The University of Delaware appears to be directing greater attention to its environmental impact with the appointment of co-chairs for the new Office of Sustainability.
After a 2020 report by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) showed that the university ranked in the lower 25th percentile in its sustainability efforts compared to the other 344 institutions studied, the university created the Office of Sustainability to attract the “green generation,” according to the university’s 2022 sustainability plan.
“Students are looking closely at us and our sustainability performance and initiatives,” the plan read. “We must have a clearly articulated commitment and demonstrate our reduced environmental impact if we wish to remain a competitive choice for potential students.”
The Office of Sustainability was founded last year by the Sustainability Council, an entirely volunteer-based entity dedicated to furthering sustainable action plans and responsible for putting together the university’s sustainability plan. On that council was Christopher Williams, one of the new co-chairs and the academic director for the Office of Sustainability.
“Our council came together four years ago just to start to talk and ask questions about what initiatives we can engage in that would make a real positive difference for students in the university,” Williams said.
Due to COVID-19, the creation of the sustainability plan and the Office of Sustainability itself was slowed down but picked back up about a year and a half ago, according to Williams.
Williams is now using his role to look for ways to connect all eight colleges with sustainability.
“My goal is to truly work on how we increase interdisciplinary education in the sustainability world,” Williams said.
Jeffery Summerhays, the other co-chair, is the office’s operations director and focuses on how the university’s community actively engages in sustainability and how the campus itself can function in a more sustainable way, according to Williams.
President Dennis Assanis sent an announcement out to the university community on April 3 introducing the new co-chairs.
“Their work will complement UD’s ongoing academic and research efforts in renewable energy, climate science, sustainable agriculture, environmental conservation and many other areas, helping the university develop new ways of living in balance with the environment,” Assanis wrote in his email.
Wylie Feaster, the president of Students for the Environment and a senior environmental studies major at the university, expressed his hopes for more communication with students to be included as part of this next step towards sustainability.
“I really think there needs to be more student engagement,” Feaster said. “I think a lot of the student body has a lot of great ideas and not only sees the world, but sees the issues that are currently happening in a much different way than the professors.”
The Office of Sustainability lists opportunities for students to become more involved in their efforts and to increase engagement on their webpage.
The office has also already started to hear student voices, as a resolution brought by students Bella Slough, a freshman political science major, and Julia Hatoum, a senior chemical engineer and newly elected student body president of the Student Government Association (SGA), was passed. This resolution encourages the Office of Sustainability to outline consistent recycling standards for the entire campus, according to a StudentCentral message sent by the SGA.
The university also already has a program that gives out small “green grants” of around $1,000 to $5,000 to anyone in the university community who has a project intended to benefit the sustainability of university operations and student life on campus, Williams explained.
Last year, a $5,000 grant was awarded to one undergraduate student and a professor with the Department of Civil Engineering to create a more sustainable brick, consisting of recycled materials from traditional cement bricks, as well as recycled plastic and recycled slag, a metal byproduct. These bricks will first be used to replace the aging brick in front of DuPont Hall, Williams said.
The Office of Sustainability is looking to create an inclusive space for the university community to share their ideas and what they want to see happen in terms of sustainability on campus.
“Jeffery and I are in alignment that we absolutely believe in having an office where the door is open, virtually or physically,” Williams said. “We want to provide everyone in the UD community as much transparency as possible.”
There are some students on campus who have a few ideas on how the university can do its part in the fight for sustainability and environmental justice, including reducing food waste, investing in renewable energy and increasing overall education about sustainability.
“The university can invest in more renewable energy and resources, and promote sustainable practices more,” Thomas Vassallo, a senior linguistics and French major, said.
Meanwhile, Eliana Schulman, a senior psychology major, emphasized the importance of education when it comes to sustainability.
“I think that they should work to create required training or classes about sustainability,” Schulman said.
With the hope that all university vehicles will be switched to electric in 10 years and getting involved in renovations, such as the future updates to Pencader Dining Hall, Williams emphasized that Summerhays is already pushing the university towards a more sustainable way of operating.
Williams has many plans for how the office will interact with sustainability at the university in the coming years.
“One idea that I’ve said out loud is that maybe we can create a first-year module,” Williams said. “Every freshman goes through a series of different training exercises on all sorts of topics on how to survive college and be a productive member of the community, so could we have a module on sustainability actions and just being aware of what sustainability is?”
According to Williams, these actions all come with the hope that people will see the progress that the university has made and will continue to make in its quest for sustainability so that the low rating on the AASHE survey increases to more accurately reflect what Williams believes is the proper rank.
“It’s not to say that the University of Delaware isn’t doing a lot of really great things,” Williams said. “They are and have been for a number of years, but there was nobody to tell the story.”