An (In)convenient college

By Arianna Ashby, Rebecca Eulberg, Justin Henry, Dan Santoro and Joe Sprung

The industrial revolution introduced mankind to a troubling split between humanistic practice and entrepreneurial ambition, a divide which Ithaca College pledged to bridge in 2006, when talks began of a new building for the school of business.

“By acknowledging the importance of building a sustainable world, Ithaca College has made an ethical and moral decision to not only make a positive difference but also to teach our students the important link between sustainability and responsible citizenship,” read the institutional plan for sustainability.

Since that time of optimism, the college has undergone financial and personal turmoil relegating sustainability to a second thought. Can a college fulfill its altruistic duties of educating thinkers of tomorrow while operating on the existential threat posed by global warming?

A pioneer in sustainability

The average institution of higher learning expels 52,434 metric tons of greenhouse gasses on a yearly basis, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Altogether, colleges and universities produce 121 million metric tons of CO2, which amounts to a quarter of California’s total output.

The three scopes institutions use to gauge its consumption of greenhouse gases (GHG) are:

  • Direct combustion—for heating buildings
  • Indirect combustion from consumption—from purchased electricity
  • Indirect combustion not from consumption—from transportation

Transportation is the most difficult source to monitor since it relies on feedback from yearly surveys which have low response rates, according to the 2013 Climate Action Plan progress report. For this coming semester, the Office of Energy Management and Sustainability now documents this in a required survey prior to purchasing a parking pass. For instance, if a student drives five miles to and from campus every week day, they emit about half a metric ton of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Ithaca College has a proud heritage of blazing trails in environmental sustainability which explains why its net carbon output is lower than the national average. The college is also a signatory on American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), committing the college to carbon neutrality by 2050, after former President Peggy Ryan Williams signed it in 2007.

To achieve this ambitious goal, the college built three structures to cohabitate with the surrounding environment and meet the criteria for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). This placed the college in a category shared only by Yale University as earning the platinum status for an academic building, the Park School of Business and Sustainable Enterprise, in 2010. It was followed later that year by the Peggy Ryan Williams (PRW) Center, which also earned platinum status.

The PRW Center was awarded LEED status for the way its architecture is integrated with the earth’s natural functions. The building casts a massive shadow across the campus’s north-side garden where cool air is fed directly into the lobby. The PRW Center’s roof is 6,500 square feet of vegetation to replace oxygen in the air removed when the ground was cleared for the building’s construction.

Ithaca College partakes in reducing carbon emissions in two key ways. The first is through carbon sequestration, the process where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration happens naturally when trees convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis. The college’s natural lands, 600 acres of forested area, are owned by IC and are estimated by the Sustainability Tracking and Assessment and Rating System (STARS) to remove approximately 680 metric tons of CO2, which is 2.06 percent of CO2 emissions in 2012, from the atmosphere annually.

The majority of Ithaca College’s energy still comes from the grid, however. Grid energy is a mix of energy originating from different sources including helpful practices and harmful ones, with different percent shares producing grid electricity in Tompkins County. Tompkins County’s electricity comes from diverse group of sources, mostly outside the local area—nuclear, renewable, natural gas, coal and oil. None of the electricity, however, comes from the coal-fired plant on Cayuga Lake. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency suggests that only 32 percent of Tompkins County Energy comes from greenhouse gas emitting sources.

Ithaca College itself has more than 85 buildings on campus that rely on natural gas as a primary source of energy. In the 2010-2011 academic year, IC’s natural gas use was 168,470 British Thermal Units (MMBTU). IC also is a consumer of electricity and other energy sources. Data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that during the 2015-16 fiscal year, the college purchased 111,562.07 MMBTU of electricity. Currently, the price of electricity in New York is 19.4 cents per kilowatt hours (kWh).

This means that IC spent over 689,642 dollars on electricity during this time frame.

Falling back

In 2009, a year after the construction of two buildings that would go on to win LEED platinum status, Ithaca College was ranked 47th in the Sierra Club’s top 200 “coolest schools”. However, the college has not since been included on the Sierra Club’s. IC’s regional competitors, Wells College, SUNY Geneso, SUNY Cortland, Williams College and Wartburg College all made the 2016 ranking.

David Turkon, professor in the department of anthropology, recalled the end of Williams’ presidency, shortly after she signed the ACUPCC, when environmental sustainability was at the heart of Ithaca College’s ideals. Lamenting a lost soul of the college in the wake of constraining budgetary practices, Turkon described IC’s former environmental efforts as an attractive quality to donors and prospective students.

“This used to be a quiet, little niche school that focused on environmental sustainability and that was why people wanted to contribute to it,” Turkon said.

How did Ithaca College recede from the front-lines of sustainability?

Trading cheap fossil fuels for renewable forms of energy is an expensive project and involves a multi-year gradual transition with talented personnel and strategic finances. During a time when the college saw waning numbers of student enrollment and inexpensive natural gas, using fossil fuels became a cost-cutting initiative.

Higher education’s financial structure is cyclical: student tuition is invested for profitable degrees and someday, the college’s division institutional advancement hopes, alumni donations. This establishes a precedent of some academic departments on campus being pioneers of sustainable practice — the business and communication schools, for instance, named for the college’s top donor — and others to fall by the wayside.

There is no wonder why the college was able to invest in sustainable architecture with a chic modern design for three of its buildings; the money must come from either an outside source or yield a return on the initial investment. The A&E center provided a talking point for the college to recruit prospective students, the PRW center was funded with 280,000 dollars from the New York Stage Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the business school was a combination of the two, supported by a wealthy alumni network to fund the most profitable degrees in the college, thereby fostering more future donating alumni.

The 2013 CAP progress report showed a significant increase in both electricity (seven percent increase) and natural gas consumption (eight percent increase) from the previous year. The report attributes to the opening of the new Athletics and Events Center in Fall 2011, which increased total campus square footage by eight percent.

While the A&E center does much to mitigate its consumption of fossil fuels, it remains the college’s primary gas guzzler, accounting for substantial increases in natural gas and electricity use during the 2012-13 academic year. It also demands much of the college’s maintenance funding and attention. This demonstrates the inherent conflict of sustainable enterprise in an age of financial constraints: the A&E center, while adding a financial and environmental burden, is a big selling point for the college.

The college’s most recent Climate Action Plan progress report marked total CO2 emissions at 31,549 metric tons, down from a high point of 38,234. Although total emissions had been steadily decreasing, the college did not publish any more progress reports after 2013.

“The wide variability in some categories from year to year is troubling, and may speak to the need to ensure that the same data collection protocols and interpretations are being used,” the report read.

These reports were published by the division of energy management and sustainability in the office of the facilities, which has suffered scattered human resources appointment since the college’s sustainability high point in the mid 2000s.

Marian Brown formerly served as the special assistant to the provost for sustainability. She left IC in 2014 after her position had been relegated from one with direct interaction with administrators to facilities where she had less influence. According to the Wells College website, her new position allows her desired scope of influence. After 2 years of Brown’s work, Wells College was included in the Sierra Club’s list of “cool schools”.

During her three decades at Ithaca College, Brown developed campus wide sustainability initiatives which included developing environmental-themed research initiatives for students and faculty. Her position, as well as that of Mark Darling who retired as sustainability coordinator in 2016, did not find replacements until the end of the 2016-17 academic year when Becca Evans was hired.

Alternative options

The Finger Lakes region of New York State offers many other alternative energy sources that could expand the college’s sustainable practice. One strong possibility is through wind power and one opportunity for this is located about 12 miles away from IC campus, at Black Oak Wind Farm. While it is currently in Public Comment Period of Environmental Impact Statement, if it were to become operational it would need an energy purchaser. Ithaca College provides a likely candidate since the farm will have seven GE 2.3-107 wind turbines capable of producing 16.1 megawatts of energy.

These could include things like geothermal heating and technology implementations in buildings which would help counter heating and cooling issues. Other options are outlined in a study prepared for Ithaca College to improve sustainability by Dr. Christopher W. Sinton, and would include waste wood, which comes from various sources including timber harvest, forest management residue or sawood waste, or biogas, a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide that is produced by anaerobic digestion of organic wastes.

If implemented strategically, environmental and financial sustainability can go hand in hand. For as long as Ithaca College relies on fossil fuels for its operations, it is in the grasp of the capricious tides of an inelastic marker. As public opinion shifts toward environmental awareness, student income and alumni donations respond positively toward sustainable enterprises.

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, Americans aged 18-29 are more likely than older Americans to see climate change as an imminent threat. With many small independent college receiving the bulk of their funds from tuition and fees, initiatives to reduce the effects of climate change can prove to be a marketable quality for college’s image.

Divestment: where idealism meets reality

The greatest barrier to reversing the effects of global warming is a profound case of volunteer-bias among institutions. Although climate change is a global issue, change can only come about if institutions collectively take action, however, the small impact any one institution will make discourages the first step.

 

In mid August of 2016, 747 organizations of all types and sizes pledged to divest from fossil fuel corporations with Go Fossil Free, a nonprofit consultant that advises groups compel the administrative officials of their organizations to divest. Among the signatories are Syracuse University and the city of Ithaca.

Divestment is the opposite of investment: withdrawing from assets that fund ethically questionable ventures. In philosophical terms, however, investment and divestment is all about values. Their aim is to change widespread public consciousness about fossil fuel companies in the same way that the public has turned against tobacco companies. Companies can only operate in a favorable legal and political framework, according to the Go Fossil Free website.

Go Fossil Free has some big aims for itself, that is, to wean mankind off of the resilient quasi-monopolized market of fossil fuel, an immediate withdrawal which would be worse than that of tobacco. The unilateral divestment of any tuition-dependent college would be more challenging for the college than Exxon Mobile.

At independent, tuition driven colleges, diversified endowments have braced institutions from financial ruin. When the college’s endowment lost one-third of its asset-value in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, the budget narrative for the 2009 fiscal year attributed the college’s ability to keep its head afloat to a diversified source of funding. In the years since, the college has restored this one-third and even surpassed it but, unfortunately, not without the profits of fossil fuel corporations.

Balancing environmental sustainability and financial sustainability is a difficult task, since environmentally unsustainable practices tend to be cheap and reliable means for income. The college needs a clever exit strategy.

“I wouldn’t expect students to fix that issue, of course. Getting students who express an interest in that, that’s what I’m expecting,” Evans said. “If a student is thinking about starting a divestment from fossil fuels, coming to us and saying ‘hey, can we get XYZ data of how much we are invested in oil?’ and ‘what is possible?’ Yes, I can help do that. But real change will come from the students and the resources of the director and provost.”

The total market value of the endowment portfolio for the 2016 fiscal year stated in the annual endowment report is equivalent to academic year, is 269.5 million dollars. This number is dwarfed by Cornell University’s endowment of 5.758 billion dollars, according to their 2016 fiscal year report. This endowment plan is the reason Cornell, along with all Ivy-league colleges, are so financially strong. They are not nearly as dependent upon income from enrollment like smaller institutions such as Ithaca College and other independent colleges and can afford economic transitions.

This is a campaign colleges across the nation have already begun. According to an NPR article, Syracuse University sets the record with the largest endowment divesting from all fossil fuels with an endowment of 1.2 billion.

Syracuse University’s plan to divest is simple. First, they plan on pulling all direct investment in fossil fuels while finding other places, such as investments for companies focused on renewable energy, for that money to be reinvested. These are companies that are determined by the university’s investment managers as to whether they are reliable enough to invest in. This ensures that money is not lost. After divesting from direct fossil fuel corporations, they plan on reducing fossil fuel exposure through the university’s index funds or other co-mingled assets.

This is the basic plan that other universities and colleges have been following for divestment since it allows money to be drawn away from unsustainable practices without any loss of profit. Ithaca College would have to follow a similar trend of careful divestment and strategic investment.

Of Ithaca College’s endowment portfolio, 2.1 percent is invested in fossil fuel based companies, according to Janet Williams, vice president of business and finance. Williams explained that the low exposure of half a million dollars invested in fossil fuels limits the negative of possible divestment. However, the drawbacks to divestment she said include changing a diversified investment portfolio and policy constructed to support the college’s academic endeavors for the long term.  

“Many of those endeavors include reducing the carbon impact of the college and academic research related to dealing with climate change,” Williams said in an email.

Williams said the college has been taking into account the community and its concerns, proactively looking for sustainable investment options. For example, the Park Sustainable Endowment Fund was established in 2015 and invests in companies that are either fossil free or actively seeking environmental solutions.

“We believe continuing to be able to support the college’s efforts has a more direct impact than small divestments from large public energy companies,” Williams said.  

Becca Evans was hired as the sustainability coordinator during the Spring 2017 semester with starting an official college-wide sustainability committee as her first goal. The committee would be responsible for working on sustainability literacy testing for incoming freshman and graduating seniors in order to gauge what students learned during their time at IC.

Tight funds are not so much a concern for Evans, she said in a Q & A with IC Chronicle. Working with very little resources, she said, is a stimulating challenge.

“I know people are frustrated with how things died over the past several years, and I’d like to step away from what went wrong in the past and focus on what we can do for the future,” Evans said.

 

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