The First Word

President L. Jay Lemons

On Sept. 9, just before the Common Reading Lecture by Penn State ecologist Christopher Uhl, I suggested that the campus community make a new year’s resolution—new year, in this case, being the new academic year. The resolution: do our part to achieve a sustainable future. On that night, I was the first to put digital pen to iPad and sign the Susquehanna University Climate Commitment pledge.

Modified from the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, Susquehanna’s pledge affirms the belief that colleges and universities must exercise leadership in their communities and throughout society by modeling ways to minimize the impact of climate change. It further states that, by integrating sustainability into their curricula, institutions of higher education will fulfill their social responsibility to help create “a thriving, ethical and civil society,” and provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary to address the critical, systemic challenges the world faces in the 21st century and beyond.

Although modeled after the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, Susquehanna’s pledge differs in one vital way. Instead of calling for carbon neutrality, it seeks to develop a comprehensive plan to lower total carbon emissions. The carbon-neutral goal of the Presidents’ Climate Commitment is a commendable objective, but there continues to be considerable debate about the feasibility of complete carbon neutrality.

In addition, Susquehanna’s culture is a modest one, inherited from our Lutheran roots. Seeking to reduce carbon emissions as we have outlined in the climate commitment is a goal that will surely challenge us; but it is one that we are confident we can attain. I believe our pledge strikes that necessary balance between leadership and practical expectations.

However, our deviation from the Presidents’ Climate Commitment in no way reflects a lesser intention to accept our role in creating a sustainable future. We support the scientific consensus that climate change is real and largely being caused by humans. We recognize the need to significantly reduce the global emission of greenhouse gases to avert the worst effects of climate change. Our consumption of many natural resources, especially in the United States, far outstrips the supply, and we must find ways of being better stewards of the resources we have and their impact on the environment.

Adopting the climate commitment is among the first steps we’ve taken in support of the emphasis on sustainability included in the university’s new strategic plan. The actions set in motion by our climate commitment include investigating and implementing alternative energy sources to replace our existing coal-fired process, developing environmental guidelines for campus renovation projects, and instituting a new campus construction policy so that all new construction will be built to at least the U.S. Green Building Council’s standards for Silver LEED certification, the same level achieved by the new science building we dedicated on Oct. 23 during Homecoming Reunion Weekend.

These new initiatives and policies will go a long way in helping to reduce Susquehanna’s carbon footprint, but sustainability is not just an institutional responsibility, it’s a personal one. That’s why we’ve invited all members of the SU community to join together in signing the climate pledge. It will take everyone’s thoughtful actions and commitments to sustain the level of change we want to see on our campus.

On Sept. 3, during a dinner organized by the Center for Academic Achievement and our chief diversity officer, I had the great pleasure of meeting Orlando Taylor, Ph.D., vice provost for research and dean of the graduate school at Howard University. A social scientist by training, Dr. Taylor examines the human dimensions of sustainability. He contends that sustainability—and its related notion of well-being—is a human issue defined by one’s culture. Following that logic, it seems it will take a culture shift to turn the tide on global warming. And that is what Susquehanna is trying to accomplish in our corner of the world.

As educators, we are obligated to prepare our students to be tomorrow’s difference-makers and, therefore, the individuals who will carry the torch of sustainability into the future. Emily Bowling ’06, EcoHouse program coordinator at the University of Connecticut, explored how we might accomplish this during a presentation to faculty and students in October.

After two years of AmeriCorps service, during which time she worked as coordinator of volunteer programs for Susquehanna’s Center for Civic Engagement, then the Center for Volunteer Programs, Emily enrolled in graduate school at Portland State University, where she earned a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy with specialization in leadership in ecology, culture and learning. Her master’s thesis and subsequent lecture at Susquehanna encourage a paradigm shift in higher education that advocates an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability. As a liberal arts institution, Susquehanna is well positioned for such an undertaking, and there is no better example of this than the 2010–11 university theme, “A Sustainable Future.”

With its companion common reading of the same name, the theme provides curricular and co-curricular opportunities for the campus to develop a community dialogue around a host of issues related to sustainability. The topic is something that my executive assistant, Kathy Owens, and I have taken into the Perspectives class we teach for first-year students. Discussions on sustainability center around one primary question: Whose responsibility is sustainability? I’d submit, as experts have before me, that it is everyone’s responsibility, and I invite you to join us in this critical endeavor. Recycle. Share a ride or bicycle to work. Turn the thermostat down a couple of degrees in the winter to conserve energy. Reduce your water usage and waste. Whatever you can do to contribute to a more sustainable future, please do it.

Together we can make a difference, just as more than 10,000 of us did when we joined forces to bring the Changing Lives, Building Futures campaign to a successful conclusion. Let’s continue that commitment and help change the future for all by taking action on behalf of the environment in our own backyard.

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