Changing Colors: The Rose and Gray is Going Green

By Sarah M. Palermo '06

Moments before they were announced as graduates of Vassar College, the class of 2007 made a declaration. Speaking with one loud, united voice, the class announced that the age of a greener Vassar is quickly approaching.

In numbers the feat is astonishing. The class raised $11,348 from more than 71 percent of the class — the highest participation rate for a senior-class gift in 40 years — for the purchase of a solar-panel energy-harvesting system for the college. Inspired by the idea, the Vassar Club of Atlanta pledged $16,500 toward the project, helping the class purchase a system that will provide 7.5 kilowatt hours, enough energy to power 70 laptops for an academic year.

Like grass on the quad in April, patches of “green” are sprouting across the Vassar campus: the class of 1955 purchased wind power equivalent to their energy usage on campus during their 50th reunion in 2005 to put back into the energy grid; the Students With A Purpose: Recycling (SWAPR) program, a personal favorite of President Catharine Bond Hill, is growing stronger every year, providing students a chance to recycle furniture and other household goods used during their stay in college housing by trading with other students or the local community; the Department of Buildings and Grounds is developing construction standards for new work that will be guided by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System; and even the toaster in the Retreat, which used to run continuously during operating hours, has been replaced with a more energy efficient version that only runs when needed.

Going green can mean many things, and when the VQ looked across campus it was easy to see some of the other areas in which members of the Vassar community show their commitment to a sustainable future.

Incandescent Bulb
Incandescent Bulb
A Bright Idea

Ross Patrick Keogh ’07 served as an intern with the College Committee on Sustainability. The committee, at six years old, is one of the longest standing of its kind in the country at a college and brings together administrators, faculty, staff, and students to address campus sustainability. During his senior year, Keogh volunteered through the committee to work with Kiki Williams, director of facilities operations in the Department of Buildings and Grounds, on a little project she had started.

“Trying to identify the reasons for the rising costs of energy usage, we found that switching the lightbulbs to compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs was the easiest thing to change,” Williams said. “Lightbulbs are one of the few pieces of equipment that can save energy and require absolutely no training.” CFL bulbs typically use one-third of the energy of regular incandescent bulbs, and though they cost more, pay for themselves in savings in only 13 months.

So Williams set out to replace incandescent bulbs in dorm rooms across campus with more energy-efficient CFL bulbs. What the project required, though, was manpower, which Williams couldn’t spare from her staff. Enter Keogh. Keogh stepped in and organized friends from the Terrace Apartments (TA) and volunteers from the Vassar Democrats and Vassar Greens, the student environmental organization. “We would knock on students’ doors and just charm and talk our way in,” he said of how he and the 35–40 volunteers convinced students, who pay no electricity bills in campus housing, to take a few minutes and change their lightbulbs. In one academic year, the volunteers managed to change every single lightbulb in senior housing — an impressive 5,500 bulbs.

“Ross would call my office and say ‘Kiki, can I get some bulbs over to TA-27? We’re going to change those now,’ or he would stockpile them at his TA so they would be ready whenever he and some volunteers got a chance to walk around to some new houses,” Williams recalled.

Practicing What He Preaches

Compact Fluorescent Bulb
Compact Fluorescent Bulb
Many greening initiatives on campus, like the lightbulb swap, were started or encouraged by the work of the College Committee on Sustainability, first chaired and still guided by Associate Professor of Earth Science Jeff Walker. Walker sees the committee not as an originator of mandates: “We are there to help the college community work together to study the problem, to serve as an incubator for discussions and ideas,” he said.

Certainly Walker himself has helped these ideas grow, bringing more than 10 years of experience running a small farm. With his family — his wife, Kathy, and their seven children — Walker lives in a home heated entirely by wood stoves on a 15-acre farm in Hyde Park, New York, just a few miles north of campus. The farm’s proximity to campus allows Walker to bicycle to campus as often as he can, spring through fall.

At the farm, two horses power the mower for cutting hay. Goats and sheep provide meat, milk, and wool for clothes. The family also keeps chickens, ducks, and turkeys and raises their own vegetables, which they can and freeze to last throughout the winter. While the average home in Dutchess County, according to Walker, uses 30–40 kilowatt hours of electricity each day, the Walker home and farm consumes, on average, only six. Walker said the home and farm are run on what is called “contemporary solar energy,” energy recently captured from the sun by plants. When eaten by people or animals, the plants transfer the energy to us to do work. The plants are more easily replaced than fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, which exist in limited quantity and pollute the environment when burned.

Think Global, Eat Local

Campus Dining has been quietly introducing sustainability efforts for years, according to Maureen King, the department’s director — often following suggestions made directly by students.

Several years ago, the Vassar Greens included a reusable plastic mug in the freshmen orientation package, and Campus Dining agreed to offer a 10-percent discount to any student who used it instead of a disposable cup.

In 2006 the Greens received a donation of 1,500 reusable plastic food containers and added them to the orientation package, too, and the Campus Dining discount now extends to the use of those containers as well. Now nearly all paper waste in Campus Dining has been eliminated and what can’t be eliminated is recycled, according to King, and 40 percent of postconsumer waste is composted behind the scenes.

The food students eat at Vassar is changing, too. Ken Oldehoff, Campus Dining’s director of marketing and sustainability, began working in 2002 with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Millbrook, New York, on a pilot program that would bring more local foods to the plates of campus diners.

At first Oldehoff himself drove from farm to farm around the region, gathering local produce. He found that not only would buying local food reduce pollution, it would contribute to an effort to preserve the valuable open farm space of the mid-Hudson Valley. “These local farmers are really heroes,” he said. “They are saving a way of life and the land of this area. Many are supporting three or four families with the jobs they create.”

Starting with just local apples, the program now includes peaches, watermelons, vegetables for soup, and local yogurt and milk products. During peak months, Oldehoff estimates that 30 percent of the food offered on campus is from a local farm, and this fall Campus Dining sponsored a local foods challenge, to see if students could eat only locally grown foods for an entire week.

Campus Dining hopes to extend the offerings past peak months and develop ways, such as freezing, to bring local food into ACDC even in winter.

Making the Grade

King and Oldehoff say they receive a few email messages every year from students across the country who hear about Vassar’s Campus Dining initiatives and want to start a local foods movement at their own school. “We tell them that the most important thing they can do in the beginning is to get the administration, the people in our jobs at their school, on board,” Oldehoff said.

Indeed the greatest strength at Vassar is that the administration is on board to study and think about how all choices made on campus can be as green as the campus’ lush landscape. To that end, in a small yet remarkably effective recent move, all thermostats in buildings across campus were lowered two or three degrees, saving significant amounts of energy without adversely affecting the community. There’s also the ongoing effort to rid campus lawns of pesticides and herbicides.

The task of running a 140-year-old campus with an eye to this sort of detail isn’t always easy. The college did receive a “B” grade in the Endowment Institute’s College Sustainability Report Card in 2007 that places the college ahead of 85 other colleges and universities reviewed in the sample of 100, which includes many of our peer institutions — but things can still be improved. Professor of Anthropology Lucy Johnson, the new chair of the College Committee on Sustainability, knows the work is far from over. "The committee needs to keep the pressure on," she said. "Now that we have electricity monitors in the dorms, we will be having a contest between dorms to see which one can reduce electricity most in the period of a month, and will then extend this to academic buildings. By next year we intend to raise our grade to an 'A!'"

Off campus, many Vassar alumnae/i are also doing their part to go green. Visit www.aavc.vassar.edu/vq/articles/ to read about a few.

Palermo works as a staff reporter for The Keene [NH] Sentinel, where she covers everything from fires and floods to a 15-year-old’s miraculous recovery from a coma.