Dickinson’s ‘Manhattan Project’
Sustainability symposium envisions a new world
by Michelle Simmons
May 4, 2010
Alumni, students, faculty and administrators gathered for three days in April to re-imagine sustainability in higher education. “No matter what major you [are], you should know where resources come from,” said keynote speaker Anthony Cortese.
Ask 20 sustainability experts to define sustainability, and chances are you’ll get 20 different responses. But that’s a good thing, according to participants at Charting the Path for a Sustainable Dickinson, the April 15-17 symposium that brought together a wide array of faculty, administrators, students and alumni to plan Dickinson’s future.
“Our graduates will be called upon to make some of the most difficult decisions about the future of our planet that will require fundamental changes in individual behavior, global-resource allocation and national and international policy,” said President William G. Durden ’71 in his opening remarks. “At Dickinson, we have a responsibility to prepare our students to meet these challenges.”
“We need a better-educated citizenry,” echoed Jan Jarrett, president of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, during one of several panel discussions. “We need leaders able to participate in policy debate and dig beneath the surface. That’s your classic liberal-arts education.”
Gil Sperling ’77, senior advisor for policy and programs at the U.S. Department of Energy, noted the urgency of creating a curriculum steeped in sustainability theory and practice. “We need to create incentives for teachers to take risks,” he said. “We’re at a tipping point [with climate change]. We do not have the luxury of open-ended debate. I've had 30 years [to work on this issue.] The kids graduating today don’t have that luxury.”
“Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” reads a definition from the United Nations report, Our Common Future, which was quoted often during the symposium. Intentionally ambiguous, the phrasing allowed participants to define what sustainability means for Dickinson.
“It is not useful or necessary to try to reach consensus on a single definition of sustainability when no such consensus exists in the world around us,” said Neil Leary, director of the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education. “Instead, we do what liberal-arts colleges are prone to do. … [We] join in conversations about the fundamental problems of sustainable development … and explore the implications of different definitions and aspirations for action.”
For example, Annette Smith Parker ’73, vice president and treasurer, noted that the college has been following the triple-bottom-line model for years, focusing on fiscal, social and environmental sustainability in its financial operations and assets management.
And Dickinson’s emphasis on a global education offers new perspectives on environmental challenges, said Stephen DePaul, assistant provost and executive director of global education. Students studying in Costa Rica can experience a country powered by 95-percent renewable energy, for instance. “Many students don’t get this kind of exposure,” he said.
“Green as a simple concept has a short life, and society is evolving to see sustainability as a complex set of relationships,” said Thom Wallace ’99, communications director for the National Congress of American Indians. “Dickinson is really at the forefront of charting and understanding the complexities of sustainability.”
Michael Fratantuono, associate professor of international studies, business & management, noted his department’s concentration on globalization, sustainability and issues of equity and development. Going Green: Challenges and Opportunities, a course he team-taught with Ken Shultes, interim vice president for campus operations, illustrated how curricular changes can have both immediate and far-reaching impact.
Student panelist Kristen Lee ’10, an environmental-studies major in the class, discussed her group project, which studied Dickinson’s waste-management practices and identified several areas for improvement. Their recommendations included better signage for the trash and recycling bins on campus and offering meaningful incentives to use reusable mugs and containers.
“Our project finished in December 2009, and in April we’re already seeing the direct results,” Lee said, noting that Shultes had implemented their signage recommendation and was considering the others.
Other panelists pointed to learning opportunities that extend well beyond the classroom. In just 10 years, the College Farm has expanded from a student garden created through a senior environmental-studies project to 50 acres of programmatic space where students can learn about renewable energy and sustainable food and livestock production, said farm director Jennifer Halpin. “The farm is a venue to implement ideas that other people can benefit from,” she added. “It bridges relationships with other activities, like ALLARM [Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring].”
Rethinking higher education
The symposium’s keynote speaker, Anthony Cortese, president of Second Nature, urged participants to rethink the purpose and role of higher education. Second Nature is a nonprofit organization that supports and advocates for sustainability leadership in colleges and universities.
“The challenge is not disciplinary but to create a cohesive set of practices for a sustainable society,” he said. “This is not about sustainability in education but about education for a healthy, just, economically secure and sustainable society. We need a Manhattan Project for sustainability, and if higher education isn’t going to lead, who will?”
By Saturday, participants had converged on key themes for Dickinson’s future: encouraging and supporting faculty curricular initiatives, merging the college’s global sensibility with sustainability as core competencies and deepening collaborative relationships among all members of the Dickinson community—local, national and international.
Rick Shangraw ’81, vice president for research and economic affairs at Arizona State University, noted that Dickinson is in an ideal position to shape national discourse. “We should spend time discussing the meaning of sustainability,” he said. “We can be a leader in defining it.”
George Fitting ’10 contributed to this article.