Vassar’s campus is known for boasting its natural beauty, from the Farm to its abundant arboreal richness, but recently the College’s commitment to ecological quality has been recognized in more concrete form. In August, Vassar earned a fourth-place ranking in the Water Conservation category in the 2018 Sustainable Campus Index, a publication of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which lists especially sustainable colleges and universities (Vassar Info, “Vassar gets ‘top performer’ rating in nationwide sustainability rankings,” 08.22.2018).
The report cited the College’s exemplary efforts in water conservation, recycling and re- use, as well as its renewable energy initiatives. In a press release, Vassar Director of Sustain- ability Alistair Hall ’11 specified some of these measures, which include “smart irrigation practices on our athletic fields, low-flow fixtures in our buildings, and a closed-loop water supply at our Chiller Plant,” as well as the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences landscape (Vassar Info).
Hall noted that these efforts created a 40 percent cutback in water consumption in the last 13 years. Furthermore, according to the press release, Vassar entered into a 20-year contract with the operators of a Beacon, NY, hydroelectric plant in early 2016 (Vassar Info).
Beyond earning recognition in the Sustainable Campus Index, Vassar achieved a Gold rating in its most recent report for Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System, making it one of 106 out of 352 colleges to earn such a ranking and improving upon its Silver ratings in 2011 and 2014. Vassar also placed 67th out of 268 in the Sierra Club’s Cool Schools 2018 rank- ing, which assesses colleges’ and universities’ wide-ranging ecofriendliness (Vassar Info).
Indeed, Vassar’s Sustainability Office has been working diligently to reduce its carbon footprint. The office has created a plan for carbon neutrality by 2030 and intends to put a solar project into place this year. Finally, the office installed solar panels at the Vassar Barns, which will cover all of the electricity usage for the barns and a large portion of the preserve.
The office is currently creating a master energy plan designed to add more specificity to the climate action plan, which will include research on how to achieve carbon neutrality. Engineers worked with the office, examining heating plans and buildings to figure out where to focus on improving the campus’ sustainability.
Hall explained, “Preliminarily we think we can lower campus energy usage overall by 20 to 30 percent, which is pretty exciting. And that’s not just lower carbon emissions, but lower in our utility budget, and that’s freeing up money for so much other stuff to be done on campus.”
The office is not deterred by the current U.S. administration’s stance on environmental ef- forts. In fact, Vassar is one of 344 colleges and universities to sign the We Are Still In pact, stating that it will continue to fight for environ- mental justice despite the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accord.
Students at Vassar can join in these international efforts to combat climate change by get- ting involved with various groups on campus.
One such organization is the Eco Leader Program, a volunteer group dedicated to hands-on conservation and campus sustainability efforts. The weekly program takes on activities such as plant identification, invasive species removal and pollinator garden planting.
A second organization dedicated to campus sustainability is Students for Equitable Environ- mental Decisions (SEED). SEED aims to further the climate action plan by working directly with the administration. They organized the Climate Action Sustainability Committee, which includes three students, two of whom are elected to the committee and one who holds a VSA position.
One goal of SEED is to help students understand how sustainability on campus works and how to become a part of the movement. According to member Daniel Otto ’19, the main functions of SEED, which is broken up into four non-hierarchal working groups this semester, include creating the space for such conversations and working on the structuring of the committee and its meetings.
One of the unique aspects of SEED is its influence on the administration. The group works directly with the administration, presenting proposals to make Vassar more sustainable. SEED member Greta Nelson ’21 aims to make sustainability and environmental justice a part of any administrative decision the College makes. Otto corroborated this sentiment: “Working with administrators and building relationships with them to get this in the front of their mind and make this a pressing issue and something they have to continue to revisit on a regular basis is massive progress in itself.”
Yet another major force for sustainability on campus is the Vassar Greens, an organization that promotes environmental consciousness specifically among the student population.
According to Greens member Melissa Hoffmann ’21, “Even though [Vassar community members] might not feel like they’re contributing to climate action or affecting climate issues, they are just by existing and being part of the Vassar community … I want people to know the immediacy and urgency of taking climate action. Climate change is something that’s affect- ing everything right now.” Hoffman enjoys encouraging environmental consciousness among the student body: “We want to make sure students feel informed and are able to take on sustainable initiatives themselves.”
In addition to continuing to run the free market, a weekly event where students can exchange items without charge, as well as the Students With a Purpose: Recycling (SWAPR) event at the end of the year, the organization hopes to achieve a zero-waste campus. It plans to fulfill this ambition by promoting recycling and composting with social media and poster campaigns, beginning a TerraCycle program (a national initiative to recycle products traditionally viewed as non-recyclable), creating a video about recycling and composting properly geared toward first-years and working with other orgs to help them become more sustainable. Last year, the Greens teamed up with the LGBTQ Center to host a drag show that utilized sustainable makeup, as well as partnering with Project.Period to sell menstrual cups at a reduced cost and forming a committee to help ensure that Founder’s Day was as sustainable as possible.
Hoffmann explained the numerous activities that Greens and other groups have undertaken, filling a need to mobilize students to engage with sustainability: “A lot of people know that climate action is super important but they don’t want to do it themselves. So getting people to think of ways they could actually be more involved is really exciting.”
Another goal for the Greens is to improve communication with the Vassar administration, including the Sustainability Office, so that students receive more thorough information about environmental initiatives on campus.
In addition, the current administration’s stance on environmental issues has inspired the Greens to become more politically active, particularly in local government. Students participate in phone banking and support candidates with progressive environmental policies. According to Hoffmann, “If you feel like you can’t do anything about Trump, think about ways you can start taking action in your local community.”
Ultimately, the missions of Vassar students involved in combating climate change through sustainable practices extend beyond the campus to encompass global humanitarian issues. “This isn’t just environmental issues, this is human rights and social justice,” Hoffmann asserted. “This is about a moral issue too.”