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ND responds to calls for sustainability

Aaron Steiner and John Tierney | Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a multi-part series examining sustainability at Notre Dame.

Sustainability – a word that’s here to stay at Notre Dame.

The University launched an entire office dedicated to the matter in January, a new “green” issues student organization gained approval as an official club this summer, and today’s Notre Dame Forum is devoted to sustainable energy.

University President Father John Jenkins told faculty members in his annual Faculty Address Sept. 16 that he is “eager to give special attention to this problem” through the Forum, academics and other initiatives on campus.

“We must strive, as a community, to make a practical response to the energy challenge in our lives and on our campus,” Jenkins said.

Indeed, making a response to calls for sustainability is a growing theme at many universities. A variety of publications, including The Princeton Review, have recently begun to evaluate sustainability on college campuses, further evidence of the issue’s growing importance not just in the classroom, but also on the campuses themselves.

“For better or for worse, sustainability is a mainstream thing now,” said the Director of the University’s new Office of Sustainability, Jim Mazurek.

Formalizing initiatives,

centralizing efforts

With various groups emphasizing sustainability – both within the University community and outside – Notre Dame’s recent actions reflect recognition of that recent shift.

But the creation of the Office of Sustainability last January was also in part a response to a need that has grown over the past decade, Mazurek explained.

“Frankly, what the University lacked … was a centralized administrative focus on sustainability. Many departments have been doing individual actions and initiatives but the University was missing the structure, focus and coordination,” Mazurek said.

University Vice President for Operations Jim Lyphout added: “A number of the units throughout the University have been involved in conservation and sustainability efforts throughout the years,” Lyphout said, citing recycling efforts that began almost 15 years ago.

But, he also said “the effort lacked coordination and communication.”

The new office will serve to provide necessary structure and accountability for the University, Mazurek said.

While sustainability reports may have played some role in his Office’s formation, Mazurek downplayed their importance.

“I consider those ratings more noise than anything,” he said, but added that he recognizes the importance of these ratings to others, especially when the grade is a D-, the grade given to Notre Dame by the Sustainable Endowments Institute in 2007.

After the University announced the formation of the Office of Sustainability in January, Marzurek, a Notre Dame graduate, was selected as the Office’s director in May and given an initial $2 million green loan fund to help jumpstart improvements on campus.

Since his appointment in May, Mazurek assembled a team that includes two additional full-time staff members and four student interns, he said.

Engineering Professor Frank Incropera, who serves as the 2008 Notre Dame Forum co-chair, said the University was delayed in taking substantive administrative action on sustainability, but its current actions have shown progress.

“[The University] was slow to identify this as an important issue one for which an institutional commitment has to be made,” Incropera said. “But it’s been very quick to develop significant programs to be good citizens.”

This late response to the sustainability issue is what makes the University’s actions all the more important, according to GreeND president Lourdes Long.

“Notre Dame is behind on this,” she said. “The Office [of Sustainability] knows that we have a lot of work to do.”

But Long, a senior, said the University will do a good job in addressing sustainability.

“When Notre Dame decides to do something, it does it right,” she said.

She also cited the high level of involvement of the trustees and the upper levels of administrative officers as a sign that the University is genuine about its commitment to sustainability.

Students for Environmental Action (SEA) co-president Tracy Jennings, a junior, said the involvement of alumni is critical to the new enthusiasm on campus for sustainability.

“I would like to think that the University would have always liked to be sustainable and that the [D-] report card drew a lot of support from the alumni,” she said. “It put this issue at the forefront more than it created the impetus to [take action].”

Student involvement in sustainability

Student involvement in sustainability and environmental issues comes mostly through the groups GreeND and SEA, which are linked to each other.

“All these groups work together,” Long said. “We’re in constant communication and share leadership.”

But while the groups are fighting on the same side, they approach the battle with a different perspective.

“The thing for GreeND is that we really pull together all the interests,” Long said, citing issues such as energy policy, energy technology, and recycling that the group addresses.

“GreeND is the University’s response to make campus a greener place,” Jennings, who is also a GreeND member, said.

SEA, on the other hand, is a social action club organized out of the Center for Social Concerns. Its focus is more on the environment outside the Notre Dame campus’ bubble.

“We do community outreach like tree planting, river cleanups on St. Joseph’s River, and different activities outdoors,” Jennings said. “We need to remember that we’re part of a bigger community.”

“We focus on providing services to the greater South Bend community and on fulfilling the CSC’s mission for social justice,” she said.

SEA also distinguishes itself by focusing on many environmental issues, not just energy, according to Jennings. “SEA has always been more concerned with the holistic view of the environment,” she said.

While SEA has been active at Notre Dame for many years, GreeND is a more recent development. The group was formed in Nov. 2007 and achieved official club status in July of this year, according to the GreeND Web site.

GreeND is closely linked with the Office of Sustainability, both by its missions and its work, according to Long, who also serves as a student intern at the Office. Each group needs the other group to cause any real change.

“If you think about all these different things popping up across campus, a lot of this comes from student initiatives,” she said. “The administration was right there with us, and that’s what made it a success.”

Thursday’s installment will examine Notre Dame’s overall environmental impact, ranging from energy consumption to waste disposal.