In December, Bowdoin President Barry Mills announced that the College would not divest its endowment of fossil fuels, a decision subsequently supported by Bowdoin Student Government and by the editors of The Bowdoin Orient. Mills and other College officials believe that sustainability—not the largely symbolic act of divestment—is the most effective way for Bowdoin to mitigate the effects of climate change. But with all of the focus on the endowment, it’s easy to miss what Bowdoin is actually doing to improve sustainability on campus. The BDS sat down with Senior Vice President Katy Longley ’76 to learn more about the tangible steps already underway.
BDS: In addition to the debate about divestment, a recent opinion piece in The Bowdoin Orient charged that the College isn’t making “large investments and [the] institutional commitments necessary to address the root causes of climate change.” A fair assessment?
Longley: Not at all. Bowdoin has been and continues to be a national leader in making investments and developing programs aimed at reducing CO2 emissions and improving sustainability on campus. It’s ironic, really, that we are being accused of adopting a PR approach rather than doing things that make a difference. I would argue the opposite—that while we have been taking important steps and making important progress, we have not been doing a very good job explaining these initiatives and their impact.
BDS: Well, now’s your chance. Bowdoin’s sustainability website lists lots of things done in the past and some ongoing initiatives, like LEED certification for new construction, the EcoRep program, recycling, energy conservation, and so on. But since this is largely a “what have you done for me lately” enterprise, what has the College done lately?
Longley: Well, I’ll start with investment, since that’s something we’re being criticized for NOT doing. In addition to everything we’ve done in the past, we are currently investing nearly $1 million in new sustainability measures around campus. These began with $500,000 spent over the last two years on campus energy improvements, weatherization and insulation projects, lighting upgrades, and switching from fuel oil to natural gas. In the coming year, we expect to create a $250,000 revolving fund to pay for conservation projects. And this summer alone, we will spend about $160,000 out of the College’s operating budget on sustainability improvements. So, while it would be great to have unlimited resources to devote to sustainability, spending $1 million over two or three years is a significant investment for the College, and one that is already making a difference.
…Symbolism is important in our society, but so are actions. Action is what makes the biggest difference.
BDS: You mentioned a $250,000 revolving fund for conservation projects? Where does that money come from?
Longley: It comes from energy savings and from grants. The $500,000 spent over the last two years came from utility budget savings made possible by efficiency improvements undertaken in previous years. This new fund of $250,000 also comes from utility savings and from conservation grants.
BDS: How will that money be spent?
Longley: There are several projects up for consideration. There’s new energy-efficient lighting for Pickard Theater, converting a dozen or so buildings from fuel oil to natural gas, weatherizing a college house—things like that. Colleges do committees, so yes, we have a committee—the Sustainability Implementation Committee—that will identify the projects. Three members of the faculty have just joined the group: Professor John Lichter, who is director of the Environmental Studies Program at the College. Also, Hadley Horch (associate professor of biology and neuroscience) and Ta Herrera (associate professor of economics). We also have a student: David Levine, (Class of 201). So, this group—which was previously staffed by administrators—is now more representative of the campus. We’ll look at the possibilities and try to come up with the ones that have the most payback toward our goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2020.
BDS: All worthy projects, but one of the criticisms we’ve heard is that Bowdoin doesn’t think big. Some of our peers have built wind turbines or biomass boilers or installed solar panels.
Longley: Actually, the College’s co-generation facility in the central heating plant was a large investment—$750,000—and it’s yielding great results. This heating season alone, the turbine produced about 1.1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, That’s equivalent to about 6% of the College’s total annual electricity usage, and it saved the College about $140,000. One of the other projects being considered by the Implementation Committee is the feasibility of installing solar panels on the roof of Farley Field House. That building gets a whole lot of sun and the roof is well suited for this kind of installation. So does some of the land Bowdoin is acquiring at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. So there are all sorts of possibilities, and we’re looking carefully at what makes sense for Bowdoin.
BDS: We’ve heard that the campus will be something of a construction site this summer, with town improvements to College Street, changes in traffic patterns on Park Row, the ongoing work at the former Longfellow Elementary School, and major landscaping work. Are these the “sustainability projects” costing $160,000?
Longley: Not exactly, although we are certainly working hard to incorporate green building concepts into the new art and dance center in the old Longfellow School. We’re putting in low flow plumbing fixtures, LED and CFL lighting, occupancy sensors to avoid wasting electricity, and importantly, we’re also salvaging and reusing a historic structure. No, the $160,000 is separate. That money will be spent to perform a lighting audit in the library, to weatherize Copeland House, to purchase an electric car for the Bowdoin fleet, and to install CFL’s or LED lighting in the Smith Union, Mass Hall, the Greason Pool, and at the Mayflower apartments. We’re also going to install refrigeration controls in Thorne so that the refrigerators don’t have to run 24/7, and we’re going to switch to “green” cleaning products by College housekeepers. We’re also going to expand our organic garden for Dining Services and install a touch screen in the Smith Union that will let people see the real time electricity and steam usage in various College buildings. A big part of the battle is to raise awareness, and displays like this can really help people understand the reality of our habits and behavior.
BDS: Clearly some students feel strongly that the very best thing Bowdoin can do for sustainability is to divest the endowment from fossil fuels. We assume you see the steps and projects you’ve described here as more effective in combatting climate change.
Longley: Yes, I do. Look, symbolism is important in our society, but so are actions. Anyone who drives a car to this campus and tries to find a parking space knows that there are a whole lot of fossil fuels being burned by a lot of people at Bowdoin. The reality is that most people—particularly our employees and visitors to campus—need to drive to get here. But what we’re trying to do is convince people to walk once they’re here—to park once and walk. For years, people have said we need to build more parking. That means spending large sums of money to pave over green space, rather than trying to reduce the number of cars vying for those spaces. So last year, President Mills had us take a close look at parking. Instead of adding pavement, we moved student cars down to Farley, and designated other parking for visitors. The result is that students have to walk a bit further, but there are now plenty of parking spaces on campus and we didn’t need to destroy campus green space for asphalt. Some of the landscaping work we’ll do this summer will add to that greenery and take even more parking away from the central campus. That’s smart and responsible action, and action is what makes the biggest difference.
S. Catherine Longley ’76 is Bowdoin’s Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer. She chairs Bowdoin’s Sustainability Implementation Committee.