Presidential Voices Interview Series: Jo Ann M. Gora, Ball State University
AASHE’s Presidential Voices interview series features conversations with heads of higher education institutions who are inspiring sustainability leaders. To recommend a president or chancellor for this series, contact Judy Walton, chief publications officer, at email@example.com.
Jo Ann M. Gora, our guest for this interview, became President of Ball State University in 2004. She was one of 12 charter signatories to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in December 2006. In May 2009, she and other officials broke ground on the largest geothermal district energy system in the United States. Phase One, completed in 2012, allowed Ball State to shut down two coal-fired boilers. For its sustainability commitment, the university has been ranked in The Princeton Review's “Guide to 311 Green Colleges,” and has earned a Second Nature Climate Leadership Award. The institution also earned a STARS Gold rating from AASHE in 2012. President Gora has co-authored two book chapters on campus sustainability initiatives. She earned her bachelor's degree in political science from Vassar College and master's and doctoral degrees in sociology from Rutgers University.
JW: How is sustainability at Ball State integrated into the institution’s mission, vision and values?
JG: We have integrated various dimensions of sustainability into our university’s ongoing work by seeking broad, deep engagement from all the members of the Ball State community. Several years ago, we started these efforts with the appointment of two different green committees. The first investigated ways to broaden environmental education across our curriculum, and the second was to recommend techniques for implementing the tenets of the Talloires Declaration, which my predecessor, Dr. John Worthen, had signed in 1999.
Our Council on the Environment (COTE) was established in 1991, making it the longest-standing green committee at any college or university in the state. It represents the full breadth of constituents within our academic community and the communities that surround our campus. One of its earliest initiatives was to adopt a university statement on sustainability, which was endorsed by senior staff, academic deans, the University Senate, and finally the Board of Trustees. This public statement has been on our web page since that cycle of review and approval. We’ve expanded that public commitment by introducing sustainability concepts into our last two strategic plans and our most recent one, which was approved by the Board of Trustees in December and will guide the university through 2017.
Included in the goals and objectives is the creation of sustainability plans by 102 administrative units on campus, including my office. We give continuing attention to the structure of these plans to feed into our STARS reporting. We’ve also created an interactive “Get on the Map” web site using the STARS framework to which any member of the campus can submit updates on his/her activity either individually or as part of a collaborative group.
These sustainability plans have influenced many of our strategic planning decisions, including my decision to be one of the first 12 signatories to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). Other examples include Ball State’s move to become one of the first Midwestern universities to use electronic shuttle buses, deploying an electric car for our on-campus deliveries, acquiring hybrid electric vehicles for our automotive fleet, and moving the majority of the remaining fleet to flex-fuel capability.
Finally, we have woven sustainability into the centerpiece of a Ball State education, a form of experiential learning we call immersive learning. Immersive learning brings together an interdisciplinary team of students under a faculty mentor for at least a semester, and often as long as an academic year. This team works with a community, business, or nonprofit organization to provide a real-world solution to a real-world problem the organization is facing. Between 2007 and 2012, more than 16,400 of our students participated in at least one of more than 1,000 immersive learning projects, which have affected every Indiana citizen and taken our students as far away as Venice, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Malawi.
We believe this form of learning is essential to shaping the collaboration and innovation skills our students need to succeed in the complex world they are entering after graduation. And I’m proud to say that several of these projects have important sustainability outcomes. I could give many examples, but here is just one. Under the guidance of Gwen White, associate professor of accounting, several teams of students have completed a series of Global Reporting Initiative sustainability reports for local organizations, similar to what most of the world’s largest 250 companies are now doing. Their efforts last spring to develop a report for Minnetrista, a cultural center and museum here in Muncie, resulted in it becoming the first U.S. museum to file a complete GRI sustainability report.
JW: Ball State’s geothermal energy system has been hailed as the nation’s largest ground-source, closed-loop district system. What was behind this effort, and how much is it expected to reduce your carbon footprint and energy costs?
JG: Our geothermal ground-source, district-scale heating and cooling system happened because several opportunities aligned at the same time. We were facing the need to replace four aging coal-fired boilers and had secured funding from the Indiana General Assembly to do that. We had committed to becoming a climate-neutral campus through my signing of ACUPCC, and we were willing to take a long-term view of the big picture. Specifically, that view meant examining such factors as the efficiencies of high-performance heat-pump technology, the elimination of Scope 1 fossil fuel (coal) combustion on campus, the future cost avoidance for potential carbon taxing, and the opportunity to engage our students and faculty in real-time and long-term research in monitoring and evaluating the performance of the system, once installed.
We were able to secure financial support through a state appropriation, plus a U.S. Department of Energy grant to cover the cost of Phase One, which involved the drilling of some 1,800 bore holes on the northern end of our campus and installing our first two heat-pump chillers in our North Energy Station. The picture here shows then-U.S. Senator Richard Lugar standing with me at our groundbreaking ceremony for the geothermal project in 2009. We finished Phase One last spring and our early data shows that we are on target to save $1 million a year.
We have recently completed the drilling of some of the additional 1,800 bore holes required for Phase Two. These boreholes are being installed next to our boiler plant, which is located on the south end of campus. The project is on pause until additional funding is obtained, but we continue to pursue funding to complete Phase Two and are hopeful of the outcome.
With the completion of the project, the university will be able to shut down all four coal-fired boilers that generate 85,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions annually. That’s nearly 50 percent of our carbon footprint. We will be heating and cooling 47 major buildings, and our net operational savings is projected to be $2 million per year.
JW: Is there something special about Ball State’s geology, financing, etc. that made the geothermal project pencil out? Or would you say virtually any institution in the state or region could undertake a geothermal project and see similar benefits?
JG: We are convinced that this technology is appropriate for other campuses for several reasons. It is a closed-loop, water circulating system that simply transfers thermal energy throughout campus and into or out of the ground. It can be scaled to service a single building, a group of buildings, or an entire campus. It has significant immediate and long-term cost benefits given the leveraging effect of (upstream) electrical power for sourcing and sinking of thermal energy to the earth (on-site). Finally, it positions a university to avoid future costs associated with carbon taxing—whether as a straight-up tax, a fee-and-rebate system, or a cap-and-trade system.
JW: Your biography states that since your arrival in 2004, “approximately $418 million of completed or current construction and renovation has changed the face of Ball State’s campus.” What is Ball State’s commitment to green building, and how is it manifest in all of this newly built or renovated space?
JG: Yes, we have mandated through our strategic planning process that all new construction be certified as LEED at the silver level (at a minimum), and that those same criteria be used in renovation of existing facilities. We have five buildings (new and/or renovated) that have either been so certified or will achieve such recognition. Among them are classroom buildings, such as the David Letterman Communication and Media Building, built in 2007, and residence halls, including our completely renovated DeHority Complex, originally constructed in 1960. Also on that list is our Student Recreation and Wellness Center, a building used by the entire campus.
Although seeking LEED certification requires some effort on the front side by our design teams and our facilities management staff, the payoff is substantial. We will continue to use a whole-systems approach as required in our strategic planning. In fact, we have coordinated our strategic planning cycles with those of carbon reduction planning so we can integrate these two dimensions of our resource stewardship.
JW: What are some of Ball State’s leading sustainability initiatives in the areas of curriculum and outreach?
JG: In terms of how we integrate sustainability into our curriculum and our outreach programs, there are many great examples. Ball State students over the decades have majored in environmental management or minored in environmental management, environmental policy, or environmentally sustainable practices. Generations of them have gone on to demonstrate success after graduation by leading sustainability initiatives in a number of professional fields. Our students, especially those in the College of Architecture and Planning, have studied everything from recycling and reuse of building materials to applications of solar energy in locations around the world.
We recently began our doctoral degree in environmental sciences, which enables students to use their skills in biology, chemistry, and geological sciences to address environmental problems in an interdisciplinary way.
We’ve also established the Academy for Sustainability, a knowledge group that encourages new initiatives in research, education, and service across disciplinary lines. We believe these cross-disciplinary endeavors by our faculty and students are sorely needed to address the complexities of social, economic and environmental sustainability.
Our sustainability outreach endeavors stretch back three decades to when we established Ball State’s Center for Energy Research, Education, and Service (CERES). CERES is an interdisciplinary academic support unit that focuses on sustainability issues, especially energy use and conservation. Faculty and students lead its activities, which not only serve our campus, but also the surrounding community and the state of Indiana. CERES has a long history of interdisciplinary research in everything from alternative fuels to community planning and from resource analysis to materials testing. One of its most recognizable programs is the Greening of the Campus conference, which traces back to 1996 and is generally held every other year. We have reached thousands of college faculty, students, administrators, and facilities professionals through the past nine conferences to discuss sustainability issues and share effective strategies. It has had a major impact on the decision-making process regarding sustainability issues at many colleges and universities across our country.
Finally, sustainability has become a large part of our university’s student life. The Ball State Energy Action Team is a student group that leads energy awareness initiatives, including the semi-annual residence hall energy challenge, a contest to see which living unit on our campus can demonstrate the greatest reduction in energy use over a four-week period. Last fall, students in nine residence halls reduced electricity consumption by about 100,000 kilowatts, saving Ball State approximately $5,000. Another student group, Students for a Sustainable Campus, organizes the biennial teach-in on our campus examining sustainability issues as part of the national Focus the Nation initiative.
JW: From your service on the Board of the American Council on Education, and the Council of Presidents of the Association of Governing Boards, do you see sustainability issues becoming more central to the work of these organizations and to higher education in general? What would you say are the biggest challenges to advancing sustainability in higher education?
JG: I do think sustainability issues are becoming more important in higher education. I’ve been invited to make presentations at Association of Governing Boards conferences about sustainability, and a lot of AGB members are focusing on the importance of cooperation between universities and their boards of trustees in analyzing and solving these complexities. We had a group of American Council on Education Fellows visit us last summer, specifically to investigate our geothermal project and other sustainability efforts. These are the educators who are being groomed to be presidents, chancellors, and provosts, so that shows the attention sustainability is receiving.
I think the biggest challenges to advancing sustainability in higher education are thinking long-term, both economically and environmentally, and developing the interdisciplinary knowledge and resources to address its complexities. I often tell national and state leaders that our geothermal project is not just green environmentally, in that we are reducing our carbon footprint, but also economically, because we are saving money in the long run. The initial investment is substantial, but the long-term payoff is real. Unfortunately, especially in trying economic times, the tendency is to focus on the former instead of the latter.
For any institution to be successful in its strategic planning about sustainability, the vision has to be shared at every level of the administration, in every academic department, and with all of your constituencies. Sustainability efforts can’t be short-lived; you have to develop the vision, establish the integrated associations and structure, and continue to shepherd the resources needed to sustain a long-term commitment if you want to be successful.
JW: What would you like to see accomplished next in terms of sustainability at Ball State University?
JG: With the completion of our geothermal project, we will have reduced our environmental impact significantly. However, we must not pause in our efforts. While removing Scope 1 emissions from our Greenhouse Gas portfolio is critical, we must continue to make our buildings more energy efficient. By decreasing our energy needs, we will further reduce the amount of energy we purchase from third-party suppliers.
JW: What do you do in your free time?
JG: That’s an interesting question because there isn’t much of it! In addition to my duties as Ball State president, I sit on several boards, so that service is an additional time commitment.
My husband and I are outdoor enthusiasts. We walk and hike, bicycle, and play tennis and golf. We both enjoy reading, especially books and articles about issues facing higher education or about other issues of national and state politics. Family and friends get neglected far too often, but when we do have significant blocks of time, we love to visit with our two grandchildren in North Carolina. A relaxing dinner with friends or a romp in the park with a 5 and 3 year old will do wonders for your frame of mind.
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