(February 6, 2014)
Think of UNC Asheville as a garden.
That’s how Sonia Marcus, the university’s first director of sustainability, views the environmental sustainability efforts at UNC Asheville. Individual sustainability initiatives—for instance, the ground-source heating and cooling systems in campus buildings, or class projects addressing environmental issues—are the fruits and flowers in the garden.
“We have something very beautiful at UNC Asheville that has grown up on its own over the years,” Marcus said. “The difference now is we’re bringing in a gardener who is going to tend the soil, water and feed the plants, and develop a plan for how we can make that garden as productive and beautiful as it can possibly be.”
Flourishing from Student Work
There was one particular flower in UNC Asheville’s garden of sustainability that caught Marcus’ eye—the Student Environmental Center.
“The most exciting and remarkable thing about UNC Asheville from a sustainability perspective is the history of student leadership,” Marcus said. “Hands down.”
The independent structure, budget, and governance of the Student Environmental Center (SEC) is rare among universities, Marcus said. So is the long history of student activism on environmental issues through organizations like ASHE (Active Students for a Healthy Environment) and the Student Government Association.
“It’s really remarkable,” she continued. “And it’s a treasure here at UNC Asheville.”
Among other projects, the SEC maintains several community gardens on campus, runs the FreeStore to give students a venue to “free cycle,” and coordinates “Eco Reps,” a program established to involve student volunteers in on-campus projects. Other student-led sustainability initiatives include the annual Green Fest, the installation of water bottle refilling stations, and the creation of a forest permaculture garden.
Building Successful Sustainability
UNC Asheville has woven sustainability into its strategic plan, setting benchmarks for economic and social sustainability, as well as environmental sustainability across campus.
As vice chancellor for finance and campus operations, John Pierce is involved in one major pillar of environmental sustainability at UNC Asheville: facilities. Campus features such as ground-source heating and cooling systems, the solar thermal systems, native landscaping, rainwater harvesting, and “gray” water loops—reusing wastewater that can be recycled on-site—all contribute to the university’s sustainability “garden.” UNC Asheville also has an integrated digital control system that moderates peak energy consumption on campus.
“It’s who we are,” explained Pierce, who helped to coordinate efforts to create the director of sustainability position. “It’s engrained in the fabric of the university.”
Sustainability in the Classroom
Another important pillar is the curricular and academic component, according to Marcus. She plans to work with faculty members to recognize, celebrate and enhance the curricular offerings of UNC Asheville that focus on sustainability issues.
"Great efforts are already being made by our faculty to bring environmental sustainability issues into the classroom,” said Jane Fernandes, provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs. “The creation of the director of sustainability position is vital in supporting those efforts and making environmental sustainability an integral part of the academic offerings at UNC Asheville."
Marcus already has a few ideas on how to make that happen.
“It could be supporting faculty members that are interested in exploring new and interesting ways to draw sustainability questions into their coursework,” Marcus said. “It could be co-sponsoring campus visits by scholars or community organizers to enhance our general learning community; it could be creating and implementing specific professional development opportunities for faculty members to learn more about what other faculty members have been doing in their areas; it could be helping faculty members integrate campus projects into their coursework.”
A Vision for a Green Campus
Marcus is no novice on the campus sustainability scene. After serving as the director of sustainability at Ohio University, Marcus traveled the globe to explore and write about campus sustainability projects across the world. She documented her travels in her blog, “Parlez Vous Green Campus?”
While her experience was an important part of Marcus’ selection as UNC Asheville’s first director of sustainability, it was her passion that stood out to Pierce.
“It’s exciting to think about what the potential can be, combining the culture of UNC Asheville and all of the building blocks that we have with a very talented person like Sonia,” Pierce said. “Wonderful things will happen.”