Greening the Campus: The Economic Advantages of Research and Dialogue

Greening the Campus: The Economic Advantages of Research and Dialogue


Eric Pallant, Kelly Boulton, David McInally

Allegheny College, 520 North Main Street, Meadville, PA 16335 USA,,

Keywords: campus sustainability, energy conservation, facilities, finances

ABSTRACT The goal of our research was to assess the impact that student – faculty research teams in Allegheny College’s department of Environmental Science had in initiating a broad move toward campus sustainable development.  The following paper adds to this literature by explaining how Allegheny College changed its culture to one wherein nearly all campus constituents — students, faculty, administrators, trustees, and maintenance staff — came to consider sustainability within the purview of their regular activities despite a comparatively small endowment and a limited investment in personnel dedicated to promoting sustainability.  The authors used a qualitative approach, semi-structured interviews, and a review of Allegheny’s efforts, both failed and successful, to identify significant strategies and partners.  When a combination of bottom-up efforts and top-down leadership converged, a rapid shift towards an integrated sustainability culture took place.  Student research, written reports, development of partnerships, dialogue, and the integration of sustainability principles into existing projects and budgets created a comprehensive climate for sustainability.  This case study identifies both effective and ineffective practices that have transformative value for Allegheny’s continuing sustainability efforts as well as lessons for similar higher education institutions


Institutions of higher education (IHE) are important actors (along with government, business, the military, etc.) in moving societies toward more sustainable practices (Orr, 1992; Orr, 1994).  Colleges and universities are in the business of teaching critical thinking about sustainability and their primary clientele, students, are simultaneously transient and destined for post-graduate positions of leadership (Carlson, 2006; Emanuel and Adams, 2011).  Campuses can create a continuous flow of graduates interested and capable of promoting sustainable development (Bartlett and Chase, 2004; Keniry, 1995; Leal 2002; van Weenen, 2000; Ward, 1999).


To achieve success, i.e., to become a campus that does more than just teach sustainability, but actually takes theory and puts it into comprehensive practice, requires considerable effort and focus (Krizek et al., 2012; Miller et al., 2011; Moore, 2005; Shi, 2008; Shriberg, 2002).  Barriers to creating sustainable IHEs include perceived cost, lack of knowledge of potential savings (Dahle and Neumayer, 2001), aging infrastructure (Roberts and Murphy, 2011), up-front costs (Pelletier, 2008), uncertain economic conditions (Carlson, 2008), the lack of commitment from top management (Lozano et al., 2011; Williamson, 2012), an existing literature on IHE sustainability that tends to focus on self-aggrandizing case-studies (Corcoran et al., 2004), cumbersome bureaucratic barriers (Sharp, 2009), and a narrow understanding of the university’s environmental impacts (Christensen et al., 2009; Velazquez et al., 2005).


It has been suggested that overcoming institutional barriers to sustainable development requires investing in social capital (Evangelinos and Jones, 2009; Steiner, 2008), ensuring top-down support from administrators and trustees (Lozano et al., 2011; Williamson, 2012), relying on a grassroots or bottom-up approach (Brinkhurst et al., 2011), ensuring active involvement of staff (Sibbel, 2009), and a comprehensive approach that insists on all of the above (Pittman, 2004; Richardson and Lynes, 2007; Sharp, 2002).


Hands-on research by teams of students and faculty directed at real world issues of sustainable development has proven to be an effective educational tool (Brundiers and Wiek, 2011; Shepherd, 2008; Stauffacher et al., 2006; Steiner and Posch, 2006). The goal of our research was to assess the impact that student – faculty research teams in Allegheny College’s department of Environmental Science had in initiating a broad movement toward campus sustainable development and recognition as a national leader in environmental responsibility (see Table 1 for list of commitments).


Table 1. Abbreviated list of sustainability actions on Allegheny College’s campus.

Sustainability Development at Allegheny College

  • Goal of climate neutrality by 2020 included in the strategic plan
  • Committed to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge
  • 100% of electricity purchased with wind renewable energy credits
  • Campus grounds maintained with organic practices
  • On-campus compost operation uses food wastes to fertilize lawns, flower beds and sports fields
  • All new construction required to achieve LEED Silver or better
  • Purchasing policies require ENERGY STAR appliances and EPEAT certified computers
A first try:  A failure

In the early 1990s, Allegheny College began planning for a major expansion of its athletic facilities, including the addition of a performance arena, a field house large enough for four, full-size indoor recreational courts, an elevated indoor track, and more than a dozen office spaces.  The ES department advocated for ground source heat pumps (GSHP) to heat and cool the facility, but being inexperienced in the process of on-campus advocacy prepared no reports.  In the absence of demonstrative research and reports submitted to the administration early in the planning process, a conventional HVAC system was chosen by default since the purchase, costs, operation and performance were within the expertise and expectations of the Physical Plant staff.  The resulting structure’s high ceilings and large, open space has proven to be extravagantly expensive to heat and cool.


Had the ES department submitted reports and case studies of success at comparable facilities, rather than simply verbally advocating for GSHP, this story might have ended differently. The same is true of a struggling recycling program begun in the 1989s – which was barely functioning by the mid 1990s – and of campus construction projects, where the College failed to select green architects and builders for several major building initiatives.  These three cases — a meager recycling program, the failure to invest in GSHP, and missed opportunities in new construction – illustrated the challenges Allegheny faced in supporting lasting sustainability programs, and prompted the ES department to reach the following conclusions with respect to the obstacles it would need to overcome.


First, research is prerequisite.  The ES department began making successful recommendations for environmental sustainability only after sound research first demonstrated that alternative technologies and materials were available, acceptable, and high performing.


Second, cost matters.  The most successful and quickly adopted suggestions emphasized efficiency and cost savings.


Third, some personnel were impediments by virtue of their position of authority.  On more than one occasion sustainability advocates were frustrated by personnel that either did not understand or did not accept the notion that there was an advantage to green methodologies over conventional methodologies.  Over time the ES emphasis on efficiency and cost savings, and to a lesser extent a national and international discussion on sustainability, led to the hiring of new personnel and continuing education for sustainability of existing personnel.


Adopting an emancipatory usage of the case study model, the authors sought to consider how Allegheny’s process and learning could illuminate issues, ideas and techniques that may be useful at other institutions of higher education (Corcoran et al., 2004).  The process and results of this case study have informed further institutional change at Allegheny College.  The authors pursued a qualitative approach, using semi-structured interviews with a past President, VP’s of Finance & Planning, Physical Plant staff, and ES faculty.  The authors also observed and reviewed Allegheny’s historic efforts and student research, giving equal value to a consideration of failures and successes as sources of lessons learned.  All three of the authors have been critically involved in the progression of sustainability at Allegheny for over a decade, and therefore witnesses to the transformation from a college that supported environmental sustainability in principle into a college whose actions embody those principles.


Campus Constituencies

Physical Plant

One year after high energy bills for the newly renovated fieldhouse began arriving, Allegheny was offered the opportunity to apply for a grant to support the purchase of an in-vessel composter.  The ES department dedicated a semester-long seminar for junior majors to the project (Pallant, 2001).  Their report was delivered to the administration just prior to the arrival of the composter and suggested ways to make the most cost-effective use of the machine (Pallant et al., 2002).  When the grant was funded and the composter arrived, the college’s expenses increased because of the addition of an employee required to collect compostable materials on a daily basis from the campus dining halls and to operate the composter.  Nevertheless, these expenses were offset entirely by savings to the campus.  First, the college saved money by avoiding waste hauling fees to the landfill.  Second, the college no longer needed to purchase topsoil and fertilizers.  Additionally, and significantly, the Physical Plant director recognized substantial positive publicity for the actions undertaken by the college (Spencer, 2008; Sullivan, 2010).


The next major construction project on campus (opened in 2006) was the addition of a 106-bed dormitory called North Village I.  The ES department employed a junior seminar of 14 students to find ways to make the building greener (Pallant et al., 2004).  Working with the architects and Physical Plant, the students suggested the building be LEED certified and again recommended the installation of ground source heat pumps (GSHP).  This time, a yearlong senior thesis analyzed the payback time expected for GSHP, about ten years (Davis, 2004).  GSHP was installed and the economic savings exceeded student projections.  Other student recommendations such as porous paving parking lots (as opposed to expensive, conventional retention systems for storm water), the use of green cleaning products to enhance indoor air quality, and extensive skylighting also proved to be both financial and societal successes.

Finance and Planning

As the director of Physical Plant came to learn from experience that student and faculty reports and recommendations to increase sustainability were beneficial to his budget and ease of operation, he passed along analyses of his successes to his bosses in the administration.  While demonstrative reports from the ES department had helped convince the Physical Plant, financial analyses of successful implementation of certain measures helped garner new support in Finance & Planning.  These successes then prompted Finance & Planning to seek additional sustainability opportunities.


When the long serving Director of Physical Plant retired, his superiors in Finance & Planning demonstrated their serious support of sustainability by advertising for a replacement who could promote sustainability across campus as part of his job.  Had the VP’s of Finance & Planning not been included in many sustainability conversations and had they not reviewed many analyses of how efficiency measures improved budget scenarios, any progress on developing relationships and implementing sustainable practices could have been lost in the retire/rehire process.  Since they had been educated and convinced of the budgetary and moral values of sustainability, they were able to ensure support for sustainability increased with a new hiring rather than fading away with a retirement. The new Director of Physical Plant not only sits in on junior seminars in ES as a participant, but is now one of the leading advocates on campus for environmental sustainability.


Initially, Physical Plant and Finance & Planning support for sustainability centered primarily around financial considerations. GSHP units were used in two large residence hall constructions and one major renovation for offices.  Despite the upfront cost, GSHP units were included in the scope of work because of the anticipated and then proven financial payback due to significant reductions in natural gas consumption for heating.  As the campus’ overall consumption of electricity and natural gas per square foot declined, operational and administrative support for sustainability increased.  However, since sustainability is about much more than the finances, there was still room for the conversation and institutional support to evolve.



With student interest in campus sustainability on the rise, the Admissions Office expressed interest in highlighting various sustainability features when they were slated to move to an old building being renovated for their use.  Physical Plant was already committed to installing GSHP because of excellent returns on investment following installation in North Village I.  Recommendations prepared by senior theses in ES were shared with the Admissions team, Physical Plant and Finance & Planning.  One senior thesis analyzed the cost-effectiveness of bioswales to capture rainwater and snowmelt (Silling, 2009).  These were built during the renovation and wetlands of native plants now filter runoff from the (porous) parking lot and roof.  A second thesis recommended that furniture inside the building be locally sourced from FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) timber (Conti, 2009).  That thesis also suggested that solar tubes be installed on the second floor of the building.  The FSC furniture was purchased; the solar tubes were not (but they have been added to subsequent projects and become so desirable that other departments are asking for and receiving them.)


As 64% of high school seniors now state they would value knowing about campus sustainability commitments as they select a college or university (The Princeton Review, 2011), the Admissions Office was pleased to highlight readily identifiable sustainability features in the first building prospective students visit, including native plants all around, porous paving, waterless urinals, recycled carpet (and recycled building), student-designed bioswales, and FSC-certified furniture.  When students later proposed preparing flyers, campus signage, green tours, and virtual green tours, Admissions directors were quickly supportive (Elick, 2011).

The President

In 2005, Second Nature, a non-profit NGO began plans to gather a small cadre of college and university presidents to become inaugural members willing to commit their institutions to carbon neutrality.  Known as the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) the agreement binds participating institutions to a carbon budget analysis, a climate reduction plan, and a goal of climate neutrality.  Anyone who has given serious thought to making such an agreement understands how large an undertaking this entails (Swearingen White, 2009).


The logic of the ACUPCC is to, “accelerate progress towards climate neutrality and sustainability by empowering the higher education sector to educate students, create solutions, and provide leadership-by-example for the rest of society.”  ( President Richard Cook, then Allegheny College’s president, was approached and asked to be a member of the founding circle as well as a charter signatory.


The authors asked now-retired President Cook why he agreed to put Allegheny, a college with fewer financial resources than other founding signers, in a position that could be quite costly.  He explained the ES faculty had always pushed the college to stay on the cutting edge of environmental sustainability, and most importantly, their recommendations were always accompanied by sound research.  Reports prepared by their students and in their classes, he said, were reliable and persuasive.  History had taught the college administration that sound research, could be used in support of morally important goals.


In short order, the ES faculty, other top administrators, and the Board of Trustees expressed their support for a Presidential signature.  The Chair of the Board supported the initiative because the Board had previously approved college-wide Environmental Guiding Principles.  In short, by 2005 Allegheny College was in a position where there was a confluence of a national (and international) movement toward greater campus sustainability (Leal, 2002), broad internal support for campus greening as a consequence of years of discussion, and powerful leadership from the President and his immediate staff.  President Cook summarized his decision by noting, “There is a risk in making this decision.  It is going to be very difficult to meet the commitment, but it is something we must do.  There is also a risk in not moving on this issue and to fail to engage our students in this mission would have been a big mistake.”


Building on the momentum of the national dialogue on issues of sustainability in higher education, the ES department spent two years lobbying President Cook to establish a college-wide committee of students, faculty, staff, and administrators to oversee issues of campus sustainability.  ES students prepared reports detailing similar committees at other institutions of higher education working in conjunction with a campus sustainability coordinator.  Their research confirmed that the combination of coordinator plus committee was definitely the most successful model for promoting campus sustainability.  President Cook refused, saying the college budget was insufficient to hire a coordinator; human resources were insufficient to support such a committee.


In its place he appointed a Task Force for Environmental Responsibility (TER) with an 18-month lifespan, chaired by an ES professor.  The TER again recommended a campus committee and a sustainability coordinator.  It got the coordinator position via an agreement between the Director of Physical Plant and the Chief Financial Officer who together created the position by rearranging existing jobs in anticipation of pending retirements.  In other words, the college recognized the potential value of joining the national progression toward hiring sustainability coordinators, but did it in a way that did not cost additional money.

Food Services

Allegheny College contracts with an independent service to provide dining services in two dining halls as well as a catering service for campus functions.  For many years, Allegheny’s provider was reluctant to make more than minimal efforts to supply local, organic, or fair trade products since changes not anticipated in the original contract might increase their costs. When this contract was up for renewal in 2008 a thorough review of students’ desires led the administration to build sustainability values, along with freshness, directly into the contract.  The new contract ensures a level of sustainability, but also establishes a strong foundation for further progress as a result of campus and student demand (See Table 2).


Table 2. Sustainable dining practices at Allegheny College.

Food Services

  • 30% of food sourced from regional growers and suppliers
  • Milk is rBGH free and eggs are cage free
  • Seafood sourced according to Monterey Bay Aquarium guidelines
  • DeHart Local Foods Dinner sponsored annually
  • Campus-grown herbs used in dining halls
  • Breads/rolls purchased from local bakery
  • Baked goods purchased from local farm/home kitchen
  • Free filtered water and discounts for using reusable mugs/bottles provided to all students
  • All pre- and post-consumer wastes are composted
  • All used fryer oil donated to City for conversion to biodiesel
  • Coffee is Fair Trade



At the recommendation of the ES seminar researching the LEED process, Allegheny implemented a green cleaning program to protect the indoor air quality in North Village I (Pallant et al., 2004).  For several years, North Village I was cleaned in an environmentally sensitive way while the remainder of the campus still used conventional cleaning chemicals and processes.   Collaborating with St. Moritz, the college’s contracted housekeeping company, the sustainability coordinator developed a comprehensive green cleaning program for every building on campus that would continue to demonstrate improvement over time as better products reached the market and employee training improved (See Table 3).


A complete greening of our housekeeping proved to be more complex than expected.  While St. Moritz buys their own cleaning products and materials, Allegheny College’s Physical Plant purchases all the toilet paper, paper towels, can liners, liquid hand soap, and trash and recycling receptacles mostly from a local business, DeSantis Janitor Supply.  To switch to recycled content paper products and triclosan-free hand soaps required dialogue between Physical Plant and DeSantis to explore other options and budget impacts.  With St. Moritz, Physical Plant, and DeSantis involved in the decisions affecting our housekeeping program, it has been essential to dig into the details of how things work together and use the expertise and influence of each to leverage more sustainable practices.


Table 3.  Sustainable housekeeping practices at Allegheny College.


  • Converted to greener cleaning chemicals for both the health of the environment and the individuals who clean as well as work, sleep and study in these spaces
  • Developed a training program to help support transition to green cleaning program
  • Purchased concentrated cleaners to limit amount of packaging and shipping weight
  • Converted to100% recycled-content toilet paper and paper towels
  • Employs triclosan-free (an antimicrobial) liquid hand soaps
  • Uses trash can liners containing recycled plastic
  • Diverts about 30% of campus waste through collecting recyclable material
  • Conducts regular audits to ensure that all spaces have adequate, well-labeled recycling receptacles



In recent years, the work of student groups such as Students for Environmental Action, Edible Allegheny Campus, and Allegheny Student Government have done much to promote sustainability initiatives on campus.  In the absence of the sustainability committee recommended by the Taskforce for Environmental Responsibility, the sustainability coordinator developed an informal Sustainability Coordinating Committee, a monthly opportunity for these student groups, individual students, and campus stakeholders (such as Physical Plant, dining services, Finance & Planning, ES department) to meet to discuss current work, opportunities for collaboration, and how to combine their efforts to effect greater sustainable change.


Students are most effective when they combine serious dialogue and advocacy with fun methods of educating and engaging their peers.  This Fun Theory (Volkswagen, 2009) approach has proven to be extremely successful in motivating students and gathering a larger audience than simply the usual suspects.  Students turned the annual Energy Challenge into a month-long series of fun events, such as a bonfire, acoustic concert, and night games like glow bocce and hide-‘n’-seek, all with the intent of educating and promoting responsible energy behaviors.  Students also explore waste minimization with an annual Trashion Show.  Decked out in fashions crafted from what otherwise might have been considered waste, students walk the runway to an increasingly large crowd while sharing facts and tips on how to minimize daily wastes.  Other student groups promote local foods, sustainable living, and consumerism with bike-powered blenders, gardening workshops, and clothes swaps, making sustainability fun.


This research project clarified the practices that were most—and least—successful in transforming Allegheny from a school of good intentions to an institution of effective action.  Several lessons emerged that are replicable for other institutions of higher education.


First, sustainability initiatives should be grounded in Faculty-student research.  Many students and professors advocate environmental responsibility, but moving the entire institution to action requires the sort of intellectual rigor that should be the hallmark of higher education in any case.  Institutions can leverage the investments that already exist in curriculum, faculty expertise, and laboratory resources by placing these real-world problems in the context of academic teaching, learning, and research.


Second, a successful program requires education and reinforcement for campus decision-makers.  Many good suggestions are rejected not for lack of merit, but because of ignorance on the part of those in authority.  Because it is unlikely that busy people will delve deeply into climate studies and environmental best practices on their own volition, it is vital to create early success stories—beginning with modest ones if necessary—and reinforce the decision makers even if they were initially reluctant participants.  When a facilities director is recognized by peers at a regional conference for reducing energy use, or a budget officer is thanked by trustees for managing utility expenditures, he or she is more likely to welcome new sustainability initiatives.


Third, a combination of bottom-up and top-down approaches is essential to building and sustaining momentum.  This is where the power of research—labeled “bottom up” for the purposes of this study—and dialogue intersect to create lasting change.  Even when backed by convincing evidence, excessively strident voices can lead to intransigence among those in authority, and any chief financial officer worth his or her salt can find a way to block new initiatives by miring them in the complexity of financial systems that are generally not well understood by the campus community.  Genuine dialogue is required in order to approach problems from a variety of perspectives, where each participant can bring his or her expertise to particular dimensions of a problem—financial, physical, social, political, moral, and educational.  No matter how laudatory a new idea may be, it is unlikely that any one individual or department possesses the expertise in the variety of fields needed to achieve comprehensive and lasting solutions.


Fourth, institutions must address structural questions in order to create lasting change.  These questions include:  Is environmental responsibility part of the institution’s mission?  Are the curriculum, staffing priorities, and organizational chart aligned with environmental goals?  Is sustainability included in the strategic plan?  Do institutional marketing and communications reflect the organization’s commitment?  What will an institution do when short-term, fast-payback projects have been completed?  Answering these questions is essential to move from a loose partnership of like-minded individuals to a sustainable organization, where cross-departmental coalitions of people are clearly charged with responsibility for environmental sustainability, and where research and dialogue are valued components of the campus culture.


After nearly twenty years of intermittent progress toward sustainability, Allegheny College experienced a tipping point.  As the bottom-up and top-down messages converged a fairly rapid shift took place.  Beginning in the late-2000s, sustainability projects began to appear all over campus with great frequency.  Interestingly, for the first time, most of these projects were initiated without provocation or even awareness on the part of ES faculty.   This momentum led to the kind of structural changes that demonstrate fundamental transformation, including establishing the sustainability coordinator position, purchasing 100% wind power, renovating a facility into a high-profile home for the ES department, and incorporating an ambitious climate-neutrality goal into the strategic plan.


Sustainability is a long-term, multi-dimensional goal.  No matter what resources are available in the short term, all institutions can consider these structural questions and reorganize their systems to align with their missions, and to emphasize the role of research and the opportunities for dialogue.  Over time these structures will influence job descriptions, hiring decisions, and budget priorities, potentially leading to the tipping point where environmental sustainability is fundamental to the campus culture.


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Eric Pallant is Professor of Environmental Science, Kelly Boulton is Sustainability Coordinator and David McInally is Executive Vice President and Treasurer, all at Allegheny College.  Pallant’s research incorporates international sustainable development in small communities including college campuses; Boulton’s research focuses on innovative green campus initiatives and climate action planning; McInally is interested in structural, financial and systemic changes required to enable sustainable campus development.


Allegheny College

520 North Main Street

Meadville PA 16335


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