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Management in Practice

What does sustainability mean at Yale?

Yale University is striving to integrate sustainability into the institution's operations, as well as its educational and research functions. Julie Newman, the director of Yale's office of sustainability, discusses the efforts at Yale and across higher education.

Q: What does sustainability mean at Yale?

First we adopted the United Nation's Bruntdland Commission definition of sustainable development: meeting the social, economic, and environmental needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. From there we entered dialog around the institution to establish a qualitative framework defining how we ensure that our decision making incorporates economics, ecosystem health, and human health. And then we created quantitative targets on emissions, energy, waste, transportation, and so forth. 

Even as we are taking incremental steps toward specific targets, it's not a static state. I would say sustainability is an ongoing state of existence. How do you get to that point where we're really minimizing our impacts on ecosystem health in ways that are economically viable and improve human health over time? 

Q: What are the key goals the university has set?

As of a few months ago, the only goal we had really set was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 10% below 1990 levels by 2020. At this point, the sustainability strategic plan will cover essentially all university functions. There will be quantitative goals for campus planning, waste management, transportation, energy, water use, land management, business operations, procurement, and maintenance. 

Our greenhouse gas reduction target is in line with those of the New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers. Over the past five years, we've used it to understand the process of implementing changes. It is a stepped process. In some years, like this year, we're not doing as well. But next year, once our second natural gas co-generation plant is online, it'll be a leap ahead. That experience is guiding us as we begin to work towards a new set of quantitative goals in other areas.

Q: Developing data around sustainability issues has been a challenge for many organizations. What is the role of data in Yale's efforts?

It's essential, because it's the only way we can measure our success over time. We want to add another residential college within the next few years, while decreasing our overall impact. Data is an absolute requirement for measuring and proving the progress. We have created a complete metrics database. How much water are we using? How much energy? What are our vehicle-miles traveled? How much fuel are we using? We have data on our buildings. We have everything from cleaning to paper usage tracked. Now we want to know what the trends are. 

Q: Are universities able to do things that for-profit organizations might not be able to do?

Yale has been here for 300 years; we're not working in a quarterly report mindset. The influx of students that come to campuses all over the country every fall means our customers are renewed on an annual basis. 

From an educational perspective, being on the forefront of sustainability is part of our commitment to preparing tomorrow's leaders. From an academic perspective, it's an opportunity for research. By using the campus as a living lab experimenting with sustainability, we can model what it means to be a sustainable community as we test technologies, explore new practices, and see how far culture change can go. And finally, from a business perspective, there are clearly opportunities for streamlining and efficiency that come from sustainability efforts. 

Q: Are institutions of higher learning sharing practices?

One of my professional drives has been to bring universities together, because while we're all unique institutions, there are many similarities. We're all trying to teach, feed, and house our students. We all need clean air, water, and land. We're all dependent upon technology and we all have to figure out where to dispose of our electronics. 

We have figured out ways to share practices through new and existing organizations. In 2004, we started the Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium. President Levin and I have helped create sustainability working groups as part of the Ivy Working Group and the International Alliance of Research Universities. President Levin has also introduced sustainability to the Global University Leadership Forum, which is part of the World Economic Forum.

Q: How does Yale's office of sustainability fit into the university's larger structure?

Our motto is “Influence without power,” because the functions that now have sustainability goals don't report directly to us. We're successful because of the goals we set and the targets we meet. Both of those are the result of the relationships we've built. Our budget isn't big by any means however much of our success has been grounded in what I refer to as sustainability capital. As departments and offices and individuals get involved in a sustainability project, make a positive change, and come back ready for the next step, we're building capital. 

Our office keeps an eye on all the sustainability efforts across the campus on a day-to-day basis. There are also point people in facilities, recycling, and waste management who don't report to our office, but for whom sustainability is their primary responsibility. Then there is a growing number of people across the university, people in dining services, grounds and maintenance, and procurement, who are involved in some way. They're adhering to sustainability practices even if they're not identifying as sustainability professionals. Someone in custodial services is involved because they're using green cleaning products. Ultimately, the professional capacity is distributed across the institution. 

Q: What are the challenges in working in this influence-without-power structure?

I think accountability would be my one-word answer. It's really difficult to find the right model of accountability that ensures that we're making progress over time. That's where the strategic plan will provide us with our first systemic level of accountability that we've had to date. We now have goals that have to be reported back on, on an annual basis for the next three years.

Integrating sustainability into an institution is a massive undertaking. It's difficult. You can't chase one project until it's done, then move on to the next; everything has to happen simultaneously. But nothing moves forward at the same pace. So the challenge is trying to have all of these pieces happen in concert with one another. The key is having top-down support without doing things by top-down mandate. 

Q: What's coming onto your radar now?

Just two years ago, biodiversity, land, and water became part of our dialog. When we set the greenhouse gas reduction goals, there were standards to look to in setting the target. There isn't that equivalent in other areas. There's not a national or international standard for water usage. There isn't a code for managing a sustainable urban ecosystem. So that means we pull in some faculty, some students; we talk with other universities and say, let's figure it out together. You will also see us begin to enter a dialog about embracing the campus as a living laboratory.

A Few Sustainability Projects at Yale

Sustainability at Yale involves programs that touch all aspects of the university. Many efforts begin as pilot projects that allow for experimentation. That may take the form of new technology or using ideas that have been used elsewhere but need to be customized to fit the needs of the Yale community.

Sitting atop the Becton Engineering and Applied Science Center on Prospect Street are ten micro-wind turbines. In place since May 2009, the turbines generate power even in winds as mild as seven miles per hour. They are forecast to produce 26 megawatt hours of electricity annually, cutting the university's carbon dioxide emissions by 20,000 pounds. Each is six and a half feet tall and weighs 60 pounds. Their small size offers opportunities for urban wind generation. The Becton turbines' location, near the center of campus, allows for convenient research and educational opportunities but it also has symbolic value as part of the school's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 43% below 2005 levels by 2020. 

Another energy focused pilot draws on an approach favored by some behavioral economists. Social comparison and immediate feedback have been found to have a significant impact on changing habits. The university has installed energy dashboards in two of the residential colleges. The dashboards provide up-to-the-minute data on electricity, heating, and cooling. They provide comparisons over time as well as between colleges. If the two residences reduce electricity consumption by 5%, the project is expected to be expanded to the remaining colleges. The dashboard is available online to anyone.

Yale Health which provides healthcare to the university's students and staff is looking to make clear the connection between human health and sustainability. It is the first organization in Connecticut to register with the Green Guide to Health Care program which provides the healthcare industry with best practices for sustainability in planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of facilities. Yale Health's new facility opening in fall 2010 is also expected to attain LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for green building.

Earlier this year a group of five SOM students wearing HAZMAT suits took part in a dumpster diving expedition sponsored by the Office of Sustainability. It was an effort to gather data on what actually gets thrown away at the school. That was just part of a for-credit independent study course that assessed SOM's consumption and waste. Their work led to recommendations on changes that can be made in energy, transportation, procurement, and waste at the school.

Other programs seek to change many of the unseen functions of a large institution. Groups and individuals have worked to improve performance in commuting, waste management, and custodial services. And the procurement office has simplified the process of buying green office supplies thus pushing the internal effort out along the supply chain. 

Interview conducted and edited by Ted O'Callahan.