The Greening of the U. of Minnesota

In December, The Chronicle ran a story about the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, which included a box on four institutions that, so far, had refused to sign.

The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities was one of them. University officials, like those at other institutions that had not signed, were concerned that some of the goals of the commitment — notably climate neutrality — just weren’t feasible. The Twin Cities campus gets about 70 percent of its power from fossil fuels, a great deal of which is coal, one of the dirtiest and least-climate-friendly power sources out there. Deborah L. Swackhamer, interim director of the university’s Institute on the Environment, was also concerned about the commitment’s fuzzy language and its push to include sustainability in the curriculum, which is set by faculty members, not the university president.

It seemed that Robert H. Bruininks, the university president, would never sign.

Yet on January 8, Mr. Bruininks added the University of Minnesota system to the list of signatories, making Minnesota the first Big 10 university to commit. He did so without a lot of fanfare. Although student groups celebrated the signing, the university never even issued a news release about it.

Daniel Wolter, a spokesman for the university, said that after examining the commitment, university officials found that it was “in line with our institutional goals.” But he said there has been some “frustration” about the emphasis that people have placed on signing the commitment.

“There is an unusually large focus being put on this one specific agreement,” he said. “Our concern is that there are a lot more meaningful things that institutions can do with regards to climate.”

For example, the university is a member of the Chicago Climate Exchange, a legally binding climate agreement that has real penalties for institutions and businesses that do not meet carbon-reduction goals. There are no penalties associated with the presidents climate commitment, and colleges can meet goals on their own timeline.

Mr. Wolter also said that advocates of the climate commitment have tried to use Minnesota’s signing as leverage to get other Big 10 institutions to join up. “I think every other institution needs to look at [the commitment] and how it fits with their campuses,” he said. “We are not making any pronouncements about other campuses and what they should and should not do.”

Now, the work begins. Although small colleges have been able to make great strides toward climate neutrality, that goal is more difficult for large institutions. The University of Minnesota’s Morris campus, which was among the commitment’s charter signatories, gets a great deal of power from wind; Mr. Wolter says university officials believe that the rest of Minnesota likewise will move away from coal in time.

What may have been thought impossible a few months ago has now become an imperative.

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