Campus & Community

Interview: Chancellor Robert Coombe discusses sustainability

Q: Under your leadership, DU has taken a number of steps to become a better environmental citizen, including expanding recycling, purchasing wind energy, building “green” and signing onto the college Climate Commitment. Why is DU’s commitment to sustainability so important to you?

A: It’s important to me personally, but more to the point, it’s important to our students and faculty — really to the entire University community, including our alumni. Universities are agents of change, and when it comes to an appropriate response to climate change and sustainability, we should be on the leading edge.

We should be using our intellectual assets to develop and test new technologies that can better protect the environment and mitigate its degradation. We should be studying sociological and cultural responses to environmental change in order to recommend appropriate individual and collective behaviors. We should be working on new business models that can allow our economy to thrive as we respond in some positive way to climate change and the requirements of sustainability. As an independent nonprofit business, we should show how the University can thrive while aggressively addressing these issues, as an example to others.


Q: How do DU’s sustainability efforts contribute to the University’s educational mission and commitment to the public good?

A: Our response to sustainability issues has demonstrated the close interaction between faculty and students at DU — a partnership that lies at the heart of good teaching and learning. I was very pleased that so many of our students participated in the sustainability movement that developed at the University last year (“Sustainable DU”), which  ultimately resulted in me signing the Presidents Climate Commitment and the establishment of our Sustainability Council.

This is going to be a great learning experience for our students, one that couples student engagement in real issues with deep classroom learning about how to reasonably interpret those issues. This is one of those areas in which we can serve both our students and the public good by graduating capable, well-informed men and women whose lives can influence the future and by using our intellectual assets to develop new ideas that can have a direct impact.


Q: What statement are we making as a university by becoming a signatory to the Presidents Climate Commitment?

A: We are stating that we understand that as a university, it’s our responsibility to be a first-responder, a change agent of the sort I mentioned earlier. There was a negotiation that took place before I signed the Presidents Climate Commitment, an agreement among the leaders of many colleges and universities that requires us to work toward “climate neutrality,” since there is considerable uncertainty about what that term really means. We already buy wind power for nearly 30 percent of our electrical consumption, and our overall energy consumption per square foot of building space has dropped considerably as we’ve invested in more efficient and effective technologies. We’re not interested, though, in getting into the market for trading carbon credits to make it to a zero-carbon footprint in some nominal way. We will continue to improve and move toward neutrality as appropriate, truly renewable technologies are developed, and that’s what we agreed to.


Q: As you see it, what are the most important manifestations of DU’s commitment to sustainability?

A: There are many physical manifestations on campus, like our aggressive approach to reducing energy consumption, the manner in which we maintain the campus, and the fact that we’ve been building LEED certified (or certifiable) buildings for years. We’re hoping that Nagel Hall will be our second major LEED Gold building when it opens this coming fall. The most important manifestation, though, is in the minds and lives of our students. Whatever their personal philosophical or political perspectives may be about climate change and sustainability (and these are political issues), we want those perspectives to be well informed and based on deep understanding of facts and data. We hope to be graduating the leaders in business, government and nonprofits who will move America and the world toward an appropriate and effective response to these issues.


Q: Being “green” can be an expensive proposition, at least in the short term. How does the University balance sustainability with fiscal realities?

A: Being green is not necessarily more expensive, but it is different and change always requires some investment. As an institution, though, we are particularly good at change, much more nimble and agile than most academic institutions I know. We have terrific long-range fiscal planning processes that are tightly linked to strategic academic planning, and because of these processes we’ve been able to develop and implement large-scale academic projects over periods of several years. I believe that these same processes, and the management culture that supports them, will allow us to move vigorously on sustainability.


Q: What’s next for DU on the sustainability front?

A: Look for the announcement of our new Sustainability Institute, a wonderful interdisciplinary project linking the Daniels College of Business, the Sturm College of Law and the Graduate School of International Studies.


Q: Are we doing enough? Do you believe that the University’s efforts will really make a difference?

We’re moving quite aggressively on many fronts, from campus maintenance to the curriculum. The most important outcome, though, is in the lives of our students and the other members of the University community, including faculty, staff and alumni. I’m convinced that our community, acting together, can make a real difference. After all, we’re talking about 125,000 people joined by their common connection to the University. If one thinks about the ideas that can flow from that group — a singularly creative and entrepreneurial group — and how they might in turn affect the lives of many others, the impact can be enormous.


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