Washington, D.C.’s, institutions of higher learning are graduating to new heights of sustainability.
WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick | Photographed By Ryan Smith

The District of Columbia Mayor’s College and University Sustainability Pledge started with numbers. Nine, for example. That is the number of institutions of higher learning that signed the pledge in 2012 as part of then Mayor Vincent Gray’s quest to transform the nation’s capital into the “healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States.” And three: That is how many “Green Star” awards each college could earn under the program. Five, too—the number of sustainability achievements required to earn each star.


Then the numbers got fuzzier. Each school was supposed to set its own goals around issues like green building, water and energy reduction, education, research, purchasing, and transportation. A university could commit to reducing potable water use per square foot by X percent from a baseline figure, for example, or hosting Y major sustainability outreach events annually, or ensuring that Z percent of food and beverage dollars were spent on sustainably sourced food.


But it turned out that each school measured things differently. One school’s X percent decrease might have been another school’s Y, and one school’s definition of a “sustainability-focused” course (worth a point toward a Green Star) might vary ever so slightly from the rest of the group’s. “The universities spent a lot of time trying to figure out how they could collect data in a way that allowed everyone to share it,” says Dan Guilbeault, chief of sustainability and equity for the District’s Department of Energy & Environment. “That turned out to be a much bigger challenge than anyone anticipated. Everybody collects data just a little bit differently, and this discussion was really monopolizing a lot of the time of the pledge.”

So the members of the pledge revised their plans. Even if the colleges’ representatives could not compare their sustainability statistics with the rest of the group in a true apples-to-apples fashion, they could still share their progress with each other. Even if no one would be doling out Green Stars, they could still collaborate on projects and benefit from direct access to the District’s sustainability personnel.


“The group made a decision,” Guilbeault says. “Let’s stop trying to quantify all of these things, and let’s figure out what are the highest needs for the group overall. It’s more continuously working with each other, figuring out what’s possible, helping them find the right people to work with, and then talking to each other. It’s idea development, and then helping them through the process.”


“We started off really wanting it to be quantitative,” Guilbeault continues. “We wanted people to earn points and achieve different levels and all provide data in the same way. It has really turned much more into networking and positive peer pressure, with schools sharing how to do things and overcome challenges. It is also valuable for them to have direct access to the government.”


In short, the pledge quickly stopped being about numbers. It became about people instead.


Higher education as a sector, and particularly higher education in D.C., was already a leader in sustainability even before the 2012 pledge. “College and university campuses are their own microcosms, their own cities,” says Jaime Van Mourik, higher education strategic lead for U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “Things can be tested within their own infrastructure, their own communities, and that can really be an opportunity to beta test new concepts.”


“They’re the hotbeds of innovation and research,” she adds. “The mission is to educate the future leaders and citizens of this world. Topics like climate change and resiliency, it is all part of the purpose of this particular sector, why it exists—to make change, to connect to the local communities and regions, and to be a driver of what the future can look like.”


Audrey Stewart, sustainability director at Georgetown University, calls sustainability “a natural extension” of her university’s mission. “Sustainability has long been a priority at Georgetown,” she says. “It’s really been inspired by our Catholic and Jesuit heritage, and our core mission of educating students, creating knowledge, and doing good in the world.”


As is still the case today, some of the District’s universities were significantly ahead of others when it came to sustainable practices in 2012, in part because some schools simply lacked the capacity of their larger peers. While several institutions employ full-time sustainability directors, for example, some of the others rely on various faculty or facilities staffers to serve as a point person on green issues. Still, there was a feeling among leaders at some of the universities that the pledge must include all of the District’s major institutions of higher learning—or include none of them. Only through a unified approach, they felt, could the colleges announce themselves as leaders in the movement to make D.C. into a beacon of sustainability.

Top: Dan Guilbeault, chief of sustainability and equity for the District’s Department of Energy and Environment. Bottom: Audrey Stewart sustainability director at Georgetown University.

“All of us were already meeting on a regular basis to share best practices and figure out if there were ways to work together,” says Meghan Chapple, George Washington University’s sustainability director. “This was a way we thought we could have a stronger and more powerful presence and voice. It sent a signal to the D.C. constituents that this was a sector that was taking sustainability seriously.”


Ultimately, all nine major institutions of higher learning in the district—excepting for-profit schools and niche institutions such as seminaries—signed on to the pledge. The list included American University, Catholic University of America, Gallaudet University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, Trinity Washington University, the University of the District of Columbia, and Corcoran College of Art and Design (which has since merged with George Washington, bringing the current number of signatories to eight).


Van Mourik says the pledge, to her knowledge, is unique to Washington, D.C. The commitment, she says, is similar in some respects to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building standards but different in others. While the pledge allows the universities to publicly declare their dedication to sustainability, she notes that, unlike the LEED program, it lacks the originally envisioned third-party verification measures. The result is a sort of trade-off. On one hand, member institutions are not held accountable for their progress by an outside group. On the other hand, the pledge is open to colleges and universities that value sustainability but may lack the resources and staff needed to pull off innovative, large-scale green projects. So, the “superstar” institutions with large existing sustainability programs can collaborate with one another, while also sharing their knowledge with colleges and universities with less of a track record.



Left: Meghan Chapple, sustainability director of George Washington University.

“The leaders help to mentor those institutions that are maybe just starting their sustainability journey,” Van Mourik says. “Collectively, they’re all driving toward that future state that they have outlined in their vision. In a lot of cases, the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and now they’re looking at the harder aspects of implementing sustainability.”


Another result of the loose nature of the pledge is that it is impossible to measure its impact with any sort of precision. Sustainability leaders at various universities can quickly point to collaborative efforts, but it is sometimes difficult to decipher which bits of a project were spurred by the pledge, and which would have come about anyway through a school’s own efforts. Still, while those involved in the pledge might not be able to assign a numerical value to it—no counting of Green Stars or totaling the tonnage of carbon dioxide retention—they all seem to agree on one thing: It is working.


“The [former] mayor’s pledge plays a central role in our sustainability efforts,” says Fred Weiner, assistant vice president for administration at Gallaudet University. “A lot of what we do at Gallaudet is tied to the mayor’s pledge that we signed in 2012. It gave us some objectives to meet, and we feel like we’re a part of a team here in D.C.” Weiner directly credits the pledge with spurring the university to set goals around reductions in water and energy use, and says Gallaudet has consulted with other member institutions on how to improve practices like trash collection.

Capital Bikeshare at Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.


Right: Megan Zanella-Litke, American University’s sustainability director.

Georgetown’s Stewart says that, while “it’s hard to draw a line” between the signing of the pledge and specific university initiatives, the commitment has increased awareness of the school’s shared goals with other colleges and with the District itself. “The pledge gave us a more coherent framework to collaborate as a sector and to collaborate with our local city government,” explains Stewart. “I think it helped us become more aware of local sustainability priorities and how we could align with them.” For example, she says, the university is working to contribute to the District’s efforts surrounding stormwater runoff reduction. “In our new construction, we’re being really intentional about more effectively managing stormwater.”


George Washington’s Chapple says that the pledge “helped build a bridge” between universities and the D.C. government. “If we had a question or a problem around putting solar on rooftops because of a height restriction, the pledge gave us access to people who


could help us navigate that quagmire,” she says. In addition, she continues, the pledge keeps sustainability issues on the radar of university presidents and other top-level leaders. “I think it helps the leaders at a university see how they are performing alongside their peers in terms of sustainability on campus. It definitely creates a buzz, and it highlights things that people can be proud of.”


Chapple also credits the pledge with paving the path to a large joint purchase of renewable energy with American University. The partnership between the two schools, plus the George Washington University Hospital, will help the school derive more than half of all its electricity from solar power. In total, it will result in the purchase of 123 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of emissions-free electricity per year drawn from 243,000 solar panels at three sites—the equivalent of taking 12,500 cars off the road. Now, other D.C. universities are considering teaming up for similar renewable energy purchases.


“Having this group, this collective, really helped facilitate that joint purchase,” says Chapple. “We went out to bid together. We designed the scope for a large-scale renewable energy project together, because we wanted to maximize the scope of our joint purchasing power. Because we had this group, and because we had this access to the city government, we could start talking about creative solutions to climate change.”


If any D.C. university would have been fine going it alone, it is American University. The school has a well-deserved national reputation as a sustainability leader, and alone it accounts for more than 3 million of the approximately 8.7 million square feet of higher education LEED certified and registered space in the district. It is also one of a handful of universities across the country using the LEED Volume program to streamline certification. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here,” says Megan Zanella-Litke, American University’s sustainability director. “Just walking across campus, you notice it. It’s written literally on the buses—they have different facts about our sustainable commitments written on the buses. It’s just a nice, constant reminder that the university as a whole is committed to this.”


And yet, Zanella-Litke says that American has benefited significantly, not only from the joint energy purchase, but more generally from the collaborative framework formalized by the pledge—the ability to share ideas and work toward common goals in tandem with the rest of the District’s colleges. “Knowing that there are resources around the city that we can reach out to is beneficial,” she says. “One of the long-lasting impacts of the pledge is the network that it created, and the extended resources that we get to help move these goals forward.”


Universities, of course, are more than just assemblages of buildings with LEED Silver, Gold, and Platinum plaques displayed at their entrances. They exist to educate future generations of thinkers and problem-solvers. And that mission, higher education leaders say, is where the sector may ultimately have its most profound impact in the sphere of sustainability.


“The individuals who want something to happen on their campus, they wield the power of the students,” says Van Mourik. “If their colleagues either won’t listen, or they’re stuck in their ways, they get students there to rally around it. This is a generation of change makers. They’re so sick and tired of hearing about doom and gloom. They want to change it. And that’s what we need. We need to harness the power and enthusiasm of this untapped resource on campus.”


“The credit should really all go to the students,” echoes Zanella-Litke. “They really keep us moving forward as institutions. They really care about these places. They’re not just trying to enact change for the sake of change.”


Students, Chapple confirms, push for green practices in order to improve their campuses. “They want to say, my university did this, and I’m very proud of them,” she says. But also, she adds, students are looking to find ways to improve the larger world, to fix the environmental problems that they are inheriting from previous generations. “Our students know that they’re the ones who are going to have to live with this,” she says. “And they know that they’re going to have to create the solutions going forward.”

Georgetown University student Monica Mahal fills a water bottle at a bottle-filling station.

Eight Shades of Green


Among them, the eight members of the District of Columbia Mayor’s College and University Sustainability Pledge have launched countless green initiatives. Here’s a small sampling of what each school is up to.


American University. In 2010, American adopted a “zZero wWaste” policy, aimed at eventually reducing the amount of waste sent by the university to landfills and incinerators to nothing. As part of the effort, the school composts paper towel waste from all campus restrooms, as well as kitchen waste and coffee grounds from several campus eateries. The university also collects and recycles vehicle waste such as oil and batteries, has reduced food waste by eliminating trays in a dining hall, and converts kitchen grease into electricity and hot water via a Vegawatt generator.


The Catholic University of America. The university offers LEED Lab as an elective course within the school’s Master of Science in Sustainable Design Program. The course is also open to undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Architecture and Planning and other schools at the university. Students in the course assess the performance of existing buildings on campus, learning how to meter and track systems such as electricity, energy, water, and transportation. The students graduate from this course ready to take a LEED AP exam.


Gallaudet University. The Green Grow garden at Gallaudet produces fresh fruits and vegetables —including blueberries, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, watermelon, onions, and kale—that are both consumed in the student dining hall and sold at local farmers’ markets. The garden, a student-led effort meant to shine a spotlight on the importance of locally sourced food, is irrigated with reclaimed rainwater. The garden and associated student group also host fundraisers and educational events to promote sustainability.


Georgetown University. The university has already met its goal of cutting its carbon footprint in half from a 2006 baseline level before 2020—reaching a cumulative 70 percent reduction in 2104. A number of initiatives have contributed to the achievement, including a reduction in the number of printing devices on campus, a pledge by more than 400 faculty and staff members to help conserve energy, and a student-led solar panel project on six campus townhouses.


The George Washington University. Unveiled in 2011, the university’s GWater Plan is one of the most comprehensive plans for water sustainability adopted by any higher education institution in the U.S. The plan calls for a 25 percent reduction in potable water over 10 years from a 2008 baseline, a 10 percent increase in permeable space over ten years from a 2011 baseline, and a 50 percent reduction in university purchases of bottled water over five years from a 2011 baseline.


Howard University. The Howard University Central Campus Master Plan includes a number of changes aimed at increasing overall transportation efficiency to and from campus. These changes include adding bike sharing stations and increasing participation in alternative forms of transportation such as carpooling, walking, cycling, and public transit. University officials have also discussed increased telecommuting as a way to reduce car trips to campus, promote productivity, and allow employees to spend more time with family.


Trinity Washington University. The university’s technology services division has enacted a number of waste-reducing and energy-efficient practices, including making double-sided printing the default for many print jobs, purchasing efficient computers, recycling e-waste, and reducing the footprint of the university’s data center (and, therefore, reducing heating and cooling needs) through virtualization. During the 2013-2014 school year, double-sided printing alone saved more than 430,000 sheets of paper.


University of the District of Columbia. “Post-Oil City: The History of the City’s Future,” an exhibition of panels and workshops hosted at the university last year, explored how cities of the future might be able to achieve water and food security while also reducing long-distance transportation, increasing urban food production, and improving water capture and reuse. The exhibition culminated in a dialogue that included the leaders of the District’s Water and Sewer Authority and Department of the Environment.