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Panel discussing sustainability at the Academic Council

The panel discussing sustainability at Stanford included President John Hennessy; Fahmida Ahmed, associate director of sustainability and energy management; Joseph Stagner, executive director of sustainability and energy management; Shirley Everett, senior associate vice provost of Residential and Dining Enterprises; and Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

At Stanford, President Hennessy focuses campus attention on sustainability progress

Sustainability progress – both academic and operational – was the focus of President John Hennessy's annual address to the Academic Council on Thursday. The president also praised improvements in undergraduate education and recognized faculty excellence as he outlined university advancements over the past academic year.

L.A. Cicero President John Hennessy

President John Hennessy delivering his annual address to the Academic Council on Thursday

Faculty, staff and students will likely begin to see solar panels appearing on about a dozen building roofs throughout campus as the university continues its efforts to embrace sustainability in campus operations.

Those installations are yet another step reflecting the emphasis Stanford has placed over the past several decades on enhancing both academic and operational programs in sustainabilityfrom developing new centers for research and teaching to designing more efficient campus energy and water systems.

As a result of that progress, President John Hennessy focused campus attention on wide-ranging issues of sustainability through his annual address to the Academic Council on Thursday.

While university researchers are looking to address such worldwide sustainability challenges as recovering clean water from wastewater, Stanford staff has been developing guidelines that result, for instance, in more efficient and sustainable buildings. Hennessy said students have been contributing as well, pursuing sustainability through such projects as building the Start.Home prototype for the Solar Decathlon competition. In addition, the university is communicating its values through the recent establishment of the Bright Award to recognize achievement in global conservation.

Although the university's overall initiatives are important, Hennessy reminded those in the audience, "For this university to operate in the most sustainable way possible depends on the action of all of us as individuals. We want to be a model."

Hennessy invited Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences, to join him in a discussion of academic progress in sustainability programs. Also addressing campus operational sustainability were Shirley Everett, senior associate vice provost of Residential and Dining Enterprises; Joseph Stagner, executive director of sustainability and energy management; and Fahmida Ahmed, associate director of sustainability and energy management.

Sustainability 3.0

Matson defined sustainability as "meeting the needs for people today and the future – for food, water, energy, education, health care and so on – in ways that protect and sustain the life support systems of the planet."

She added, "It's about meeting our needs, as well as those of our children and grandchildren. It's about intergenerational well-being."

Matson outlined the history of Stanford's sustainability academic programs, starting with the creation of the Earth Systems undergraduate program in the 1990s. She divided campus progress into three phases: Sustainability 1.0, 2.0 and today's 3.0.

In the 2000s, thanks to leadership from Hennessy and faculty members, Matson said, the Initiative on Environment and Sustainability was successfully pursued, resulting in new faculty hires, the founding of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy and construction of the seminal Yang and Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building. At the same time, Matson said, students began to mobilize around sustainability issues, forming such groups as Students for a Sustainable Stanford and the Green Living Council.

Today, Stanford is entering what Matson called the Sustainability 3.0 period, based on university-wide strategic planning in 2012 and the work of the Provost's Committee on Sustainability. Academic seeds planted decades ago are beginning to take root and flourish. As an example, she cited new research projects in Africa, where scholars are working at the intersection of human health, sanitation and water resources. On the Stanford campus, she cited the Codiga Resource Recovery Center, which will be built off Bonair Siding. The center, which is an outgrowth of faculty research funded by the Woods Institute, will test water-recovery research and accelerate commercial development of promising new technology, using Stanford as a model. Looking to the future, she said the work of the Center on Food Security and the Environment and the Center for Ocean Solutions is likely to be influential, as is solar cell and high-performance battery research at the Precourt Institute.

"We've come a long way, and we have high engagement in our faculty, students and community in this crucial area," Matson said.

Campus operations

Stanford also has made progress in the sustainability of campus operations, thanks in large part to the university's 2009 Energy and Climate Plan, according to Stagner.

Stagner thanked faculty, staff and students for their patience with construction associated with the key component to that plan – the Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI) program. The wide-ranging project will shift campus operations away from a reliance on fossil fuel while also improving reliability, reducing cost and increasing sustainability.

Stagner said SESI will be completed in 2015 and will enable the university to remove the Cogeneration Plant, used since 1987 for virtually all campus energy needs. When complete, SESI will reduce Stanford's carbon emissions by 50 percent and water use by about 15 percent above the 21 percent reduction Stanford has already achieved over the past 15 years. Stagner believes SESI will result in Stanford being "one of the most energy-efficient universities in the country."

In addition to the installation of solar energy panels throughout campus, Stagner hopes to pursue a plug-in vehicle network for Stanford and to better leverage the university's ability to purchase electricity from the power grid.

Such innovations have led to increasing recognition of Stanford as a leader in sustainability, according to Ahmed, who has helped steer efforts to assess and report Stanford's progress. Ahmed said community outreach and involvement is also helping Stanford be a "living laboratory" for sustainable programming.

"We play an important leadership role," she said. "Stanford is recognized as always at the top of things."

For example, Everett stressed the sustainability of food practices on campus, where her staff serves about 6 million meals per year and houses about 50,000 residents and visitors. Residential and Dining Enterprises pursues purchasing practices that, she said, bring food to campus that is "local, organic, humane, fair trade, family owned." She said 56 percent of produce is seasonal and sourced locally.

The department also works to reduce waste by, for instance, eliminating trays and reducing the size of plates. It is increasingly developing educational opportunities with faculty and students.

A tremendous year

The president also used the Academic Council meeting to report on university progress during the past academic year, ranging from enhancements to undergraduate education to recognition of faculty accomplishments to continued construction of the new arts district.

Hennessy highlighted progress made in implementing recommendations made by the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford over the past year, including the introduction of two Integrated Learning Environments in the Burbank residence facility. The new programs focus on the arts and on the history of scientific ideas and inventions.

Hennessy also highlighted the new Joint Majors Program, which fosters greater collaboration among departments. Last month, two joint majors – computer science and English, and computer science and music – were approved on a pilot basis. He expressed hope that faculty members will continue to innovate under the new program.

Undergraduate applications to Stanford continue to rise and set a record of 42,167 applicants this year. The trend, Hennessy noted, ties into ongoing discussions about expanding the size of the undergraduate student body. For the first time in many years, Stanford will add to undergraduate housing through a new residence in the Manzanita complex and an addition to Lagunita Court.

Hennessy noted that students are attracted to the excellence of faculty members. He called 2013-14 "a tremendous year for our faculty." He specifically noted the awarding of MacArthur Fellowships to David Lobell and Kevin Boyce and Nobel Prizes to Thomas Südhof and Michael Levitt.

During his address to the Academic Council, Hennessy also reported on:

  • Advances in multidisciplinary research and education, emphasizing the success of Bio-X and emerging initiatives in the neurosciences and chemistry and biology. Multidisciplinary collaboration, he said, is "a core strength for us and an important part of how we will be contributing to the world."
  • Success experienced by the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, or SEED, in its inaugural year, as well as the new Global Development and Poverty Initiative.
  • Continued development across campus, but especially in the new arts district, including the Bing Concert Hall, the Anderson Collection at Stanford University, and the McMurtry Building for the Department of Art and Art History.
  • Completion of the Science and Engineering Quadrangle, anchored by the Yang and Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building, which has earned LEED Platinum Certification and is a building Hennessy said "works well in theory and works well in practice."
  • Renewal of the Old Chemistry Building into laboratories and classrooms for undergraduate biology, chemistry and mathematics education.
  • Stanford+Connects, a program to strengthen connections with alumni that is making a 16-city tour around the world.