November 9, 2014, A Campus Ecology

Pete Sandberg

Campus, “A school, such as a college, university, or boarding school, considered as an entity.
College, “A school of higher learning that grants a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts, science, or both.” A company or assembly, especially a body of persons having a common purpose or common duties.”
Ecology, “The relationship between organisms and their environment.”

“…considered as an entity” is important in this definition of campus because if we only slightly extend the definition we can imagine all of the things that a campus is and affects. We can imagine it as an organism even, as found in the definition of Ecology.

“A school of higher learning…” and, “…a body of persons”, both used to define College, also let us imagine College as an organism.

College, or Campus, Ecology then can be the study of the relationship between campuses/colleges – as organisms – and their environment.

Colleges and their campuses are interesting because they are very much like small cities in many ways, but they differ in that they are, for the United States, very concentrated onto a relatively small area for the number of persons.  St. Olaf is a lot like a small Minnesota city. Our city has 3,000 students, most in residence, and about 700 others who come and go every day servicing the city’s population. Because our city population is so concentrated, its impact on the local biosphere is disproportionately higher than if it was an actual village or town.

The idea of institutional ecology is an interesting one; actually one that St. Olaf tried to get at in the early 1990’s with its “Campus and the Biosphere Project”.  The “biosphere” was defined as the people, campus buildings, and lands, specifically – the organism – and the area and systems that they influenced in almost anyway – its environment. It was a unique way of imagining the impact of a major institution at that time and yielded some interesting information. Perhaps most notably, the college discovered that the systems entrenched in America at that time were so deeply embedded and rigid that it was nearly impossible to make fundamental changes to reduce the ecological footprint of the college without incurring extreme changes in operating budgets.

More has become known about local, regional, and global systems since then and another look at these issues is timely.

In some ways, the more we know in detail, the more we can become too closely focused on individual impacts and lose sight of the bigger picture.  In management studies, this is similar to the manager/leader discussion. Managers “do things right”, leaders “do the right things”. Robert Greenleaf talked about the forest manager who, with his crew, was the absolute best at felling trees properly, safely, and quickly. He did it day after day until his leader came to the site – climbed the tallest tree, and found that they were working in the wrong forest.

I grew up in an 1863 farmhouse in very rural Eagan Township, south of the Twin Cities. The population was probably 200 when we moved there in 1955; it is more than 60,000 now and that is amazing in itself. The house had just been plumbed for indoor toilets the year we moved in and had an old gravity furnace with one heat vent in a corner of the living room, along with one cold air return that surrounded the heat.  The only heat to the upstairs was through grills cut into the second floor in each room. The house was un-insulated, and the old single, putty glazed, windows slowed the winter winds a little. We literally never got sick with colds or flu but did not think much about it.

The house never had an ice dam, we had no moisture issues, and paint stayed on the sides, even at the bathroom and kitchen. In the mid to late sixties we re-roofed the house, insulated the attic, added aluminum combination storm/screen windows, installed a modern forced air furnace and extended ducts to the second floor. Almost immediately we had roof dams, moisture issues in some rooms, paint started peeling, and more. We did not think much about the changes to the house affecting these sorts of environmental affects; after all they were environmentally friendly changes. There were no vapor barriers, we didn’t know a lot about proper ventilation of newly insulated spaces, and so on. We were not looking at a wide enough context.

School and higher education buildings constructed or renovated in the later 1970s during our first realization of an energy crisis tightened the envelopes and added mechanical systems. Once all this was in place, ventilation rates were often greatly reduced. Other changes were made in the name of energy conservation, but no one seemed to be looking at the wider impacts these changes would bring. Further, administrators were forced by spiraling energy costs to be more aggressive, sometimes even blocking fresh air intakes to reduce winter heat loads that were exacerbated by the need to temper makeup air.

Code, building material, and construction technique changes have had mixed affects in institutional and residential settings.  Each of these individually looks pretty good. Added up, they have can a variety of unintended consequences.

We still have to deal with the issues these cures hoped to improve, but we will do better if we think about buildings, campuses, cities, and wider still, as whole systems consisting of numbers of sub-systems, that must all work to the benefit of the others.

Dealing on the very local level, maybe one system of one building, or sourcing of one kind of fruit, could be great, but we had better know how the idea works with the whole. The campus whole, but also our biosphere whole, and maybe wider. Let’s work to avoid getting too close to our problems, avoid focusing too much on detail, and strive to see how our work fits into a wider world.