Commentary: Campuses Can Take the LEED in Going Green

Go ahead — try putting something in the trash bin at St. Louis Community College in Wildwood, Mo. No one is going to stop you — no alarms or buzzers will sound. But at STLCC-Wildwood, one of the first 100 percent LEED-certified, or leadership in energy and environmental design, community college campuses in the country, you may feel more than a bit guilty for doing so. That feeling transcends your inescapable awareness of being in a green building — it goes right down to the stickers students have put on the trash bins. They read “landfill,” to remind you exactly where that candy wrapper is headed.

At a time when environmental issues are covered above the fold, it has been no surprise to see more stakeholders focusing on sustainability on campus — through programming, through curriculum, through building green. Indeed, community colleges around the country are increasing their commitment to green building practices. The St. Louis Community College district opened its Wildwood campus in 2007. In the same year, the Los Angeles Community College District received California’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award for its green building programs. Meanwhile, Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona has pledged to build all new facilities to LEED silver certification and opened its first LEED-certified building in fall 2008.

Why focus on building green as part of your college’s commitment to sustainability? Perhaps it is as simple as what Paulo Freire said about designing a school: “[a]ttention should go into every detail of the school space. … By making clear that the educational space is valuable, the administration is able to demand the due respect from learners” (1998, p. 97).

Or, perhaps it is because U.S. agencies, like the Geological Survey and Energy Information Administration, are being more vocal about the fact that the operation of buildings accounts for over three-quarters of all power generated by power plants in America, or that construction accounts for 60 percent of all materials used in the United States for purposes other than food and fuel. Putting a dent in those big numbers seems like a fundamental task for any college pursuing a greener future. Students are paying attention to building green, as well. Scores of studies have reported on the academic and social gains a student is likely to make in a green building.

For years, results of surveys conducted by higher education consulting firms such as Noel-Levitz, and those conducted by organizations representing the interests of physical plant administrators such as APPA, have told us that students consider the condition of campus facilities a major factor in deciding where to go to school and their interest in the learning opportunities we create.

More recently, studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia confirmed that freshmen are two times more likely to choose their school based on sustainability concerns than just three years ago and would be willing to pay more to live in an environmentally sustainable dormitory (Roberts, 2008). It should be no surprise, then, that a college’s commitment to green building is becoming codified, normalized, and captured in national media. The Princeton Review and Forbes magazine are but a few of the media outlets that have created “green ratings” for colleges and universities.

So what do we need to know about building green? Case studies from community colleges that have taken the plunge are relatively rare, but the student and faculty perspectives to be collected from these environments are invaluable. Given the opportunity to spend time with faculty and staff who live and work in these green buildings, they might tell you about the importance of planning ahead and building flexibility into your office and classroom arrangements. Students might reveal their high expectations for colleges who make the commitment to building green and how these expectations do not stop with a groundbreaking, a ribbon cutting, or moving in the furniture.

Students seem to expect colleges that build green to translate that commitment to community leadership and engage regional partners in environmentally friendly behavior. Faculty and students in these green buildings might also tell you that these are places where people with a pioneering spirit thrive, as they create the vision for the future of a greener higher education. Life in green buildings is different; it requires alertness, an attention to detail, and a commitment to considering the effects of every action. It often requires thinking of a new way of doing things when traditional practice fails to meet a sustainable standard. These green campuses are places where innovation is the norm, where history is being created every day. As this spirit gains notice, it would be no surprise to see more of these green campuses serve as incubators for innovation — be it related to environmental studies, developmental education, professional development (Kovac, 2009).

The environment is a growing concern on college campuses around the globe. And whether it is with a “landfill” sticker, or a copy of the latest climate change report from the United Nations, it is a concern that is reaching a broader audience than ever before.

Educators can capitalize on this momentum and contribute to a sustainable future by including green buildings that may just lay the foundation for innovation in the process. D

— Dr. Jason Kovac is executive director of academic initiatives at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan.