Transforming Higher Education: Green Campuses in the 21st Century

By Terry Calhoun

When the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) began touting its LEED system of ratings for greener, better designed buildings less than a decade ago, almost no one had heard of global warming. The thought of building a large, functional, office-type building or residence hall that was environmentally friendly wasn’t in a lot of heads. The USGBC aimed at “market transformation.” And it has achieved that goal.

A little over ten years ago, my employer, the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) published a small book titled Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century. It was an easy-to-read “wake-up call” aimed at the top strategic level of management in higher education – many of whom had not yet “gotten” the message about how information technology was about to transform our lives and learning. It sold more than 30,000 copies and was translated into Japanese. Presidents and provosts bought 50 copies at a time and distributed them to top campus leadership.

One of the authors of Transforming Higher Education, Donald M. Norris of Strategic Initiatives, and I got together at the Campus of the Future conference in Hawaii early in July and were talking about what looks like an approaching market transformation that is much wider than just green buildings: green technologies. We’re talking about a possible new book.

Campuses are a source of leaders in the environmental sustainability effort, and related efforts to understand and cope with the effects of global warming. SCUP just published, along with NACUBO (the association of business officers) and APPA (the association of facilities officers) a new book titled, The Business Case for Renewable Energy: A Guide for Colleges and Universities. In the past five years I have heard many people say that the mainstream world – the world of commerce and industry – was crying out for college graduates who were informed, green consumers, as well as MBAs, designers, and engineers trained to think sustainably and to develop new products.

I think that the news of the past few months shows that we’ve reached a “tipping point” and it is evident that industry and society are in fact “getting it” about green. It’s the gadget freak in me – the info tech maven – who is the most excited about some of the commercial products coming onto the market. These products, as well as others, are a bellwether of significant change. I’m going to briefly describe three that excite me:

  1. Charging Power: So, what’s the most pressing concern for people like you and me nowadays, especially when we travel? How about power? Finding and hooking up to electrical power for your gadgets? I remember when I first saw an advertisement for one of those backpacks in which you can leave your camera and cell phone and just plug the bag into the wall. The bag charges your devices. Cool, but it d'esn’t charge laptops, just smaller gadgets.

    However, a new device from DoCoMo and Aquafairy is so much more exciting. It uses fuel cell technology and converts water into hydrogen to get its fuel. You buy the device for under $100, and it will recharge your devices (probably not laptops, yet – sigh) several times, just as quickly as if they were plugged into a wall. Since it is, itself, a tiny device, it can go anywhere you do.

    We all thought fuel cells were for cars. Apparently not, and if we’ve got stuff this cool already heading toward the marketplace, the possibilities for a lot more versions of the same thing appearing in unexpected places in the marketplace approach inevitability.

  2. The Power of Acceleration: Speaking of cars, a completely electric (batteries from Dell) convertible roadster, both beautiful (design from Lotus) and expensive. That’s cool, but: It accelerates from zero to 60 mph and then back down to a stop – all in 9 seconds. Nine seconds! Designed in Silicon Valley by computer people utilizing contracted automotive engineering design talent, the Tesla Roadster is selling for something like $80K, and creating a new market as it d'es so. Intended to compete head to head with the Porsche 911, the Tesla Roadster has fuel costs of about 1 cent per mile. The company will use the relatively larger profit margins from this niche luxury car to help fund the 2008 production of a fully-electric family car, costing much less.

  3. Better than gadgets, though, there is a whole world of consultants out there pushing hard to transform the marketplace, too. I think their efforts are going to make a big difference. One example: The Saving Green by Going Green Accelerator is a good example of a product that is as much information based as anything else. If you are into being an entrepreneur, you’ll enjoy looking over this modular process to stimulate a local marketplace or economy with money-saving green ideas.

Others also see rapid market transformation on the near horizon. Kevin Doyle, of the Environmental Careers Organization, in a posting titled “Remake a Living: Green job market heating up,” did an excellent job recently of summarizing the job market for people with green skills – including information technology specialists. It’s a hot market, simmering and close to a boil with new lines of products and product improvements.

Our campuses, thanks in no small part to their excellent information networks and the bright, systems-thinking people who manage them, are also at close to a boil with the desire for change and the drive to start doing things in greener ways. Sure, part of that is driven by energy costs, but who cares? The changes being made in how we do things are permanent changes and, in the long run, so much better for the planet.

So, let’s get those bright minds thinking creatively and entrepreneurially. What kind of green product can you come up with to ride the coming transformation?

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