Presidential Voices Interview Series: James H. Mullen, Allegheny College
With this interview, AASHE is pleased to launch our Presidential Voices interview series, featuring conversations with inspiring sustainability leaders who play unique roles as heads of higher education institutions or systems. I will be conducting most of these interviews in my role as AASHE's chief publications officer. Please let me know via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) of any presidents or chancellors you recommend to be interviewed.
First in the interview series is President James H. Mullen of Allegheny College in Meadville, PA. Dr. Mullen has been president of Allegheny since 2008 and has 20 years of experience in leadership roles in higher education. In addition, he has been a sought-after lecturer in public policy, history, and political science. Under his leadership, Allegheny College received a 2012 Climate Leadership Award from the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and Second Nature, recognizing the College’s commitment to a renewable energy future. Dr. Mullen is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He holds a master of public policy from Harvard University and a doctorate in higher education from U Mass Amherst.
Judy Walton: How does sustainability fit the mission of a liberal arts college?
James Mullen: Our mission as a liberal arts college is straightforward and essential: to prepare young adults to excel as citizens of a diverse, interconnected world. I think the keyword here is “citizens.” Citizens are not bystanders. The Founding Fathers did not intend citizens to sit on the sidelines and hope that others solve the problems that face our communities. Rather, citizens are meant to be informed, articulate, and active participants in solving the problems that face us.
As a charter signatory of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, Allegheny acknowledged that climate change is one of the most serious issues affecting our world. And who better than liberal arts colleges—and the faculty who train tomorrow’s scientists, writers, artists, teachers, policymakers, attorneys, but most important citizens—to lead the cause and to harness the energy of young people to create a sustainable future and to solve other problems that threaten our world, including issues related to social and economic justice?
JW: Allegheny’s recent decision to purchase 100% of its electricity from wind is quite impressive. How did that commitment come about, and what are the results?
JM: Our commitment is not only to strategically reduce our environmental impact but to realize the economic benefits of improved operational efficiencies. Everything we do is in the context of fiscal responsibility.
With Pennsylvania deregulating utilities in 2011, we knew we’d be facing rate increases of 20 to 40 percent, and we began to look for a generator with which to contract to minimize the impact those higher rates would have on our budget. We researched a lot of companies, including two recommended by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, and after an extensive process we chose to work with Constellation NewEnergy.
Since we researched companies carefully and early, we were able to commit to 100 percent renewable electricity and still come in under the budget projected by the rate deregulation forecast by the state. As a result, we cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 52 percent. But that’s just part of the picture. We’re still working on efficiency measures connected to our ACUPCC commitment to climate neutrality by 2020 and our involvement in the White House’s Better Buildings Challenge, through which we pledged a 20 percent reduction by 2020 in energy consumption through campus-wide efficiency measures.
It’s also interesting to note that at the same time we were exploring the possibility of using wind-generated electricity for 100 percent of our power usage, some of our students were involved in a wind feasibility study for a local manufacturer.
JW: What are your biggest challenges in advancing sustainability as an institutional leader?
JM: All colleges are challenged by the tough realities of both the marketplace and the economy. It’s challenging to maintain a significant budget commitment to sustainability when squeezed by economic forces that are beyond colleges’ control. But that’s when it becomes even more important that a commitment to sustainability infuses a college’s culture—that it becomes part of your identity as an institution—so that everyone in your college community is invested in keeping those dollars committed to sustainability.
Our executive vice president, Dave McInally, who will be inaugurated as president of Coe College this fall, helped Allegheny to create what we call “deep infrastructure sustainability,” in which sustainability was integrated into the core values and goals of the college and, as a result, funding for sustainability became part of the college’s annual operating budget. But additional funding on a larger scale is necessary to get us to our goal of climate neutrality by 2020. We can’t lose sight of our long-term goals, and that requires a significant, ongoing commitment.
JW: How or where can sustainability leaders in higher education make the biggest impact?
JM: There have been moments in history when colleges and universities have truly led our nation on issues of intergenerational importance. I think specifically of civil rights in the 1960s. Sustainability is just such an issue. Our colleges and universities are leading, not just rhetorically but in terms of concrete action. Be it through the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, through integrating sustainability into the core of master planning and budget decision-making, through conferences, through building partnerships with local communities, or through significant research taking place on campuses across the country, higher education is leading the nation on the issue of sustainability.
Perhaps most important, we are helping students integrate an ethic of environmental stewardship into their understanding of social justice and citizenship. Thirty or forty years from now, I believe that history will point to the role our colleges and universities played in shaping America's environmental ethic—and I hope that its judgment will be favorable.
JW: Your college’s dedication to the community of Meadville is pretty admirable...and ambitious. Can you describe a few of the major efforts underway, and what is driving all this?
JM: A number of our efforts have been led by the college’s Center for Economic and Environmental Development, which was founded in 1997. CEED has taken a highly effective interdisciplinary approach to engaging Allegheny College students, faculty, and the community in creating innovative approaches to environmental stewardship, environmental education, and regional revitalization.
But that dedication to the community is campus-wide. It’s routine for professors to take students out into the community to do research and projects: examples range from community art, biomass development, aquaponics systems, community health education, watershed protection, a biodiesel program and a greenhouse gas inventory in collaboration with the City of Meadville. One of our faculty members will be teaching a sophomore seminar on the unique problems faced by small towns and rural communities in the U.S. Those students will enrich their classroom work through service in the community.
Allegheny’s strong culture of community service--last year, more than 60 percent of our student body completed about 60,000 hours of community service—has increasingly included sustainability efforts such as a bike program for young people in the community and community gardening. Our students not only participate in community outreach and partnerships: they are leading the effort.
What’s common in all of these projects is that the campus collaborates with the community to set goals and advance projects that are multifaceted and complex. Meadville is not necessarily a community of “environmentalists,” but we’ve found many opportunities to collaborate that not only advance sustainability but also uphold fiscal efficiency, social justice and community development. If we pushed sustainability as a stand-alone goal, we’d be less successful, but by recognizing that sustainability is always linked to many other community values in complex ways, we’ve forged strong relationships and realized extraordinary outcomes.
JW: In this excellent video featured in the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Clean Energy in Our Community” video series, you say virtually every initiative has students, staff, and faculty “working the issue.” What’s an example, and what advice do you have for others seeking to build a collaborative culture?
JM: Collaboration among all stakeholders—and we’re all stakeholders in a sustainable future—is an Allegheny hallmark.
One example of everyone working the issue on our campus is a project centered on switchgrass, a native perennial species. A local company, Ernst Conservation Seeds, is working to develop pelletized switchgrass into a biomass resource. The company has partnered with a faculty member and his students—in research that has spanned many years’ worth of classes, work-study jobs, and Senior Comps—to explore switchgrass’s carbon sequestration potential and suitability for marginal fields that may be too wet or depleted for other crops. In addition, our environmental science faculty and students have done research for our Physical Plant staff about the potential for switchgrass to be used as a heating source on campus, including a pellet stove at my house. Future research could explore on a larger scale, which might include a biomass incinerator for heating large or multiple buildings on campus. There’s still a lot of research to be done, but the process has already included not only students, faculty, and staff but also a community partner.
Another example is a garden at Carr Hall, where our environmental science program is housed. Students initiated this project: they want to study sustainable agriculture, they want opportunities to practice it on campus, and they want more locally grown produce in the dining halls. So students, faculty, staff, and Parkhurst Dining Services got together to talk about how to do all of this. We’re currently offering our first “Soil to Plate” course, we’ve hired a garden manager, and we’ve begun to install a collaboratively designed garden. Our garden manager is working with Physical Plant to build the garden from scratch, strategizing with Parkhurst to determine which crops they’ll purchase and use in meals in our dining halls, and collaborating with student groups like Edible Allegheny Campus and others to develop a work plan for the garden.
I find that when students are involved in a project, it just naturally becomes collaborative. They seek out the people whom they know can help.
JW: I was pleased to see that Allegheny College celebrated Campus Sustainability Day with a month-long energy challenge. Was it a success? Do you have some metrics?
JM: Our campus community really looks forward to our annual October Energy Challenge. It’s an opportunity to think more carefully about our energy consumption—and act more deliberately to practice responsible habits.
This year we reduced our overall campus consumption by 8 percent--85,000 kilowatt hours--and saved $7,100 over the month. Students embrace the October Energy Challenge because they see not only real results but an opportunity to build on the savings we realize: For three years now we’ve invested the savings in solar panels for an on-campus array. Eight panels are due to be installed in January, which will bring us to a 4kW array.
But the impact of the October Energy Challenge continues long after we turn the calendar to November. Last year we saw a 10 percent reduction in our energy usage during October, but we continued to see a reduction of 8 percent in subsequent months.
JW: How do you spend your free time?
JM: With my job and two teenagers, there is not a lot of free time!
Time out of the office is filled with ballgames, school events and an endless stream of visitors and friends. We value our quiet times together, be that on a walk or a hike, sitting together to read or just a movie night together in our family room. I confess to enjoying a round of golf whenever we can squeeze one in—although my game is nowhere near where it should be!
I am very lucky to have a family that loves to be together. Mari and I also feel very fortunate to have two kids who care deeply about the world around them and understand that they have a responsibility to it. Their generation gives me great hope for our world's future.
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