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Sustainability at Seattle U

December 5, 2019

Fall hits campus

Image credit: Yosef Kalinko

Co-chairs of the President's Committee for Sustainability share their insights on SU's progress toward becoming an even greener university.

Jen Tilghman-Havens, director of the Center for Jesuit Education, and Wes Lauer, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of Environmental Science, recently were appointed co-chairs of the President’s Committee for Sustainability (PCS). Earlier this month, they took some time to talk about the committee, SU’s leadership on sustainability and how the university can and must address the existential threat of climate change. Following are excerpts of the conversation. 

The Commons: For those who may not be familiar, what is the President’s Committee for Sustainability all about? How did it originate and what is its purpose and value to the university? 

Wes Lauer: The committee was organized into its present form after Father Steve signed onto the University Climate Commitment back in 2007, which brought with it a pledge to reduce carbon emissions on campus and the development of a climate action plan in 2010. The PCS was formed in 2011 to carry out the goals of the plan. 

The committee has made progress, helping move forward the idea of fossil fuel divestment (which the university committed to over a year ago and is now implementing). We’ve also looked closely at how to achieve the original fossil fuel use reductions and are making the recommendation that the university adopt a date in the near future when it becomes carbon neutral. In the near term, this will require the use of carbon offsets, which mean that we would use our resources to support projects that reduce fossil fuel emissions from things like methane in landfills or by supporting reforestation. In the long term, we’ll need to implement energy efficiency projects and address emissions from travel.  

That said, we also recognize that we need to be a leader in other areas of sustainability. Among other things, committee members are working to address recycling on campus and make sure that our food system is operating as sustainably as possible. 

Jen Tilghman-Havens: In my mind, the purpose of the PCS is to bring together a variety of stakeholders from across the campus—faculty, staff and students who all have made this commitment in the particular positions and roles they hold on campus. We come together to look, as a whole, at how our university is committing to sustainable practices, how we can support one another in doing more and how we can advocate to move even further in a positive direction in terms of lowering our collective carbon footprint and engaging in sustainable practices. 

The Commons: Can you talk about the relationship between sustainability and our mission as a university? 

Jen Tilghman-Havens: I see environmental sustainability as absolutely core to our mission and to what it means to be a Jesuit university.  “Care for our Common Home” is one of the Universal Apostolic Preferences recently approved by the Society of Jesus.  And, it’s a core part of our Catholic mission in that Laudato Si’ (Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment) is one of the most important Catholic documents in certainly the last decade, if not decades. So I see our commitment to sustainability as a clear way to live out our Jesuit, Catholic mission at a time when climate change really threatens to be most harmful to those who are on the margins. 

Wes Lauer: It’s impossible to disentangle sustainability from the broader mission of the university. Our mission is split into three parts: educating the whole person, professional formation and empowering leaders for a just and humane world. I personally feel that any education is incomplete if it does not address our relationship with nature or how we can relate to the planet in a sustainable way. This is why we’re prioritizing the way we address sustainability in the Core Curriculum, for instance. 

Given the present climate crisis, I also believe that all professions, even (and perhaps especially) those that don’t directly relate to environmental problems, need to develop new approaches that facilitate sustainable change. This is why what we do inside the university to address sustainability can be so impactful—the campus can be a laboratory for implementing policies that are broadly relevant for society at large. Conversely, not doing anything would represent a form of denial of the importance of making change, so we think action is critically important for us. Incidentally, this is why I’m so pleased that we were able to divest from fossil fuels. Finally, we can’t have a just and human world unless that world is also sustainable. 

Wes Lauer and Jen Tilghman-Havens are co-chairs of the President's Committee for Sustainability.

The Commons: Just looking at it as a snapshot, what is the state of sustainability at Seattle U at this point in time? 

Jen Tilghman-Havens: It is clear to me that Seattle University is a leader in terms of sustainability within higher education. Just this year, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), awarded us with several accolades—Seattle University was fourth in the nation in Overall Sustainability Performance and #2 in the nation for Sustainability Curriculum, among master’s institutions. SU is also #13 on Sierra Club’s Cool Schools List

The fact that we’ve committed to divesting is another way in which Seattle University is leading. Having said that, the crisis is so great that there’s always more that we can do. And I think that’s part of the work of the PCS—to create a sustainability action plan that will allow us to continue to grow in our university sustainability commitments. 

Wes Lauer: I was at a meeting of AASHE a few weeks ago and a student from another university just walked up to me and said, “Oh, I’ve heard about your campus—you’re one of the leaders in maintaining a green campus and doing so in a sustainable way.” So we’re definitely recognized in that way and it’s something that’s laudable our approach. 

We have a beautiful, pesticide-free campus, a divested endowment that very soon will not be supporting the investment in additional fossil fuel exploitation, and a Core Curriculum that emphasizes global engagement around sustainability and other issues. We’re all in debt to student activists, especially those part of the organization sustainable student action. Without student activism, we wouldn’t be where we are. 

We also have the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability, an organization that helps provide the staff support behind a lot off what the President’s Committee for Sustainability does. 

Jen Tilghman-Havens: And I would add that without Yolanda Cieters, sustainability manager in the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability, we would not be able to do the things that we do. 

The Commons: Where would you like to see the university go in terms of sustainability in the years ahead? 

Jen Tilghman-Havens: I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when our university makes a commitment to climate neutrality, because I think that’s a really important decision for the university. I also believe the students we attract to Seattle U want to know they’re attending a university that has a commitment to carbon neutrality. 

I would also like to see SU look carefully at some of the ways that we can address what are called “Scope 3” greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Is there a way we can reduce the number of flights taken by our faculty, staff and students? Is there a way we can better support faculty, staff and students in getting to campus in sustainable ways? Those are decisions that are both personal and collective—how do we each as individuals continue to commit to sustainable practices and how do we do that and model that as a university.

Wes Lauer: I think there is more that we can do through the use of the university as a laboratory for sustainability. If we do it right, it becomes visible for students; they see that the institution takes it seriously. Carbon neutrality is an example. In the near term, we’re hoping the university can make an announcement regarding a date for carbon neutrality that is more ambitious than its peer institutions. Because this involves the use of carbon offsets for a number of years, and because offsets are an important part of climate regulations such as the State of Washington’s Clean Energy Transformation Act, which says that electricity needs to be carbon neutral across the state by 2030, we need to make sure that we graduate student leaders who are aware of the issues. We want our offsetting program to be visible and support our educational mission. 

The Commons: How can faculty, staff and students get involved in helping the university advance and deepen its commitment to sustainability? 

Wes Lauer: One tangible way is we’ll be having fora on sustainability in the Core Curriculum starting early next quarter, and we hope all faculty who teach in the Core participate. We also want to make sure that student engagement around sustainability, which is one of the main things that allowed the institution to move on issues like divestment, remains strong. We couldn’t have done divestment without student action. There’s no way it would’ve happened. That student voice is incredibly important. And it’s important outside of the university, too—students are in a unique position to advocate for change. 

Jen Tilghman-Havens: Absolutely. It was so inspiring to see our students among the other young people who were marching in Seattle on the day of the climate strike (Sept. 20). And it was our students who were instrumental in banning plastic water bottles on our campus.  So the student energy behind sustainability is key to helping us grow as a university in our sustainability commitment. 

One thing I would like to add is I would love to see every course—in some way, shape or form—touch on themes related to sustainability and reflect the real crisis that we’re in globally.  This could happen in myriad ways-- whether explicitly through course content, or through the reflective questions that are asked of students, or through the readings that students are invited to engage with or through the ethical questions that are raised in our courses. 

In the nearer term, April marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and so that will be a month for us to celebrate the earth with a series of events for students, faculty and staff to create and to attend. 

The Commons: Why did you agree to serve as co-chairs of the President’s Committee for Sustainability? 

Wes Lauer: Seattle U is an institution that takes is mission seriously. For me, and for a number of other faculty members, students and staff, this means that we need to stay relevant by taking a leading role in addressing environmental and sustainability-related issues. We can’t educate students to be leaders for a just and humane world without addressing how sustainability fits in. And we can’t do a good job emphasizing its importance without being able to say where we as an institution are acting on sustainability and climate. 

I have also found the committee to be helpful for interacting with campus stakeholders on sustainability issues. It’s really great to have a place to talk with faculty members and students in sustainability-oriented programs that are located in other colleges. 

Another motivating factor for me is my own kids, who are 12 and 15. Just yesterday I spent an hour talking with my 12-year-old about climate change. It’s a difficult conversation but it’s a really important one, and he didn’t want to talk about what the world will be like 30 years from now. It’s scary, but I think it’s really important that we do talk about that. So for me it’s about that connection with family and kids and making sure there’s a place for them, and a place that’s valuable where they can appreciate nature.

Jen Tilghman-Havens: I agreed to be a PCS co-chair with Wes because it’s certainly an area of interest and passion for me, personally. I feel a real moral imperative in my own life to think about how I am living sustainably. 

This is just an example, but I was on a ferry this past weekend that needed to stop for a half an hour to allow a pod of orcas to swim by. And it was this amazing moment in which the entire community on the boat moved to where they could see these beautiful creatures in their natural environment. It was quite moving and I found myself tearing up as I watched the orcas move together through the waters—orcas that I know are at risk in this region. In my mind, this connects with our responsibility as human beings to protect the world that God has created for us and to do what we can to preserve the natural beauty all around us for the generations to come.

Learn more about sustainability at SU, including the President's Committee for Sustainability.