Sustaining Swarthmore College’s Green Commitment

Aurora Winslade finished 2015 in Hawaii, and started 2016 in Swarthmore at Swarthmore College’s new sustainability director. She spent the last few years designing consumer energy efficiency programs for Hawaii Energy, a state program. In 2012, she launched the sustainability strategy for the multi-campus University of Hawaii system, where she helped develop a degree program that involved at-risk youth in organic farming and study and established the first systemwide UH Board of Regents Sustainability Policy. Winslade had come to Hawaii from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she became the university’s first sustainability director upon graduation, after an undergraduate career at Santa Cruz which involved substantial environmental activism. She grew up in California and Galveston, Texas. She’s a surfer, not a skier, but she has nonetheless settled happily this winter in a home in Morganwood in Swarthmore. The Swarthmorean interviewed her a day before the recent snowstorm, which she anticipated enthusiastically on behalf of her 7 and 2 year-old sons, who had never really seen snow.

1-29 aurora

What are your priorities as you begin to find your feet? My first priority is to get to know the community, build relationships, and understand Swarthmore College’s history. I’m a facilitator; I’m here to help the college community establish sustainability goals and turn them into actions. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and ideas. For instance, already we are moving ahead on a carbon charge — an internal fee structure where we will “bill ourselves” for our carbon emissions, paying into a fund that will help reduce emissions. We haven’t gotten into the mechanics, but I’d like to see at least part of it as a revolving fund, where we loan the money to ourselves in order to implement projects, and pay ourselves back to create a steady flow of capital.

The facilities staff here has been clever and thoughtful at finding creative, low-cost ways to reduce energy use. But there hasn’t been an opportunity to invest in larger scope projects. By having a fund, you start to make that possible. One big thing is transitioning from our heat plant system, which is high in carbon emissions, towards high efficiency boilers and water heaters.

I also have priorities to expand student, staff, and faculty engagement with sustainability, implement the Environmental Sustainability Framework [ESF], reduce our waste, and establish goals and associated metrics to track progress.

How is Swarthmore College doing with regard to sustainability? The college has done exceptionally well in its energy management. I was just talking with an outside consultant, Sightlines, which has worked with hundreds of colleges and they gave us high marks for our energy management. They just completed a national study finding that many campuses are really increasing their energy intensity per square foot, not to mention total energy use. It’s surprising and worrisome. But they put Swarthmore College in the top 10 or 20% among peer institutions for energy use reduction.

The ESF, approved by the Board of Managers, is a really excellent foundation on which to build. It’s impressive how much [her predecessor] Laura Cacho, the sustainability committee, facilities and everyone involved made progress. I’m still getting my mind wrapped around the College’s campus master plan for development [which prioritizes sustainability in new projects].

How involved in sustainability are the students at Swarthmore? This is a passionate, engaged student body. Our sustainability coordinator Melissa Tier works with 26 students who are Green Advisors here, doing education in dorms and managing the campus-wide composting program. We also look to coordinate with students, whether they’re doing projects in their classes or summer internships, managing the Good Foods student garden in collaboration with the Lang Center, or proposing ideas for solar energy generation on campus. There’s a very strong social justice mission and passion that is shared broadly amongst the student body.

What do you know about the Mountain Justice group [which protested last spring for the college to divest itself of fossil fuels investments]? I look forward to meeting with them; it’s really important to hear everyone’s perspective. The Board has said without question that they are not going to divest from fossil fuels. That’s not on the table, but the Board has instituted a fossil fuel-free investment fund as an alternative for donors. It will be part of my job to let people know this is an option. I’m also focusing on creating funding for carbon charge [in the college’s direct energy usage]. My hope is we can get to carbon neutrality before 2035, the year that we’ve committed to in our Climate Action Plan.

I will be on the Social Responsibility Committee of the Board; I sat in on SR’s last meeting via Skype. Carbon charge was discussed; they were enthused about it, and that was handed to me with the message “Make sure you move forward on this.”

Do you have a policy role for the college? Absolutely. It’s more of a recommending role, and reporting on what’s working, why or why not, whether there are policy solutions … [sometimes] policies need to be instituted so we can say “This is how we do business.” Greening operations is important, but the bigger impact is involving students who are the leaders of tomorrow in the process. We can all make change at different levels in different institutions; we can all have influence.

Leave a Reply