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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Linking Green Theory and Practice in the University

Greening the Campus

by Steve Breyman, Rensselaer County Greens

How can college and university faculty and students realize Green values in their work? How can they engage in Green action in their formal institutional roles? Some Green faculty members conduct research—on social movements, for example—with direct relevance for Greens as activists and party politicians. Green students construct campus organizations to press Green campaigns. Green professors teach courses about Green philosophy and politics. Academic Greens intervene in on- and off-campus controversies as Greens. This article briefly reports on a couple of parts of one comprehensive response to the existential Green questions unfolding at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, since the early 1990s. I begin with a description of the mobilization of EcoLogic, the student environmental organization, source of many participants, abundant ideas, and much energy for the Greening of Rensselaer Initiative (GRI). The second section describes our current greening projects. I conclude with some reflections about contemporary Green life on US campuses.

Building a green student organization

A strong Green student organization is essential for extending the Green social critique and inserting Green action into campus politics.

EcoLogic, our student environmental organization, has been at the center of the Greening of Rensselaer Initiative. Through fundraising, negotiations with administrators, and much hard work we have made genuine progress toward building an environmentally responsible university, publishing a newsletter, establishing a recycling program, building an organic garden and greenhouse, and several other projects.

Our numerous victories have generally been hard-fought. EcoLogic ran afoul of Student Union rules against Union-funded groups participating in political action or controversies for its opposition to the Green Island incinerator, and for having Green Party links on its web site. The group was placed on "probation" by Union officials.

The student-run Environmental Education Center (EEC) has had difficulty finding a home. The constant pressure for office space bodes ill for the EEC to ever find a permanent home. The student-held Greening Coordinator (GC) and Water Conservation Coordinator (WCC) positions have undergone some transformation and difficulties. The latter has been transformed simply into the Conservation Coordinator to allow the person to work on energy issues as well as water conservation.

Greening the campus

In the past two years, Ecological Economics, Values & Policy Program (EEVP) students-those at the forefront of campus greening-have initated a number of on- and off-campus service learning projects. Our current on-campus work revolves around five overlapping projects:

EEVP majors or Professional Masters students select an existing project or initiate their own as soon as they arrive, and see the project through to completion (likely to take several years). The aim is for students to leave legacies upon graduation making Rensselaer a model of sustainability.

The Local Food project aims to forge partnerships between local organic farms and Rensselaer's dining halls.

The Local Food project aims to forge partnerships between local organic farms and Rensselaer's dining halls. We are working with the Albany-based Regional Farm and Food Project to identify the most reliable local suppliers and the appropriate local agricultural foods. The goal of this project is to pioneer the role of the large institution in establishing a sustainable food system. Localization of the farmer-consumer relationship is a crucial first step towards this goal. This project has been slow going due to complexities stemming from Marriott Sodexho management of our dining halls, and their reliance on cheap wholesalers.

The Compost project aims to establish a yard and food waste compost program to reduce the solid waste stream and provide soil amendments to reduce cost and dependence of campus landscaping on external suppliers. Rensselaer administrators approved a pilot project at one dining hall where processing normally dumped down food disposals, will be collected and deposited at the compost site (students are now figuring out how this will be done). Students have custom designed a system to meet campus needs (using two in-vessel composters).

Campus greening gives Greens a positive outlet for their creativity and energies

The Sustainable Landscaping project aims to transform the campus landscape from one dependent on annuals, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, frequent watering and weeding, to one dominated by perennials, xeriscape, and chemical-free native plants. Students in environmental studies classes conducted initial investigations of sustainable landscaping. EEVP students built on this foundation, and implemented their findings to restore Schumacher Park. Administrators approved of the student design, agreed to foot the ten thousand dollar cost, and will help us install the sustainable landscape.

Rensselaer purchasing officials are cooperating with students working on the Green Purchasing project. It is not enough to recycle; institutions must purchase products with high post-consumer recycled content. Institute purchasing must prefer products that conserve energy, minimize pollution and excess packaging, and encourage reduction and reuse. EEVP students explored alternative products, investigated regulations governing campus procurement, designed green purchasing guidelines, and hired a full-time student Green Purchasing Coordinator for one year. The Green Purchasing Coordinator worked in the purchasing department, and served as a resource person for students working on this project. While other universities are working to green their purchasing, there is to our knowledge no college which has hired a dedicated Green Purchasing Coordinator.

Rensselaer's Green Web complex is a significant and growing resource for students and others all over the world. The goal of this project is to demonstrate how the internet and the world wide web can be used to advance sustainability.


Campus greening enables us to tangibly improve important physical and intellectual spaces. Greens are able, though not without sometimes frustrating hurdles, to put their theories and values into action. Colleges and universities are both congenial and frustrating institutions for Greens. Tenured Green faculty are generally protected by academic freedom (untenured professors proceed at their own peril). Junior faculty need mentors in positions of power. Green students are generally protected by the service they provide their institutions. Their efforts are enhanced when embraced by student governments and college administrations.

Campus greening gives Greens a positive outlet for their creativity and energies. Constructing alternative institutions and social relationships permits us to have a direct hand in the development of sustainable societies. Campus greening makes it a little easier being Green.

Steve Breyman, a political scientist, is Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he directs the Ecological Economics, Values and Policy Program . He is a founding member of the Rensselaer County Greens, member of the Legislative Committee of the New York State Greens, manager of the Green Forum (the listserv of the Green Party of New York State), speech writer for Al Lewis's 1998 gubernatorial campaign, and a 2000 presidential delegate for Joel Kovel.

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