Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.


It was a few minutes after 9 on one of those sapphire-blue mornings that make working at Notre Dame feel like a day at the lakeshore. I wasn’t running late. I was strolling late—when my subconscious cut me short at the edge of water-soaked pavement.

A glance about confirmed that my path to Grace Hall was sealed off by a small deployment of the University’s 90,000 sprinkler heads, spitting walls of water in broad, vulgar arcs. I had no choice but to circumnavigate. That’s when I surprised myself with a chain of muttered expletives just loud enough to be audible to a woman coming up behind me from the parking lot. I reddened, then relaxed. Startled out of a reverie of her own, she had the same reaction.

Sure, watering is what keeps this place so green, but neither one of us was wearing grass seed. It makes you wonder whether Notre Dame is using its resources as well as it should.

James Mazurek has heard it all before. The same irrigation system that drenched walkways when he finished his undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering in 1991 is still keeping campus guessing. “It takes you about 10 seconds to find someone who got hit by a sprinkler at some point,” he acknowledges with a playful roll of his eyes.

Mazurek is the director of the Office of Sustainability, which was launched in the spring by Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves to size up how Notre Dame conducts its business and uses essential resources, and to propose cost-effective corrections to any wasteful habits it finds. Mazurek knows about the 21st century watering systems that analyze soil moisture, take a snooze when rainfall has the job covered and, one hopes, fire with greater precision when they’re really needed.

One day the landscapers will have such a system, and the rest of us can simply enjoy all they do to make campus lush and beautiful. But without hard data on water use at Notre Dame, it’s tough to know where to place the hefty up-front investment on the priority list.

The data, the metrics, the costs and benefits are all much clearer for electricity consumption. “We are the highest energy users per square foot of all our peers. We’re energy hogs,” Mazurek says plainly. So when he proposed $4 million in quick-hit electrical retrofits on older buildings across campus earlier this year, the first phase of a campus-wide efficiency overhaul, he got the green light, so to speak.

For now, water’s a tougher sell. “I’m just trying to get some facts on that. Are we really bad or are we actually okay?” Mazurek asks. He’s posing the same questions and setting benchmarks for other aspects of Notre Dame’s business operations: food services, solid waste disposal, campus construction—even the ways in which employees commute, travel, order supplies and have them delivered. The data all needs to be thorough and accurate.

Mere months into his job, with sprinkler demand waning but tens of thousands of toilet-flushing students and football fans circling to descend on campus, all Mazurek knew for sure was that we use a lot of water.

Lots of ideas
“Crazy idea,” Mazurek begins, sitting in a conference room on the fourth floor of Grace Hall that he’s sequestered as a sustainability war-room. “Could you ever envision a wind turbine on the edge of campus that could be the supply source for any incremental capacity that we need?”

Sure, but you’d need more than one, right? And what would our neighbors think?

“Well, they could . . . think it’s really cool,” Mazurek says, considering its academic and research benefits. Or, he concedes, they could hate it. “It would have to be very visible, sizeable, turbines—plural—to make a difference. That’s the renewable energy challenge, and that’s one reason I took this job. I like messy problems, and this is a messy problem.”

When Mazurek calls ideas “crazy,” he is probably taking them seriously. Notre Dame’s new environmentalist-in-chief is a numbers guy, an in-house consultant who made more money in the corporate world advising power companies and other clients on how to manage thousands of employees and vehicles, and still serve millions of people each day in an eco-friendly way. Oh, and secure good returns on green-project investments.

On day No. 1 at ND, he says, he had a vague, one-sentence job description: Figure this stuff out. That meant gathering data and hammering it into a form intelligible to University officers and the general public. The University wanted to improve its environmental performance and hold itself accountable, but it didn’t have anyone who could tell it how to get there. Meanwhile, it was getting grades on environmental groups’ aggressively publicized report cards that would have placed it on academic probation. Even the forward-thinking steps the school had undertaken, such as buying food locally and pursuing industry standards for energy-tight building design, weren’t getting credit.

Adding an executive-level sustainability officer again made Notre Dame just another face in the higher-education crowd, but Mazurek says that doesn’t mean the Irish won’t be doing things their own way for their own reasons.

“I don’t consider myself a tree-hugging environmentalist at all,” Mazurek clarifies. His job is to make a good business case for everything he recommends. “We want to consider the trade-offs, economically and environmentally.”

In other words, he says, sustainability Fighting Irish-style is about “sustaining what we love about Notre Dame for future generations.” If that means wind turbines and thoughtfully managed compost heaps on the edge of campus, or cutting the amount of power produced in the plant on the shore of Saint Joseph’s Lake by purchasing more of the nuclear-generated juice flowing through the northern Indiana grid, then Mazurek will have the data to support the move. Eventually he envisions Notre Dame leading by example.

Different passions
“Sustainability is for everyone, but everyone has a different approach to it and a different reason to be excited about it,” says Rachel Novick, the new office’s education and outreach coordinator.

Some think about climate change and polar bears, others about their children’s future or the national security threats posed by our dependence on foreign oil. With gas prices and home heating bills skyrocketing, penny pinchers are rallying to the banner.

Then there’s religion. Most faith traditions preach some form of stewardship, and lately more believers, Catholics included, are grappling with the notion that “subduing the earth” may mean something more than taking what you want and walking away.

“We need to care for the environment: it has been entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom, with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion,” Pope Benedict XVI cautioned this year in his annual message for the World Day of Peace.

“Respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man. Rather, it means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit towards nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves.”

Novick will be Mazurek’s eyes and ears in the project of translating such principles into concrete actions at Notre Dame. Fresh out of Yale’s doctoral program in environmental science, she’s as ready to offer technical insights as she’ll be to work with recognized student leaders and groups and to listen to the range of opinions coming in from faculty, staff and alumni.

“We get calls every week from departments and individuals who want us to come speak, anything from the executive MBA program to the custodians,” she says. No one had engaged the custodians on the subject before, so Novick set up meetings tailored to the odd-hour schedules of the cleaning crew. She answered their questions and culled their ideas about improving participation rates in the University’s single-stream (read: they’ll sort it at the plant) recycling system. Five truckloads of recyclable materials leave Notre Dame each day.

“So what’s trash?” one custodian asked her. “Everything’s going into recycling.”

Everything but food, Novick replied. Students might take a few seconds to scrape out a pizza box, but then they should put it in a recycling bin. “It’s an education process,” she explained.

The same holds for the game day recycling program, launched last year on students’ initiative. Mazurek’s office helped expand it this fall “with professional marketing and communications” and increased presence across campus, all the way out to the “crazy party house” of White Field.

Burning issue
Another part of Mazurek’s job is to be frank. There are things he says Notre Dame will not do in the name of sustainability, such as drop millions of dollars more each year so it can fuel the campus plant’s boilers with natural gas rather than coal. The plant must burn something, he explains, because it needs to produce the steam heat and chilled water many buildings depend on. Natural gas burns clean but prices are volatile, closely tracking gasoline, which makes it prohibitively expensive today and uncertain tomorrow.

Notre Dame learned that lesson the costly way last year when it turned off its coal furnaces to install expensive new pollution scrubbers that reduce harmful emissions. The fuel bill jumped significantly during the momentary switch to gas, Mazurek notes.

As he says, it’s a messy problem. The bad news is that the University’s plan to add 1.5 million square feet of classroom, living and energy-intensive research space over the next 10 years creates a set of variables he rarely contended with as a corporate consultant.

The good news is that he has an increasingly demanding and talented student population that is as ready to preach the gospel of sustainability as he is. Last spring he offered internships to help with tasks like student outreach and website development. “The second I posted these positions, I was completely oversubscribed,” he says with a grin.

One intern, former student body vice president Maris Braun, will be charged with managing interest in the EcoFund, a $2 million furrow of money the University seeded to bankroll sustainability projects proposed by faculty, staff and students. Mazurek’s office will assess ideas based on environmental outcomes and financial returns, which would revert to the fund and replenish it. The Class of 2008 chipped in $60,000, and the University’s development office is soliciting contributions especially among younger alumni who have asked about it.

“I didn’t and still to this day don’t think this is a trendy, nichey thing,” Mazurek says of his office and its ambitions. “To be very blunt, I bet a big career change on that.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.