into the Huron.

Finally, we will promote a healthier environment by supporting more Michigan farmers and producers.  From our residence halls to the unions and hospitals, we are introducing purchasing guidelines and committing that at least 20 percent of our food will come from local and sustainable sources.

We will do all this by the year 2025.   

The goals are ambitious.  But with the resolute efforts of many, they are achievable.

We will start by purchasing nearly 40 hybrid vehicles, including seven new hybrid buses that begin arriving in December.  Our buses carry more than 6.5 million people a year – that’s the populations of Chicago and Los Angeles combined. One in six University buses will now be hybrids, and our long-term goal is an entire fleet of highly efficient vehicles.

We expect all dining halls we renovate or build will go trayless. Using a tray often means taking more food – and some of that food goes directly into the garbage.  Knowing we serve 2.5 million meals a year, wasting less food and washing far fewer trays will deliver real benefits.

We are more than doubling our investment in our Planet Blue energy conservation program.  All buildings supported by the General Fund – some 120 facilities – will now be part of Planet Blue’s portfolio. 

Finally, we are turning to our natural resources to create energy.  There is a demand on campus for solar energy, and we will be partnering with DTE Energy to install extensive solar panel fields on North Campus.  We look forward to such a visible display of commitment and collaboration.    

And on the South Campus, the golf practice facility that is under construction will be heated and cooled with geothermal technology – a first for the University.

All told, we are committing $14 million to improve how we operate.  This does not begin to convey the extensive dollars dedicated to teaching and research.  It is in addition to ongoing investments of $20 million, and more than $60 million that has gone toward energy-efficient buildings.  Those efficiencies save both dollars and energy during a time of tight resources.

As we do all of this, and more, we will scientifically measure and report our progress and behavior as a community.  Specifically, we will turn to the Institute for Social Research, the world’s largest survey research organization and a hallmark of the University.  ISR researchers will measure the sustainability attitudes and activities of students, faculty and staff, as well as identify where we can improve.

We also will join STARS – the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System developed exclusively to measure sustainability on college campuses worldwide.  We believe STARS is the best fit not only for our campus, but higher education overall.

As a major research university it is entirely appropriate to analyze our efforts.  Transparency matters, and we should demand nothing less of ourselves. 

In short, we will be sustainable and we will be visible.

* * *

I know I have covered a lot of ground and produced a lot of numbers this morning.  I think perhaps I am channeling Henry Tappan, the University’s first president.  When a young professor was about to lecture for the first time, Tappan advised: “As an old hand, let me tell you one thing: never stop dead – keep saying something.”

I want to return to our students.  Professor Andrew White, the planter of trees, loved nothing more than his students.  They inspired his work and his words.  He relished knowing they were entering a new century – in his case, the 20th – “to see great things that I shall never see, and to make the new time better than the old.” 

We would not be here today if not for our students’ persistence, their enthusiasm, and their deep concern about the future – the 21st century.  The Student Sustainability Initiative, in particular, has pulled together dozens of student groups working to make the University of Michigan a more sustainable place. 

They are formidable, they have pushed us as an institution, and we owe them our thanks.

And we must acknowledge supporters who also have challenged us.  Alumni like Don Graham, Fred and Barbara Erb, Peter Wege and Fred Matthaei have deep affection for both the University and our natural world.  Corporate partners like Ford, Dow, Alcoa, DTE and many others help seed our innovation and creative solutions. And the Kresge and Erb Family Foundations are key to projects across the Great Lakes.  

All have been extremely generous, and the institutes and programs that bear their names allow us to prepare tomorrow’s leaders.

Tomorrow is why we are here today. We have the unique capability to leverage our strengths – in science, technology, economics, human health, social science and public policy – to confront the complexity of building a sustainable world.

Sustainability at Michigan is like Andrew White’s trees on the Diag.  Deeply rooted.  The work of students.  Expansive, and still growing.

And intended to last for generations.