LEED-ing The Way

Students and faculty attempt to convince USF's administration that "green" is the way to go.

click to enlarge BIG GREEN: "Because I'm used to working with large slow-moving creatures," says USF grad student and former whale researcher Trey McDonald, "it was a perfect fit to work with the university." - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
BIG GREEN: "Because I'm used to working with large slow-moving creatures," says USF grad student and former whale researcher Trey McDonald, "it was a perfect fit to work with the university."

On Oct. 11, over 200 students and faculty packed a University of South Florida-Tampa lecture hall for a forum on green building. Six panelists spoke on topics ranging from environmental curriculum to energy-saving measures, including Tampa City Councilman John Dingfelder and USF's graduate school dean Delcie Durham. All the panelists touched on how students could help "green" USF's campus.

But there was one thing missing from this all-encompassing talk on sustainability: the USF administration.

This was not lost on panelist Dr. Charles Kibert, a University of Florida professor who successfully led the green-building efforts on that campus eight years ago.

"If you don't have support from the top, it's not going to happen," he told those gathered. "Grassroots campaigns don't work."

At the other end of the panelists' table sat Trey McDonald, an USF environmental science and policy graduate student who has embarked on his own quest to move USF toward a greener campus. He's undeterred by the lack of administration presence.

"I started out in marine mammal biology — I was doing large whale research," he said. "Because I'm used to working with large slow-moving creatures, it was a perfect fit to work with the university."

Sitting at the kitchen table of his St. Petersburg home, McDonald slides his scattered pages of research aside and closes his laptop. It's been 19 months since he began researching his thesis, gathering information on the environmental practices of other campuses across the country and comparing them to USF's sustainability measures (or lack thereof). McDonald, 38, already has a sizable amount of knowledge in this field — he works for the environmental consulting firm Vanasse-Hangen-Brustlin — but the sheer amount of information on "green" issues is daunting.

"I've bitten off quite a bit," he admits.

McDonald's preliminary research is striking: USF, already the ninth largest university in the country with 44,000 students, is expected to grow by nearly a third in the next eight years. During the same period, the campus is expected to build 20 new buildings. Yet, despite the growth and added costs, USF's master plan hardly addresses sustainability.

"That's why I wanted to get involved," McDonald says. "It makes economic sense as much as it makes environmental sense."

There are no indications in the master plan that any upcoming buildings will be LEED-certified (that is, approved for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design by the U.S. Green Building Council). Nor are there plans to update the campus' landscaping for more native xeriscaping. In addition, McDonald notes, USF has not signed the American College and University Climate Commitment in which signatories pledge to take active steps to reduce emissions on campus. The presidents of six other Florida campuses have already signed on to the agreement.

In November, the Sustainable Endowments Institute recently gave USF a "D-" in its annual College Sustainability Report Card (the University of Florida received a B-). The report criticized the university's lack of green buildings and progress on energy conservation.

"I've talked to a lot of people [in the university]," McDonald says. "There is nobody at the school that's against greening the campus. It's just a matter of priorities and budgets ... I think in this day and age this has to become a priority, not the priority, but a priority."

McDonald notes the campus is ahead in some areas like transportation — the Bull Runner bus line has run on biodiesel fuel since 2002 — and in offering curriculum that focuses on green building and sustainability issues. But the most important step, he says, is creating an Office of Sustainability that would oversee future efforts. All the other universities he researched have this component.

Other environmental groups on campus agree. The Emerging Green Builders and the USF Sustainability Partners — two campus organizations led by students and faculty — are focusing on the need for the Office of Sustainability.

"Seriously, I think we could do a lot more [about sustainability issues]," says Jack Bevilacqua, a grad student and co-chair of the EGB. "Unfortunately, it's up to the administration to really step up to the plate. All the research is out there — it's about time."

USF spokesman Ken Gullette says the university is making headway on greening the campus from improvements in lighting and water conservation in buildings to expanding recycling. But as far as specific initiatives like an Office of Sustainability, he says money is a factor.

"Frankly, this school year we're struggling to provide education for students," he says, adding 75 faculty positions remain unfilled this year.

"It's evolving here and ... it is an important part of our strategic plan," Gullette says. "I do believe this is going to be a more important priority for us."

Shannon Bassett, a faculty advisor for the EGB, says USF President Judy Genshaft recently responded to a letter they sent concerning the need for green reforms on campus. They're awaiting a meeting with the university's facilities director.

"I don't expect this to happen overnight or even in five to 10 years," McDonald says about greening the USF campus. "But we can start approaching it. The sooner it gets started, the sooner these positive effects will start."

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