This past November, Chatham University’s president, David Finegold, DPhil, was invited to speak at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.
Dr. Finegold was part of a panel on which different models of U.S. higher education were represented: a community college, a large public university, and, representing private universities, Chatham.
The invitation came from Second Nature, an organization committed to building a sustainable global future through leadership networks in higher education (Chatham has been a core member of Second Nature). We spoke with Dr. Finegold about his experience at the conference and thoughts about the future of sustainability at Chatham. (Interview edited for clarity and length.)
Q: Why are colleges and universities leading on these issues?
A: There are a couple of reasons. I think one is that colleges and universities are in the business of generating facts and new research, and so a lot of the knowledge that is leading us to understand what’s happening with the climate is coming out of universities. So it is appropriate that they are on the cutting edge.
I think a second reason is our timeframe. For a lot of corporate CEOs, they are most worried about their next quarter’s results or maybe the next year. Universities? We are about to celebrate our 150th anniversary! If you are doing a good job leading a university, you should be thinking in decades or centuries. You can’t ignore the short term, but you need to have a long-term timeframe.
We are focused on what the world is going to be like in 2025 and 2050 and trying to prepare people for that.”
I think a third reason is that it’s right at our core values. What we stand for is sustainability, having a positive impact on the community. Healthy people, healthy planet; it’s a core part of what we at Chatham do and what a lot of other universities think is important.
A fourth reason is a lot more students, like yourself, like what we are seeing with the student campaign on divestment, are passionate about these issues. So they are pushing their universities to be leaders.
Q: Which speaker at the conference had the greatest impact on you?
A: For me, it wasn’t so much a speaker as a particular theme. I attended several panels that said that it’s not enough to reduce emissions; we also have to figure out how we can capture more carbon that’s already out there. One of the most effective ways to do this is what is called carbon farming.
Basically, about one-fifth of all the carbon we need in order to do this is in the soil. If we do a better job of making soil capture and keep carbon, we can make a huge impact. I thought this would be a great fit for Eden Hall Campus, particularly if you look at things like composting. It’s a triple win: If you divert food waste to create compost, that means you create less waste. If you then put the compost down you improve agricultural yields, and on top of that you capture more carbon than normal soil. We have the right people at Chatham—for example, one of our Board members, Carla Castagnero, is president of AgRecycle, Inc., one of the oldest composting companies in the country, and Sherie Edenborn, one of our professors, has done a lot of research in this area.
Another thing is that one of the presenters put up a map that showed that Pennsylvania is one of the places where you could have the greatest impact within the US because we are such an agriculture-intensive state. So if we were to do this across just our state, we could make a big impact, and nationally, even better.
To me the big take away was there is a way to tie together everything we are doing at Eden Hall and have a really positive impact.”
Q: What do you believe is the hardest obstacle to overcome for schools looking towards a more sustainable future?
A: For a lot of schools like ours, as with many things, it comes down to money. If we had significantly more resources than we do now, what I would love to do and what a lot of other universities have done is to have a couple million dollars in a fund. They say “We have a list of twenty additional sustainability projects. We are going to spend it on the top three and then measure their ROI in terms of what they save us.” For example, if you really weather-condition an old building like this, you are going to save X dollars in energy and it will also have a positive impact on the climate. The money that we save would go back in the fund so that we are able to continually invest.
One of the reasons we have ranked so highly in the STARS rating even without a fund like that is that we have done a lot of the low-hanging fruit: the LEDs, the food waste, the solar. We have done a ton, but something like that would give us even more. Otherwise, as a private university, we do not really have any other constraints.
Q: Of all the sustainability initiatives taken at Chatham, which one do you feel has the strongest impact?
A: I would say the strongest impact, when you look at the broader national or global context, is the huge investment we made in creating a model campus community that has all the aspects of sustainability at Eden Hall. I think that in terms of big picture and reasons that people come and study us and want to partner with us, that is probably our biggest impact.
But actually, I also really love the small things. The decision to get rid of trays, that’s one where people take smaller portions, we have less food waste, it did not cost us anything, and it is an immediate benefit. There are big picture things, but I think the small things that we teach every student like turning off the lights before you leave a room, shut down and unplug your computer or appliances overnight; they all add up.
Q: What is the best advice you can give to fellow university presidents taking steps towards sustainability measures?
A: The best advice I could give is not to be daunted by the complexity of STARS ratings or anything else. There are a ton of things that you can do really easily, like the dining room trays thing or LED lights. You should start wherever you can start, and there are a bunch of things you can do that save money and improve your climate footprint. Get your students involved, get your faculty and staff involved, and leverage their suggestions on how to do things.
Q: What do you see as the next step for Chatham after the conference? Are we moving towards carbon farming?
A: Carbon farming is very high on my agenda; I would love to see it as a strategic initiative at Eden Hall. The other significant thing is that we had 14 faculty, staff, students, and alumni at the Climate Reality Project training that Al Gore did here in Pittsburgh—their biggest ever. We are talking about forming Pittsburgh’s first university-based chapter. This is about what can we do working with everybody looking for wins.
Q: Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you would like to say?
A: I was really excited to represent Chatham at the conference. There were a few universities there that had their own students attend as part of the delegation, and I am hoping that we can do that for future events. It is going to take a lot of steps to get there, but I love it and think it would be such a great learning experience for our students. The contacts you get to make with people from all over the world is amazing.