Reclaiming Leadership: The American College and University's President's Climate Commitment

May 1, 2007

On Sunday, the New York Times carried a lengthy article reporting on the astonishing proliferation of environmental events and activities being conducted on American college campuses:

"Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war ...a national day of observance of environmental being planned for next spring...when a nationwide environmental 'teach-in'... is planned...."

Did I mention that this was a New York Times article written on Sunday, November 30, 1969? The spring event mentioned was to be the first Earth Day in April of 1970, my junior year in college, in fact, when some of us staged a teach-in for the environment at my small college campus, not unlike this one, in Illinois. A young man named Denis Hayes was named the national coordinator of activities for that first Earth Day.

That was 37 years ago, and, sadly, it seems we haven’t advanced very far since that time in focusing our collective energies as a nation on protecting our environment from the crisis it was facing even then—or in preventing controversial and counterproductive wars, for that matter. The leadership in the country that began then on college campuses was lost; the momentum that came from efforts at the national political level by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and progressive initiatives by the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations were abandoned in more recent times until the United States became in 2001 a notorious objector to the Kyoto accord signed by so many other nations. Leadership lost. Senator Nelson, the genius behind that first Earth Day almost four decades ago, knew it was on college and university campuses where that leadership had the most promise of making a sustained—and sustainable—impact.

The American College and University President’s Climate Commitment seeks to reclaim that leadership for this critical issue here on college campuses once again, where it began in 1969. As a community of educators and learners, we have an obligation to teach ourselves about this issue and, by our example, to teach the nation as well. Today, this past weekend, and earlier in this semester, similar events to those that took place 37 years ago have been staged by you, our students and faculty here on the Puget Sound campus. We are reclaiming that leadership here at Puget Sound—a college whose name and glorious setting invoke a great natural landmark. Puget Sound, our great inland sea, is at once a monument to natural beauty and a symbol of the costs of environmental pollution in our nation.

Our name and our heritage issue us a mandate. Four years ago, I invited Denis Hayes, the national coordinator of that first Earth Day, to speak to my first graduating class at commencement, here on the Puget Sound campus to echo this call to duty. A month earlier, as part of my inauguration, our faculty staged a group of seminars on the urgency Global Warming to the health and well-being of our planet. In the next year, I signed the Talloires Declaration, another international initiative originating with college presidents to bring attention to the issue of environmental crisis and to do something about it by using the college campus as the platform for education and change.

That same year, we at Puget Sound developed a campus master plan that set Green Building standards for all campus buildings for the first time, and we broke ground for our first Green building, Harned Hall, built to LEED silver standards. Environmental activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams was our Pierce Lecturer that year. The next year, we created a strategic plan to guide our work for the next decade and affirmed that Puget Sound would become known as a liberal arts college of the first rank, distinguished for three things: being civically engaged, environmentally responsible, and globally focused. I formed a Sustainability Advisory Committee of faculty, students and staff to advise me on how we can make a difference on this issue, coordinate our efforts, and not lose the leadership campuses had once claimed.

Now, this year, we have signed the President’s Climate commitment and agreed to be members of the Leadership Founder’s Circle. This commitment is a natural outcome of all we have done before, and a guideline for what we will do in the years to come. It is a commitment to do things differently. It is a bold pledge to reduce and eventually seek to erase our carbon footprint on the earth’s atmosphere. It is an act of faith, a decision to do what we don’t yet know how to do. It is a decision to make a plan and to chart our progress toward a great goal. It is a matter of principle we intend to make a matter of practice as quickly and responsibly as we can within the limits of our resources, mission, and strategic priorities. It is a dream we hope to make a fact.

And now over 200 campuses have signed on with us.

A mentor of mine was fond of telling te story about a group of Irish lads whose journey across the wild country was blocked by a long stone wall seemingly too high to scale. They decided to challenge themselves and each other by throwing their caps over the wall, determined to overcome that obstacle, to follow their hats to the other side, as it were, and to continue their journey.

By signing this commitment, we have thrown our hats over the wall. We have challenged ourselves and others to climb that wall with us, to take the journey of getting our planet back and reclaiming our future for the generations that will follow us. It is a matter of social and natural justice; it is a matter of being a college that is civically engaged, environmentally responsible, globally focused. It is about being purely, Puget Sound.

Thank you for being here today and celebrating this next step in a long journey.