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Getting Greener

Written by Mike Thee
October 25, 2011

In April President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., announced the formation of the President’s Committee for Sustainability to help Seattle University fulfill its responsibilities as a signer of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Specifically, SU has pledged to decrease greenhouse gas emissions 12 percent by 2020 and 49 percent by 2035; expand sustainability in curricular and co-curricular programs; and share its knowledge with others through partnerships and community engagement.  

To get a sense of SU’s progress toward meeting its sustainability goals, The Commons caught up with the co-chairs of the President’s Committee for Sustainability, Rob Schwartz (right), associate vice president for Facilities Services, and Carl Obermiller, professor and chair of marketing in the Albers School of Business and Economics. 

The Commons: How would you assess the state of sustainability here at Seattle University? 

Rob Schwartz:  There’s a high sustainability culture here, but there are many opportunities for improvement. One thing we’re hoping the President’s Committee for Sustainability is able to provide is context. There’s all these threads out there, but how do we tie them together so they have more impact? And the communications piece—getting the story out—is a critical part. There’s a lot going on, we’re just not telling the story as well as we could. 

Carl Obermiller:  I think (the state of sustainability at SU) is excellent on the operations side; it’s good but could be better on the academic side as well as the co-curricular side. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for sustainability on the part of the faculty and it’s consistent with the mission, so it’s not surprising that a lot of faculty are addressing it and trying to bring it into the classroom, but we don’t yet have a clear framework for that. So, one of the first things we need to do is a census of what courses are addressing sustainability. Many of us find that faculty say, “Gee, I didn’t know that so-and-so was doing that,” so provide more organization for supporting sustainability on the academic side. 

The Commons:  Rob, you mentioned the need to do a better job of telling the story of what we’re doing in terms of sustainability. What are some of the major things that come to mind in terms of what we’re doing well that the campus should know about or be reminded of? 

Rob Schwartz: From an operational standpoint, we consume about a third less energy than our peer institutions. That’s a legacy built into how we operate. We’re 100 percent carbon neutral  (for electricity and natural gas use). We’ve set the standard for pesticide-free gardening practices. We, of course, no longer sell bottled water on campus. These are just a few of the many examples we can point to in terms of SU’s leadership in sustainability. 

The Commons:  How about on the academic side, Carl—what are some of the things we’re doing well that come to mind? 

Carl Obermiller:  We have a specialization in sustainability in the Albers School. We have programs in Environmental Studies (Arts and Sciences) and Environmental Engineering (Science and Engineering). But many other faculty are addressing sustainability in their classrooms and in their scholarship in small, but important ways. The hope is that sustainability becomes more and more integrated, system-wide, so students are hearing about it in all disciplines, whether they’re in a history class or a philosophy class or a science class. But we also need to get a better idea of what’s already happening and whether there are any opportunities for new synergies. 

The Commons: Do any examples come to mind in which the academic side is working with the operations side to implement more sustainable solutions that can be incorporated into the everyday activities at SU? 

Carl Obermiller:  I’ll give a simple, but important example. (Sustainability Manager) Karen Price approached me this summer and mentioned that Facilities was putting new hand dryers in the bathrooms that are more energy-efficient, and she wondered if anyone could do research that would help get people to switch from using paper towels to the hand dryers. (Albers Lecturer) April Atwood is teaching a marketing class this quarter, and in part of the course they’re studying persuasion models and how you get people to buy your brand. The class is broken into six groups and each group is creating posters to try to persuade people to use hand dryers. So they’re going to test each group’s poster to determine which is most effective. We’re hoping there will be more projects like these in classes. 

The Commons:  How about you,Rob—can you think of any opportunities for the academic side to help bring additional sustainability solutions to SU’s operations? 

Rob Schwartz: One example that comes to mind is that we’ve been approached with an idea to look into paperless invoicing. We currently process 400 invoices a day and each invoice generates another 10 to 20 pieces of paper. So I think there’s a future opportunity to work with the academic side to do a business case that explores whether we can justify the capital investment that would be needed to go paperless. 

Carl Obermiller: As another example from the business school, we did a study tour to India this summer that was carbon neutral. The faculty and students bought offsets for their flight, hotel and other expenses. We believe we’re the first program to do this. 

The Commons:  I know that as co-chairs of the President’s Committee on Sustainability you’ve been getting around campus to talk to some groups about what the committee’s working on. What are some of the recurring questions or comments you’re getting from those meetings? 

Carl Obermiller: One thing we’ve been working on is the definition of sustainability. It’s a concept that’s both very simple and straightforward and very complicated. When you ask people to do specific things, though, you need a simpler definition, and everyone from the deans to the faculty to the Student Development people want to know “Exactly what does this mean for us?” Rob has been instrumental in suggesting that we define sustainability as being in alignment with our Jesuit values, and I think that’s a way of bringing everyone together—everyone at SU cares about justice and building a humane world, and sustainability resonates with those values. 

Rob Schwartz:  Another question that’s come up is whether our sustainability efforts are in addition to, or integrated in, the work everyone is already doing. Are we asking people to do more or are we asking them to think differently about things they’re already doing? I think we’re opting for it to be more of an integration with things we’re already doing. (Sustainability) isn’t something we’re adding; it’s something that we are, and we certainly don’t want to displace anything that’s of core importance. 

Carl Obermiller:  At the same time, sustainability is fundamentally about considering multiple impacts, and sooner or later, we’re going to have to ask people to make tradeoffs. So, as one example, we’re looking at air travel and considering whether we’d be more efficient and sustainable if we had one centralized process for booking flights. That would require giving up some flexibility, and there might be some hesitation. 

The Commons: It seems that on the operations side, the goals are pretty clear and quantifiable, but in terms of academics and co-curricular programs, things get a little squishier. Is there anything that can be done about that? 

Carl Obermiller:  One thing we’re doing is developing a sustainability literacy test, essentially an assurance of learning tool. So having this survey is one way we can quantify and monitor our progress on learning, attitudes and reported behaviors related to sustainability. 

The Commons: On a more personal level, where did your own involvement in sustainability come from? 

Carl Obermiller: I have a Zen take on life, and I don’t see my human activity more important than the universe. I’d like to work with the universe to keep it going. 

Rob Schwartz:  I’m not that profound. (Laughs) Honestly, I’m probably a bit of a skeptic. One of the things about sustainability that resonates with me is finding ways to balance the three “Ps” that are sometimes referred to—people, planet, profit. Sometimes there are hard choices to make, and we do have to temper our economic choices with their effects on people and the planet. I think people in my generation are pretty disconnected from creation, and so it’s probably still not part of my DNA. So I’m still a work in progress on sustainability. 

Carl Obermiller:  There’s definitely a generational difference here. Older people grew up when the planet was healthier, and we didn’t have to be so concerned about waste and use of resources. 

Rob Schwartz: And I think we have to be cognizant that there’s this whole spectrum of where people are (in terms of sustainability). We should all probably be more connected to creation—I’m not there yet. But I think you can go too far, too, and say it’s all about the environment and overlook the social and economic impacts of some of these decisions. So again, it’s that balance.  

The Commons:  The Bullitt Foundation is constructing a “living building” right here in our neighborhood that will essentially function “off the grid,” generating its own electricity, maintaining a closed-loop water supply, etc.  So when will we have our first living building at SU? Is that even a possibility for us? 

Rob Schwartz: I wouldn’t say no. You have to commit to a pretty high level of expenditure. We’d be talking about something on the order of what you’d pay for a science building, rather than a standard classroom building. It’s definitely something to aspire to, though. And it’s a provocative question. 

The Commons: Broadly speaking, where would you like to see sustainability at Seattle University, say, five years or 10 years from now? 

Carl Obermiller: I would like to see people making personal choices that were more consistent with sustainability. I’d like to see empty parking spaces in the garages, I’d like to see no SUVs, I’d like to see bike racks filled with bikes. 

Rob Schwartz: I’d like to see a permanent transit system that gives us viable options. 

Carl Obermiller:  Oh, that too! I’d like to be able to take the bus and get here the same day. 

Rob Schwartz: I’d also like to see Seattle University more recognized nationally for our commitment to sustainability. Father Steve has talked about wanting SU to be a first choice for more students.  I see sustainability as significant factor in making Seattle U a first choice university.  

Carl Obermiller: Yes, sustainability can be and should be an important part of the SU brand.