College hosts first sustainability summit to discuss progress, problems

Last Friday, the college hosted its first annual sustainability summit, an event consisting of networking and poster presentations, discussion sessions, and updates on sustainability projects from various departments. Multiple student and faculty groups such as Green Advisors, the Office of Sustainability, and the Lang Center collaborated to organize the summit. The idea of the summit was originally proposed by President Valerie Smith and has been in the works since the start of the spring semester.

“Swarthmore has been an institution that believes in educating students for the common good. This type of education enables us to prepare students to lead lives of purpose that transform the world,” said President Smith during her opening speech at the summit. “Our campus’ wide, multi-faceted commitment to sustainability is a fundamental way that we express this deeply held belief.”

Later in her speech, Smith outlined a few major ways that the college promotes environmental sustainability, such as the new carbon charge, environmental guidelines that limit water and carbon usage for new buildings, and the addition of sustainability education led by Green Advisors during next year’s orientation.

Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade explained that the purpose of the sustainability summit was to connect campus groups together but not necessarily serve as a space to tackle complex problems like fossil fuel divestment.

“The purpose of this year’s summit is to share with the community the wide array of campus and community sustainability activities, gather input on what’s working and where we would like to improve our campus sustainability, and bring people together to celebrate our commitment to sustainability,” said Winslade. She later mentioned, “it is not a space where we attempt to solve complex issues, but the ideas and energy will hopefully contribute to our ongoing efforts and help people feel more connected.”

The first session, which consisted of student groups, administration, and other community members, included groups like Campus Facilities, SGO Environmental Impact Committee, Swarthmore Co-op, Swarthmore Borough Environmental Advisory Council, and Mountain Justice.

Following the first session of poster presentations and networking, discussions began for both students and faculty aimed at finding areas where the college could improve its sustainability initiatives. During the student session, most of the issues raised included signs about compost and recycling in addition to the amount of food waste in Sharples.

In the faculty discussion sessions, many expressed a desire to expand connections with outside community members and alumni to continue the college’s sustainability initiatives.

The summit concluded with updates by various departments and community members on their sustainability efforts. In all, around 20 people made speeches. English Literature Professor and Environmental Studies Coordinator Betsy Bolton made a notable speech where she mentioned that with help from other individuals in the Tri-co, the college is on the brink of creating an environmental studies major instead of just a minor.

Other announcements included the creation of a digital interactive map of the college to tell stories of various community members’ civic engagement, the Office of Financial Aid’s move to paperless applications, and the addition of three geothermal wells over the next five years to power the new dorms by PPR and Whittier Place.  

“I think one of the challenges of climate change is that there’s a lot of talk and a lot of inaction,” said Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown during his speech about next year’s new carbon charge. “I think it’s so important to start thinking about how what we do could be modeled broader. We have generated considerable interest from peer institutions and it’s kind of fun to be out in front,” he noted. “Several institutions have approached us and as we model this, we’ll both learn and be able to teach others.”

Winslade later shared over email her personal vision for the college’s overall sustainability efforts in the future.

My vision is that Swarthmore becomes a model for transformative change and deep integration of sustainability in learning, living, and operations,” said Winslade. “I envision that we can take the next steps into a carbon neutral, healthy, and vibrant future in which we educate our students to be sustainability leaders, collaborate with surrounding communities to be regenerative stewards of our natural resources, and facilitate the ’just’ sustainability movement.”

The college has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2035, meaning that the net effect of the college’s operations wouldn’t put more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Overall, student response to the sustainability summit was positive.

I thought the summit was a huge step in the right direction for sustainability at Swarthmore. To my knowledge, there has yet to be anything of its kind,” said Brittni Teresi ‘19, one of the student organizers of the sustainability summit. “It was a great opportunity for students to share their ideas with each other, get connected with other environmental groups in the community, and hear about the less advertised environmental efforts on campus.”

Aurora Winslade later concluded that she hopes the sustainability summit will become an annual event.

Ganesh Setty

Ganesh studies economics & art history, and hopes to be a financial journalist one day. He enjoys reading non-fiction, running, tennis, and collecting gray shirts. Seriously. He has a lot.

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