Guest author: Kenneth Keeler, Senior Sustainability Representative at the University of Michigan
At The Refinishing Touch we are always reaching out to the sectors we work in – including hospitality, higher education and government. In this interview, senior sustainability representative at the University of Michigan discusses his thoughts on sustainability trends and environmental initiatives taken on by the university.
The Refinishing Touch (TRT): Tell us a bit about the University of Michigan. Why do students attend? What does the university offer that others do not?
Kenneth Keeler (KK): Located in Ann Arbor, MI, the University of Michigan was founded in 1817 as one of the first public universities in the nation. Today, U-M is recognized as one of the most distinguished universities in the world and a leader in higher education. There are over 50,000 students and 5,600 faculty members on U-M’s three campuses.
While many people are first introduced to the University of Michigan through the winged helmets of our football team on television, it’s the university’s academic reputation – and quality of its faculty and research institutes – which allows our students to learn and challenge themselves as they come into contact with people, cultures and ideas from all over the world.
TRT: Does the University of Michigan have a formal policy on environmental sustainability and/or green initiatives? How have you seen the commitment and involvement in green initiatives change over time?
KK: U-M has always had a strong commitment to environmental conservation and sustainability. We’ve held some of the first Earth Day celebrations over forty years ago, and currently hold a charter membership with AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), as well as a Silver STARS ranking. U-M is currently home to nearly 40 sustainability-focused student groups, and more than 25 centers, institutes and living learning laboratories specializing in environmental studies.
Personally, I attended U-M in the 80’s, and have been employed with the university since 1995. During that time I have witnessed involvement in the sustainability area evolve rapidly. In 2003 U-M established an environmental taskforce charged with the responsibility to develop a plan for U-M to create a more sustainable future. One recommendation of the taskforce was to measure the university’s environmental footprint by tracking a set of more than 150 environmental indicators and making these measurements public through an annual sustainability report.
In October 2009, U-M President Mary Sue Coleman elevated the university’s commitment to sustainability through the creation of the Sustainability Executive Council, the appointment of a Special Counsel to the President for Sustainability, and the formation of the Office of Campus Sustainability. One of the first actions of the Council was to commission the Campus Sustainability Integrated Assessment (CSIA). The purpose of the CSIA was to conduct a comprehensive assessment that would lead to new goals and action plans to significantly advance sustainable operations at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Following the release of the CSIA in 2010, the university announced a $14 million investment toward ambitious environmental goals under four key themes: climate action, waste prevention, healthy environments and community awareness. In an effort to achieve these goals, U-M has launched a number of initiatives to educate and incentivize the campus. Examples of these programs include; the Planet Blue Ambassadors training, certification programs for sustainable workplaces and sustainable laboratories, an annual Earthfest celebration, and the “How to be a Green Wolverine” student sustainability guide.
TRT: What do you think are the real drivers behind green and sustainable initiatives in higher education today?
KK: The significant commitment to sustainability in research and curriculum are drivers toward sustainability from an operational perspective. In addition to the benefits of reducing a campus’ environmental footprint, many sustainability initiatives can be tied to research, curriculum, and learning outcomes which is extremely beneficial.
Additionally, most colleges have made a strong commitment to sustainability through specific goals related to energy/emission reduction, waste reduction, water reduction/quality, etc., for their campus, the goal commitment acts as a driver toward implementing green initiatives on campuses. Student interest and activism also continues to be a driver on the implementation of sustainable initiatives.
TRT: Which challenges remain in place for colleges and universities keen to adopt green practices, and how is the industry addressing these challenges?
KK: There are a number of challenges, first off is fiscal responsibility. Universities face constant pressure to keep overall costs down and many “green” practices are unfortunately still not cost effective. Coal is still cheaper than natural gas, natural gas is still cheaper than solar/wind, in many parts of the country.
Another challenge is growth, though efficiency has come a long way even LEED certified facilities consume resources. In our case U-M infrastructure continues to grow by 1-2% per year average. This expansion results in an overall increase in resource consumption and a subsequent increase in associated waste, emissions, and water use.
Another challenge I have observed over the last 20 years is the increasing use of technology. Everybody has a phone, tablet or laptop plugged in and people like to get in their cars and drive where ever they want to go. We get rid of things by throwing them in the garbage never to be seen again. Typically a student, faculty or staff member does not see the financial or environmental costs of these actions, so motivating individual behavior change toward a more conservative approach is a challenge especially with an ever changing population.
TRT: What gives you hope when it comes to the adoption of green and environmentally-friendly practices?
KK: I guess the biggest thing I see is advancement in is technology. Wind, solar and geothermal energy is still a very small percentage of the total but it is increasing every year. I am also noticing that more universities and private businesses now have sustainability departments and are starting to see that sustainability and energy conservation can in fact help save money.
To learn more about the University of Michigan, please visit their website here. For further information on how colleges and universities nation-wide can boost green ratings through furniture asset management, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.