A New Climate of Cooperation

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.


You might have thought it was fall break and the staff was playing hooky.

At 11:30 on a gray Thursday morning in mid-October, the campus was quiet. From the sidewalks of a breezy, leaf-strewn North Quad, not so much as a desk lamp could be seen in Stanford or Breen-Phillips halls. Inside the Center for Social Concerns, over at the College of Engineering, even under the Dome, most windows were dark.

In fact, it was just another Thursday at Notre Dame, and, with the break still a week away, everyone was hard at work. Many had simply opted to take part in a campus-wide “Lights Out” during Notre Dame’s first Energy Week. Around noon, lights popped back on and director Paul Kempf’s staff checked the meters at the University’s utility plant. The conservation test-run had cut electricity use 2.7 percent for the hour, generating a savings of . . . $29.

That’s nickels for any university, especially one whose development officers are in hot pursuit of $1.5 billion. But as Kempf ‘80 pointed out at Energy Week’s closing reception, maintaining that reduction over one year would save his operation a more intriguing $250,000.

More important than the short-term cost savings and emissions reductions may be the collaboration between students, faculty and the administration.

To casual observers, being Irish and being green have had little to do with each other apart from behind-the-scenes facilities improvements, low-profile student activism and the research interests of scattered professors. And where other campus causes have caught attention with controversy, Energy Week—a $14,500, student-driven series of films, activities and presentations co-sponsored by Student Government, the Notre Dame Energy Center, the administration’s Energy & Environmental Issues Committee and other groups—left a different impression.

Kempf and his assistants guided tours of the utility plant. Wearing a “Go Fluorescent” T-shirt, chemical engineering Professor Joan Brennecke, director of the Energy Center, worked alongside students to cover information tables at a South Quad display. More than 100 students, professors and staffers took a challenging online energy quiz. Hundreds more used Nature.org’s carbon calculator to gauge their personal footprint and learned about solar cells, hybrid and electric vehicles and wind turbines.

For ecstatic Energy Week co-organizer Felipe Witchger, the news about the energy trim was the highlight of the week. Despite a belated email reminder sent out minutes before the scheduled switchoff, he says the hour “represented a lot of staff and faculty action. If we could do that with such little awareness, such little participation, my thinking is that a 10 percent reduction is not a very unfeasible goal.”

A campus activist

Listening to Witchger, a senior who redefines the “active” in “campus environmental activist,” it all seems possible.

For three years, Witchger has built credibility and communication among campus constituents. Junior Thomas Furlong, president of Students for Environmental Action, remembers Witchger conducting a workshop for student activists on how to approach people and have effective conversations. “He’s a catalyst and definitely a leader,” Furlong says.

Witchger’s secret lies in patient dialogue and an emphasis on education. He participates in practically every official committee and student club concerned with energy and environmental issues at Notre Dame. He has even created his own Energy Studies major that spans the colleges of Engineering and Arts & Letters and adds dashes of theology, philosophy and political science to a curriculum grounded in mechanical and chemical engineering and economics.

A year ago, Witchger worked with the Center for Social Concerns to create a week-long seminar on environmental policy that introduces students to legislators, think tanks and advocacy groups in Washington, D.C. Last spring, he earned one of five Slatt research fellowships awarded by the Energy Center, a faculty research collaborative where Witchger serves on the student advisory board. Recently, as a co-chair of a task force coordinating the efforts of a multitude of student groups, he briefed John Affleck-Graves, University executive vice president, on such environmental activities as Energy Week.

Witchger’s interest started with a lecture Professor Brennecke delivered his freshman year identifying energy as one of humanity’s 10 great challenges. As a junior he was still bothered by the disconnect between students and administrators, and so, he says, “I tried to create a different model” for campus action. His 80-page proposal would have committed Notre Dame to buying or generating 10 percent of its fuels and electricity from renewable sources by 2010.

That proposal fell flat, but it did spark the interest of receptive administrators like Paul Kempf and Amy Coughlin ‘96, ’06MBA, the director of project management in the University’s office of business operations.

Coughlin was already working to raise the profile of Notre Dame’s under-publicized environmental quality efforts while the University explored new measures on several fronts. A much-discussed 2007 report card issued by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI) gave Notre Dame a D- on its environmental performance. The University complained that the assessment was based solely on outdated information culled from its website, but Coughlin acknowledges the report was a catalyst.

“We had been doing a lot of different things, but we weren’t really doing an exceptional job of communicating them to anyone,” she says.

This fall, the University activated green.nd.edu, and Coughlin participated in a series of “green summits,” which apprised students of the administration’s work to assure air and water quality, improve waste management and implement sustainable practices in every aspect of campus life from new construction to the dining halls.

Solar panels for new hall of engineering

Energy Week was capped by a major announcement: General Electric is donating $500,000 worth of solar panels and infrastructure that the company will install in the Stinson-Remick Hall of Engineering, now under construction. The solar array will produce about 55,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity and reduce the University’s carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 50 tons each year. The clean energy is projected to meet the requirements of the hall’s learning center, where students will be able to monitor the panels’ productivity.

An older success story is the University’s co-generation heating, chilled water and electricity plant, which provides about half the University’s power and which SEI’s 2008 report card praised for its “efficient use of fuel energy input” and emissions reductions. The assessment still handed Notre Dame a D in “Climate Change & Energy” for lack of a strategy to benchmark and reduce carbon emissions, and for its in-house reliance on coal, fuel oil and natural gas—nonrenewable fuels that Kempf says ensure the reliability of the University’s energy supply. Still, the University’s overall mark climbed to a C.

Meanwhile Witchger’s stalled wish for an energy policy helped open the door for other student-driven initiatives, such as the Game Day Recycling program launched in the Hesburgh Library parking lot during the Michigan State weekend.

“We tried it in the late ’90s and it was a disaster,” Coughlin recalls from her undergraduate days. Bins were contaminated with food and other garbage, and fewer fans were in the recycling habit. Sorting was a hassle, and tailgaters quickly lost interest.

Not anymore. Over the summer, the University began to implement a campus-wide, single-stream recycling system that made game day collections feasible. The students spotted the opportunity and jumped. Lourdes Long, the junior who wrote the plan, worked with Coughlin, building services staff and student volunteers to collect thousands of pounds of cardboard, bottles and cans over six Saturdays. The University provided blue bags and bins and a collection truck, as well as banners and a news release to promote the effort. “When the administration puts their weight behind a project, it just happens with more success,” Long concludes.

Coughlin says that’s not the whole story. “We wouldn’t have really pursued it if they hadn’t shown a great interest in helping. . . . It’s their home. If they want us to work really hard for a change at their home, we do the best we can.”

Students are much more sophisticated in putting their proposals forward, she adds. “They go through the pros, the cons, the cost implications and the long-term benefits. It’s really a well-executed proposal in a lot of cases. It shows the administration that they’re serious about this.”

Looking ahead to the 2008 academic forum, “Charting a Sustainable Energy Future,” everyone agrees Notre Dame has work to do. The architect’s office is pursuing the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for Stinson-Remick and will consider doing so for future projects. Affleck-Graves’ committee is exploring the installation of occupancy sensors along with temperature limits and high-efficiency lighting retrofits to encourage conservation. Long wants to expand campus participation in recycling programs, which she says now stands at about 12 percent when the utility plant’s flyash waste is not included in the total. Witchger, thinking big picture as he prepares to graduate, still dreams of a comprehensive campus energy policy. Both he and Long look forward to a proposed Office of Sustainability under Affleck-Graves and the potential of a new GreeND club focused on student education and advocacy on campus energy issues.

It doesn’t hurt that being green is trendy, Long says. Still, she insists that working together with professors and the administration is the key. “What they’re saying are their biggest successes are ours also, because we’ve done them together.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.