A Call to Institutionalize Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager; and TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Director of the Hixon Center

Sustainability remains one of Harvey Mudd’s target areas for progress. As we argue here, the College must foster a culture around environmental sustainability on campus and among all of its community members if it is to prepare students for the real world, as well as demonstrate leadership amongst institutions of higher education.

Among what feels like a surfeit of pressing issues, climate change stands as one of the foremost challenges of modern society. Individuals, institutions, governments – the whole world – cannot afford to be passive on the issue. We must shift our practices to reflect a changing world by embracing a more environmentally sustainable way of life. Accordingly, we must change the ways in which we live, interact, and educate.

In 2008, President Maria Klawe signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, devoting Harvey Mudd College to making progress on climate action. By signing the ACUPCC, Harvey Mudd committed to develop a comprehensive climate neutrality plan, adopt campus policies that mitigate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to transparently report progress on climate neutrality efforts. The signing was accompanied by the establishment of the Sustainability Committee, composed of representatives from all stakeholder groups at the college to develop priorities and implement decisions regarding campus sustainability.

Even before signing the ACUPCC, Harvey Mudd took a number of institutional measures to solidify a visible campus commitment to environmental sustainability. For example, the Claremont Colleges Council of Presidents announced the 3-year Claremont Colleges Sustainability Initiative in March 2007, which led to a flurry of sustainability-centered projects, courses, and engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. The Center for Environmental Studies (since enveloped into the Hixon Center in 2015) created the Emphasis in Environmental Analysis as a curricular pathway for students interested in environmental and sustainability issues. Around the same time, Harvey Mudd’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) merged with Mudders Organizing for Sustainable Solutions (MOSS) to form ESW/MOSS and work on campus sustainability and outreach projects.

In addition, newer facilities, including the Hoch-Shanahan Dining Commons, the R. Michael Shanahan Center for Teaching & Learning, and Drinkward Hall, were all built to meet rigorous environmental design standards (each are LEED Silver Certified). The Sustainability Committee designs and proposes a number of facilities projects, supported by a new Revolving Green Fund, that contribute to reducing energy and waste consumption on campus. With the support of the Hixon family and the Board of Trustees, the College also established the Hixon Center for Sustainable Environmental Design in 2015 to further the initiation, support and coordination of college-wide programs and activities related to sustainability research, teaching and practice.

Thus, the College offers a growing list of accomplishments towards integrating sustainability throughout its operations, but there remain significant gaps. Notably, nearly a decade has passed since the signing of the ACUPCC, but the campus remains without a climate action plan (CAP) that sets out a comprehensive roadmap for reducing the College’s greenhouse gas emissions in a fiscally responsible and socially equitable way. Our campus also does not consistently report its progress in environmental sustainability to reputable reporting organizations (e.g., the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), and Second Nature) – an important measure of transparency and aspiration. And while many students are interested in environmental and sustainability issues, more organized student engagement remains comparatively limited (e.g., to the activities by ESW/MOSS, the spring PowerDown competition, and to internships and summer funding offered through the Hixon Center).

While sustainability is present at Harvey Mudd, we have not yet recognized our true potential. Opportunities for progress are apparent when we turn to our peer institutions within the Claremont University Consortium and other small, private liberal arts colleges across the country. Pomona College established a President’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability in 2006, and issued a campus-wide Vision for Sustainability the following year. The institution produces annual sustainability reports, multiple Sustainability Action Plans, and recently drafted a Carbon Neutrality Plan for 2030. Pomona’s Sustainability Integration office also engages and employs dozens of students every year, and can boast a substantial increase in renewable energy production. At Pitzer College, “environmental sustainability” is listed as one of the institution’s five core values, and the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California will soon have a refurbished space that will certify as LEED Platinum and will have net zero energy certified. Both Pomona and Pitzer colleges have been certified as STARS Gold, as per the rating system developed by AASHE. Claremont McKenna, which is currently certified as STARS Bronze, is aspiring towards a Silver rating this year – and the campus’ Environmental Affairs Committee recently established a Sustainability Fund, allotting $5,000 from the President’s fund to award grants for student-led sustainability projects. Sustainability is also a major component of CMC’s campus’ Master Plan.

Looking outside of the Claremont Colleges, Middlebury College (campus population: 2500 undergraduates) in Vermont certified as a STARS Gold campus and successfully achieved campus-wide carbon neutrality in 2016. Unity College in Maine (campus population: 2,134 students) proudly proclaims itself as “America’s Environmental College,” citing environment, natural resources and sustainability science as central to the campus mission. Colby College (also in Maine) achieved carbon neutrality in 2013, formed an Environmental Advisory Group in 2000 and has over 15 LEED certified buildings on its campus. Each college is comparable in size, incorporates sustainability into their strategic campus visions, and engage notable portions of their student population in environmental initiatives, coursework and community service.

To be clear, there is no lack of interest in environmental issues at Harvey Mudd. To the contrary, students, faculty and staff recognize that environmental issues (e.g., climate change, water, energy, etc.) are consequential. For example, conversations with faculty and staff members participating in the Hixon Center’s Green Office Program have shown that when departments evaluate where they can make progress, they produce excellent and innovative ideas. Among the student body, many are involved in ESW/MOSS, perform research on and off campus, and attend Hixon Center events.

However, for sustainability to be truly visible and resonant at any school, it needs to be integrated into all aspects of campus life and operations, and it also must be clearly articulated in the school’s strategic vision and institutional objectives. Other institutions across the state, including the University of California system, the California State University system, and Caltech have done this – but Harvey Mudd so far has not. While Harvey Mudd’s strategic vision, “HMC 2020: Envisioning the Future” (released in 2007) touches on environmental sustainability, it is neither listed as an explicit component of the vision’s major themes, nor is it clear how it supports the campus’ vision going forward.

The reality is that sustainability cannot simply remain a noble cause that we acknowledge and act upon from time to time. It is a fundamental principle – one that ensures lasting coexistence of environmental, social and economic systems and necessitates change in the way we use our resources. Higher education is not immune from the consequences of climate change and natural resource depletion. The time for change and action could not be more critical. With a federal administration that does not accept climate change and does not recognize the value of scientific inquiry and social justice, colleges and universities must step up. Environmental sustainability must become a serious and lasting consideration and component in all campus operations and governance. It must become a pillar of our community’s values – one that we must openly convey to current and prospective Harvey Mudd students, faculty and staff, as well as to our alumni and stakeholders.

Research on sustainability in higher education suggests that fostering a culture of sustainability at a college or university must happen both from the top down and the bottom up, meaning that everyone, including administrators, faculty, staff, and students, has a role to play. If Harvey Mudd is to embody a commitment to environmental stewardship and ecological awareness, the College should take on the following action items over the next few years:

  1. Incorporate environmental sustainability into the campus’ new Strategic Vision as a major thematic element with clear goals. When the College is prepared to evaluate and revisit its strategic vision, the administration should involve key stakeholders to lay out clear goals that align with the ACUPCC and other sustainability goals such as resource conservation and waste diversion, in conjunction with principles of social justice, diversity, inclusion and respect.
  2. Develop an ambitious climate neutrality plan. Having a climate neutrality plan clearly lays out how campus operations will be changed over time to produce net-zero GHG emissions, and sets explicit dates and targets for emissions reduction goals. While the Sustainability Committee and the Hixon Center have made early moves towards producing a plan for climate neutrality, more time, effort and human-power are needed. In addition, to ensure its acceptance and a sense of ownership, resources and outreach are needed to engage all stakeholders on campus. The administration should also work with campus partners to produce a Sustainability Action Plan, with specific sustainability goals that supplement climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts with broader sustainability efforts.
  3. Communicate efforts and report progress to the campus and outside world. Research shows that campuses can effectively foster engagement in sustainability by demonstrating to stakeholders and community members what their impact is on the environment. This includes GHG emissions tracking, water usage, waste generation, as well as other metrics that show both the positive and negative outcomes of ongoing campus behavior and resource use. Communicating these results frequently and transparently can also contribute positively to outreach and recruitment efforts.
  4. Introduce measures and allocate financial resources to foster sustainable behavior on campus. While Harvey Mudd has taken several important steps on this front by establishing the Hixon Center for Sustainable Environmental Design, the Green Revolving Fund, and supporting ESW/MOSS, Harvey Mudd should also consider the following:
    1. Eco-Reps / Sustainability Leadership Team: These paid student positions representing each residence hall serve to foster student engagement, ownership and learning through student-led projects and events.
    2. Small scale Green Initiative Fund: This fund would supplement the larger and more infrastructure-oriented Green Revolving Fund by offering small grants to students, faculty and staff to create sustainability innovations and actions that foster community experimentation, learning and cohesion around sustainability.
  5. Complete regular campus-wide sustainability assessments. Having timely and comprehensive data on the current status of campus sustainability is critical for making informed decisions on campus planning and investments. The Hixon Center is currently working with students, faculty and staff to compile information for a comprehensive sustainability report and STARS rating, which will provide Harvey Mudd’s first comprehensive sustainability assessment in years.

Some of these recommended action items are easier to implement than others, but jointly they will help establish a culture of sustainability on our campus. More importantly, advancing sustainability does not need to come at the expense of other important campaigns and initiatives, such as the College’s trailblazing diversity and inclusion initiative: research and evidence are strong that building climate change resilience, reducing resource use and waste generation on campus, and engaging all campus groups in conversations and actions on these matters can help address social and economic disparities, produces long-term financial savings, supports a strong sense of community, and bolsters the college’s leadership position among its peer institutions. Why not harness the talent, research and communal infrastructure at Harvey Mudd towards becoming a leader in sustainability?

After all, addressing sustainability is not a ‘for-the-sake-of-it’ endeavor. It stays true to our campus’ mission of “educating engineers, scientists, and mathematicians,” so that they may “assume leadership in their fields with a clear understanding of the impact of their work on society.” Relatedly, and more importantly, it falls hand-in-hand with our campus’ ongoing commitment to foster and promote diversity, equity and justice. A lasting stigma of environmentalism has been its relationship with white and socioeconomic privilege – that one must be able to afford a sustainable, eco-conscious lifestyle. We have a responsibility to defeat that stigma, and to recognize and embrace that a holistic approach to creating a more environmentally sustainable campus includes, and is intertwined with, Harvey Mudd’s call for a more inclusive community. Environmental issues affect everyone, and often have disproportionately negative effects on low-income and minority populations. By addressing environmental issues, we can also address issues of injustice and inequity, and in doing so we positively shape Harvey Mudd’s campus climate going forward.

With all of that said, to do right by our institution’s values and by our future, Harvey Mudd must do its part and sew sustainability into its fabric. After all, as the saying goes, “if not now, when?”