Celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, the University of La Verne recently completed an initiative to revamp its Master Plan—and sustainability is at the heart of the blueprint for the future. From expanding its Sustainable Campus Consortium to establishing a Green Revolving Fund, the university continues to position itself as a leader in sustainability. We sat down with University of La Verne’s Vice President of HR, IT, Facilities and Safety, Dr. Clive Houston Brown, to learn how faculty, staff, and students are working together towards creating a carbon-neutral campus.
First American: Sustainability has been at the heart of the University’s mission and master plan for many years. Explain why this has always been a top priority for the campus and how you manage to keep it as a top priority, despite competing initiatives.
Dr. Houston Brown: Founded in 1891 by the Church of the Brethren, we have always had a rich heritage of social justice, community engagement, and environmental responsibility as reflected in our four core values of Ethical Reasoning, Diversity and Inclusivity, Lifelong Learning, and Community and Civic Engagement. Though the university is no longer officially affiliated with the Brethren, those core values remain.
In our Ethical Reasoning core value, the university affirms a value system that actively supports peace with justice, respect of individuals and humanity, and the health of the planet and its people. In our Community and Civic Engagement core value, the university asserts a commitment to improving and enhancing local, regional, and global communities.
These core values are reflected in and permeate our strategic plan, which in turn shapes and guides our Facilities and Technology Master Plan. Sustainability, therefore, maintains a high priority despite competing initiatives because it is interwoven in the basic fabric of who we are as an institution and is addressed in our 2020 Vision statement.
First American: In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge schools face when trying to prioritize sustainability on campus?
Dr. Houston Brown: For many institutions, particularly those that do not have large endowments, the biggest challenge remains identifying funding for sustainability projects when budgets are tight and there are many competing priorities. We have resolved that with the Green Revolving Fund. This Fund creates the vehicle that ensures there is a separate, defined, and renewable source of funding for sustainable projects. In fact, the more projects we do, the more savings we realize as an institution, and the more the Fund grows.
First American: How do Business Officers (and other key stakeholders) evaluate and prioritize these investments? How have you been able to successfully bring these key stakeholders together on the commitment to sustainability at your university?
Dr. Houston Brown: We have been able to successfully bring key stakeholders together on the commitment to sustainability at the University of La Verne because sustainability is a natural part of who we are and what our mission encompasses. Sustainability is an important aspect to administrators, academics, and students alike at our institution, as demonstrated by our participation as an ACUPCC signatory and our early participation in the Billion Dollar Green Challenge. The key to a unified approach and commitment is joint leadership of our institution’s Sustainable Campus Consortium by a member of the President’s Executive Cabinet and the Chair of the Natural Sciences Division. This ensures the initiative has a strong academic focus and inclusion, while also ensuring it has a direct link to the institution’s leadership team for strategic and budgetary purposes. Strong student participation is also a critical factor to ensure sustainability-related learning and development takes place during their time at the university.
There was initial resistance to funding a new initiative, the Green Revolving Fund, during tough budget times. Our solution was to identify projects the Facilities Department was already planning to do using deferred and renewal budgets—and that we knew would result in savings in utility usage—and get leadership approval to redirect the annual savings from those projects into the newly established Green Revolving Fund until the project costs were recouped. In this way, we were able to create and grow a fund without the infusion of new budget allocations.
Once the project recoups its investment, savings can be directed into the Green Revolving Fund and/or returned to the institution’s General Operating Fund. At the University of La Verne, we direct 100% of the annual utility savings from each project back into the Green Revolving Fund until ROI is achieved for that project. If a lighting retrofit project costs $40,000 and has a four-year payback, meaning it reduces the campus electrical usage by $10,000/year, those annual savings are transferred from the Utilities operational budget into the Green Revolving Fund each of those four years to pay the GRF back and help fund future sustainable projects.
Once ROI is achieved, 50% of the annual utility savings from the project are returned to the institution’s General Operating Fund through a one-time, permanent reduction in budget allocation to the Utilities-Electric account and for the next three years the remaining annual 50% savings are transferred into the Green Revolving Fund to increase the fund. In the fourth year after ROI is achieved, the remaining 50% of annual utility savings are returned to the institution’s General Operating Fund through a second one-time, permanent reduction in the budget allocation to the Utilities-Electric account. In this manner, we retain the level of our Green Revolving Fund through the ROI period and then grow it incrementally through the following three years after ROI.
First American: At the heart of your master plan is the Sustainable Campus Consortium. Describe what that is and how you were able to successfully implement this initiative on campus.
Dr. Houston Brown: The Sustainable Campus Consortium is a grass-roots group of faculty, staff, students, and community members who share a passion for sustainability and the environment. Formed many years ago, the Consortium meets on a regular basis during the school year to help guide environmental issues on campus. Over the past five years, as project funding was made available through the deferred maintenance and plant renewal funds and Green Revolving Fund, the Consortium played an active role in the oversight of sustainable initiatives on campus.
With high-level administrative and academic representation on the committee, we have a strong focus on both infrastructural and instructional initiatives around sustainability. The former is important as it moves us towards carbon neutrality, but the latter is critical because it moves us towards awareness and long-term change.
First American: When it comes to energy-efficiency projects, benchmarking yourself against other similar organizations is critical. What resources do you turn to in order to define your measurements of success?
Dr. Houston Brown: The University of La Verne makes use of the Association of Physical Plant Administrators (APPA) energy usage data for benchmarking and comparative purposes, and the Sustainable Endowments Institute’s Green Revolving Investment Tracking System (GRITS) for project and initiative tracking and benchmarking. The former provides us with strong external institutional comparison capabilities to measure how we are doing against national and regional averages in general, and peer institutions in specific. The latter allows us to internally benchmark our anticipated energy and water reductions with what we actually achieve with our sustainable projects. We are also able to measure our success through inclusion in things like the Princeton Review’s Guide to 361 Green Colleges.
First American: The University of La Verne was one of the first schools in California to join the Billion Dollar Green Challenge. Describe why it was so important for your school to be a part of that initiative and what specifically it meant for your campus.
Dr. Houston Brown: Although the University of La Verne had long been a proponent of sustainability and environmental issues, we had never established a specific budget for these types of initiatives. In the past, they were handled on an ad-hoc basis with funding requested and provided sporadically as institutional budgets allowed. When we saw the goals of the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, we recognized the benefit of creating a perpetual revolving fund that could be used to pay for sustainable projects in perpetuity.
We overcame the obstacle of seed funding for this endowment by applying the financial savings from energy efficiency projects we already intended to do towards the Green Revolving Fund. This kick-started the Green Revolving Fund and each year that we conduct additional energy reduction projects, those savings feed back into the fund. Having that institutional commitment to re-direct the dollars from the energy savings was made possible by our public commitment to the Billion Dollar Green Challenge. What this commitment means for our campus is that we now have a dedicated, permanent, revolving source of funding for our sustainable initiatives.
First American: What types of projects have been implemented on campus as a result of your Sustainability Plan and what is the impact the projects have had on your campus and students?
Dr. Houston Brown: We have focused heavily on energy and water reduction initiatives during the last three years. We started by conducting an energy audit of 10 of our buildings and identifying issues that, once resolved, would result in more efficient operations and reductions in energy consumption. The majority of the electrical-use reduction projects involved either upgrading lighting fixtures to energy-efficient LED systems or upgrading older HVAC systems to more energy-efficient systems. These projects have reduced the university’s electric usage by 1.2 million kWh/year. We have also completed many projects to reduce water usage. We have replaced large swathes of turf with sustainable plants and drip irrigation and have also upgraded most of our toilets and faucets to low-flow versions. These projects are saving over 2.8 million gallons of water a year.
We have also, however, focused on educating our students, faculty, and staff through presentations, displays, and residence hall competitions. Each Spring, we host an energy reduction competition between the various residence halls where the winning floor that reduces consumption the most over an eight-week period gets T-shirts, a pizza party, and bragging rights for a year.
We are also seeing an increase in sustainability-related student programs and initiatives on campus over the last few years. The university has a student club called Students Engaged in Environmental Discussion and Service (SEEDS) that focuses on sustainability efforts and has helped with initiatives like the sustainable garden that was dedicated a couple of years ago.
We also include students in our research and data gathering for annual sustainability reporting requirements such as those for our ACUPCC commitment. We have not yet assessed how our sustainability efforts have impacted recruitment and retention, but we know research shows a majority of students feel an institution’s commitment to environmental and sustainability efforts are an important factor in their college selection process. In addition, a minor in Sustainability was recently approved and is in our Fall 2017 catalog.
First American: In your opinion, what is the most common misconception about campus sustainability that you have seen at your and other institutions?
Dr. Houston Brown: That sustainability projects are a financial drain on the university and the only benefit is environmental. While this might be true with some of our water-use reduction projects due to the cheap cost of water, it is certainly not the case with other projects. Many of the electricity reduction projects have very robust ROI, which can sometimes be achieved as fast as two to three years. The institution realized real budget savings through ongoing reduced utility usage. These savings lowered ongoing operational costs for the university and increased the size of our Green Revolving Fund for future initiatives.
First American: What are the top priorities related to your sustainability plans over the next 5 – 10 years?
Dr. Houston Brown: We want to continue to focus on reducing our institutional and individual carbon footprints, raising awareness of sustainability-related issues, and expanding our integration of sustainability throughout the curriculum.
First American: What advice would you have for other campus leaders that are attempting to make sustainability a higher priority on their campus?
Dr. Houston Brown: Most institutions of higher education support the idea of initiatives addressing sustainability. The resistance is generally financial in nature, especially for smaller colleges with tight budgets and limited endowments. To move sustainability efforts forward, focus on developing a financial business case that demonstrates actively pursuing sustainable initiatives has the potential to save the university money by reducing energy usage costs. Use data from peer institutions and the Sustainable Endowment Institute to show actual savings and the ROI possibilities of these initiatives.
Click here for more details on the University of La Verne’s commitment to sustainability.