Campus / News / May 15, 2008

Sustainability report surfaces

The assessment of Knox’s level of sustainability that Nathan Engstrom, Oberlin College’s Sustainability Coordinator wrote after his lecture at Knox on Sept. 20, 2007 is now coming to light, though President Roger Taylor said he received the report about six weeks after Engstrom spoke. The full text of the report can be found here.

“As I explained to the Sustainability Task Force, when I asked for a consultant to give advice, I want the consultant to be candid, and if you share, it might chill them a little,” said President Roger Taylor, addressing why the report had not been released to the campus.

Engstrom’s assessment of Knox’s sustainability was not favorable. According to the report, “Knox College is currently not well engaged in the rapidly growing campus sustainability movement. This is partly a problem of not being connected to the network of schools active in campus sustainability and not promoting sustainability-related activities that are currently taking place at Knox. Primarily, though, this is a problem of not having identified campus sustainability priorities and not having a defined strategic agenda for implementing them.”

Engstrom suggested 38 ways Knox could improve its sustainability status, such as joining the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, drafting a Sustainability Master Plan, purchasing hybrid vehicles for the Knox fleet, and developing an eco-purchasing policy. So far, only one concrete, physical accomplishment has been reached in the seven months since the report got to Taylor’s office: the establishment of a Green Fee.

Other than the Green Fee, Taylor said the college has been responding to Engstrom’s report by collecting and coordinating ideas from faculty, staff and students about sustainability, and continuing to promote a campus conversation on the subject by scheduling meetings with senior staff, the Sustainability Task Force, and other interested parties. Taylor’s essay on sustainability that was sent to the campus is posted at

“Some of the students on the Sustainability Task Force, particularly seniors, were impatient that we do something more concrete, and I said, ‘You know, if we just get people talking about it this spring term we might accomplish something,’” said Taylor.

“I did not regard [Engstrom’s] report as a list of things we were going to necessarily do right away, but something that would help us with ongoing discussions to try to develop more of a culture of sustainability so people think about it more,” said Taylor.

‘Silo thinking’

Campus Environment Committee chair Robin Metz blames “silo thinking” for the sluggish pace of Knox’s response. The CEC recommended the Engstrom report be released in this month’s report to the faculty.

“Silo thinking is compartmentalized thinking, which is to say organizations like colleges or cities are very prone to sending messages up and down the silo…there is a hierarchy of power so that people operate only in their compartmental zone. But what’s really important if you’re going to think environmentally is that messages have to bridge between these silos,” said Metz.

The charge of the Campus Environment Committee, according to the Faculty Regulations, is “to study and make recommendations on projects and policies relation to all aspects of the campus’ physical environment, including facilities, landscaping, and aesthetics; to make recommendations for the exhibition and maintenance of student and alumni art; to serve as an advisory committee for senior administrators responsible for the college’s physical environment.” Metz believes this charge gives his committee responsibility to act in a “holistic” way towards the campus environment, having a say in green buildings and environmental decisions and actually acting on them, but the administration has disagreed. For example, the CEC organized a group of volunteers to plant several donated trees around the campus during Earth Week, only to be told by administrators that such resource allocation was beyond the scope of the committee.

“On at least two other occasions, messages came from the president we’d overstepped our bounds. The jurisdiction the administration wanted us to accept was a definition that our concerns were properly only about aesthetics,” said Metz, who was also dismayed that campus aesthetics were repeatedly referred to as “gussying up” the campus, an inherently sexist term that marginalizes the “complicated, dignified” practice of aesthetics.

Dean of the College and Executive Committee Chair Larry Breitborde explained that the CEC evolved from a committee known as the Visual Arts Curatorial Board, whose charge was to manage the display of alumni art on campus. That board was disbanded during a sweeping examination and reorganization of faculty committees that took place in 2000-01. According to then-faculty secretary Kevin Hastings in the Executive Committee minutes from May 1, 2001, “there ensued a mighty battle with the English language” in regards to the formation and charge of the CEC. The CEC’s charge as initially proposed to the Executive Committee was to “formulate policies and promote projects,” but the authority of the committee was reduced to its current state after more than one meeting’s worth of debate.

Breitborde acknowledged that the current wording of the CEC’s charge is vague, partially because in 2001 ‘sustainability’ wasn’t a widely used word. Still, he sees aesthetics and sustainability as a “pretty broad combination.”

“Over the past several years, the Campus Environmental Committee hasn’t had much to say about sustainability. Suddenly this year there’s a very full agenda, fuller than anyone’s ever seen it before,” said Breitborde. Metz has chaired the committee for a year.

Though Breitborde said he appreciated Metz’s enthusiasm for sustainability, he expressed concern that Metz’s efforts could collide with efforts from other groups more specifically charged with sustainability, like the Sustainability Committee. He plans to take another look at the charge of the CEC and make it more specific.

“Do we want to be wasting our time with territorial squabbles, or isn’t there a better way to reconcile different constituent groups and pull information together so we have the best range of ideas available to be policy considerations?” asked Metz.

“If [the charge of the CEC] needs adjusting, fine, we’ll adjust it. It would be nice to be on the same page,” said Breitborde.

Deana Rutherford

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