St. Olaf College 2008 Campus Sustainability Leadership Award Application


Four-year and Graduate Institutions 1,000 - 7,500 Student FTE

Pete Sandberg with model of college wind turbine
Photographer: David Gonnerman


James J. Farrell
History/American Studies
St. Olaf College
Northfield, MN
(507) 786-3143

Governance & Administration

Environmentally speaking, a college campus is a place for converting natural energy to human thoughtfulness.  It's a place where people employ natural resources to refine and transmit the intellectual and artistic resources we call culture.  Like all other colleges and universities, St. Olaf College is an organic machine, where nature's energy is shaped by nature's human energy, and vice versa.  We think of a campus as a place, a location, a space-and it is.  But more importantly, it's a relationship, where human designs intersect with nature's designs in food and water, heat and electricity, cars and computers, lawns and gardens and natural lands.  A campus is one way of making love to nature-or of making war on it.  It's a way of caring for the creation.  A campus is, like it or not, an ecological design.  

This kind of thinking characterizes St. Olaf's culture from the top down, and vice versa.  The college has long been a good steward of its resources, but the current strategic plan, adopted in 2003, made explicit its commitment to "economic and ecological sustainability."  In that year, too, President Chris Thomforde appointed a task force, under the leadership of Assistant Vice President for Facilities Pete Sandberg, to assess the college's sustainability and to offer proposals for change.  Sandberg has been pursuing work in sustainability since he became Facilities Director in 1988, and is one of the few non-architects certified by the US Green Building Council as a LEED accredited professional.  Within a year, the task force-which includes roughly equal numbers of students, staff and faculty-completed "Sustaining St. Olaf," a 40-page document which includes an audit of the college's current projects, a set of "Sustainability Principles" (approved by the Regents) for future work, and unique St. Olaf Sustainable Design Guidelines.  The Sustainability principles are:

1. Cultivate virtues appropriate to a culture of permanence

2. Expand the teaching of environmental literacy.

3. Explore the spirit of nature in religious study and practice.

4. Rely increasingly on sustainable energy flows

5. Eat food that nourishes farmers and the land.

6. Build for the future

7. Stop generating waste and stop wasting it

8. Restore natural landscapes for both practical and aesthetic reasons.

9. Put our money where our values are.

10. Create and maintain a transparent planning process, and give an honest accounting of our successes and failures.

These principles have grown out of the college's Framework Plan (established in 1997 and updated in 2000) and its building protocol (published in 2003).

St. Olaf College maintains memberships in AASHE, the Upper Midwest Association for Campus Sustainability (UMACS), and the National Wildlife Federation's Campus Ecology project.



St. Olaf College is not sustainable, but virtually all of its operations are beginning to point in that direction.  The college has always been efficient in its energy use; a 2004-05 study showed that St. Olaf spend $1.21 per gross square foot of buildings, versus $1.67 for other private institutions and $1.82 at public institutions.  This year, the college is producingclean energy with a 1.65 megawatt wind turbine.  It will generate about a third of the electricity we use, and reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent. 

At St. Olaf, we construct our buildings to last.  We still use our original building, Old Main.  Starting with Buntrock Commons (1999), the college has embraced ecological design.  In 2003, we adopted the St. Olaf Sustainable Design Guidelines.   This year, we'll put them into practice in a new Science Complex, which should achieve a LEED Gold rating.  As David Orr says, it's architecture as pedagogy.

Outside the buildings, the college cares for its land.  We've reduced the area of grass we mow by a third.  We reduced pesticide use and switched from chemical fertilizers to a natural product made of turkey shit.  We require no-till methods on our farmlands, and we do restorations on our natural lands, including 80 acres of restored woodland, 145 acres of restored prairie, and 14 restored wetlands.

At St. Olaf, we eat food that's good for people and the environment.  Last year, the Princeton Review named the college cafeteria as one of the ten best in the country. Nationally, Bon Appetit is committed to serving fresh food in menus with lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains; buying seafood that preserves fishstocks; and offering fair-trade, shade-grown, organic coffees.  The company leverages purchasing power to prefer meat, dairy and seafood that have been produced with reduced amounts of antibiotics.  They only purchase wild, line-caught salmon.  And they are switching to cage-free eggs.

Bon Appetit's environmental ethic is also present at St. Olaf, where we support regional food producers and artisans. We buy local apples and corn in season, and procure pasta from a North Dakota farmers' cooperative.  We purchase pork from a local farmer's cooperative, and we get some grass-fed beef locally too.  We get our milk-without hormones and antibiotics-from the local Hastings Dairy.  We buy all of the produce from the student-run STOGROW organic garden.  All in all, our goal is to teach students that a fork and knife and spoon are agricultural implements, and that how we eat determines how the world is used.

We also try to minimize food waste and maximize its benefits.  Our students waste an average of 1.7 ounces of food per plate per meal-a tiny amount, but it adds up.  So in September 2006, we installed a Wright In-Vessel composter that converts all of our food waste-including meat and dairy-to food for our gardens and agricultural lands.  Annually, the composter keeps about a quarter of a million pounds of organic material out of landfills.


Curriculum & Research

St. Olaf students enjoy a robust and extensive Environmental Studies major, with challenging tracks in the Natural Sciences, Arts and Humanities, and Social Sciences.  Courses are offered by more than 20 faculty in 10 different departments, and the ES 399 capstone course involves hands-on interdisciplinary research on a wide variety of topics.  In just a short time, the program has moved from offering a concentration to a major, and in 2003, Environmental Studies became the second interdisciplinary program at the college to gain departmental status.  And many of the faculty pursue primary research interests in the arts and sciences of sustainability.

The sciences are a St. Olaf specialty, and the Chemistry Department has taken the lead in Green Chemistry.  Led by Professor Gary Spessard, and supported by a $500,000 grant from the Keck Foundation, the department introduced green chemistry experiments in its Organic Chemistry labs in 2003-04, and in the rest of the departmental curriculum since then.  These "green" water-based reactions virtually eliminate hazardous waste by-products, and have allowed us to design a comprehensive Science Complex with about one half of the fume hoods that would be expected in a traditional chemistry curriculum. This change enables tremendous savings in first cost, life-cycle cost, and the cost of operations for the new science building.

New courses have added to the interdisciplinary articulation of Environmental Studies at St. Olaf.  In 2005, an English professor and a biology professor joined to teach "Ways of Knowing Ecology," which looked at literature and biology as ways of knowing, and give students hands-on experience of science research and nature writing.  In the Spring of 2004, senior student Elise Braaten designed a course on Campus Ecology and team-taught it with her advisor, Jim Farrell, in American Studies.  Using the whole campus as a case study, the class has audited dorm rooms, annotated the campus, and proposed changes to the Sustainability Task Force.  Each year, a different student team-teaches the course, and each year students "go public" with their learning in a wide variety of ways.  Farrell and Braaten spoke to the Mid-America American Studies Association about the course, and Farrell offered a session on it at the inaugural meeting of the Upper Midwest Association for Campus Sustainability.

Independent majors in the Center for Integrative Studies also make possible innovative hands-on integration of the theory and practice of sustainability.  Most of the students who have taught Campus Ecology have been CIS majors.

Provost and Dean Jim May declared 2005-06 to be "Sustainability Year," and established a budget for speakers, panels, workshops, etc., so the theme of sustainability was highly visible all year long.

During the summers of 2006, 2007 and 2008, St. Olaf faculty joined with colleagues at Carleton College in the first annual workshop on "Cows, Colleges and Curriculum: Sustainability Across the Curriculum," with faculty, staff, administrators and community members participating and planning to add sustainability components to their classes and workplaces.


Campus Culture

St. Olaf's sustainability projects have infused the whole culture.  Some students come to St. Olaf because of our environmental commitments, and other students learn about in orientation, in classes, in student organizations, and in informal interactions with peers. 

The student Environmental Coalition has undertaken a variety of projects in sustainability.  This year, finished up work on a Green Bikes program and proposed and got college commitments for a Clean Energy Revolving Fund, which will begin this year.  Smaller groups of students will occupy two honor houses, one a Green Living House and the other a Wendell Berry House.  And the new President of the Student Government Association, Wade Hauser, campaigned on a platform of environmental improvements.

Pete Sandberg, St. Olaf's Assistant Vice President for Facilities, is a national leader in sustainability projects on college campuses.  Pete has signed on as one of four members of Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers' steering committee to figure out how to implement the ACU President's Climate Commitment.  And Pete has also enrolled St. Olaf as a founding reporter to the Climate Registry, the first national entity to attempt to catalog emissions

St. Olaf has not signed the American College and University President's Climate Commitment because we're not sure that signatories can actually meet their commitments, and because we prefer to let our actions speak for us instead.  In that regard, the college wind turbine and its new Regents Hall (which should receive LEED Gold status) show our commitment, as does our ongoing energy efficiency (measured in BTUs per square feet of buildings per degree day).

Another measure of the pervasiveness of sustainability in campus culture is the number of entities that are enthusiastically involved in their own areas. Admissions, for example, has two counselors who had taken Campus Ecology as students, and is working on a brochure to highlight the range of sustainability activities on campus. The Alumni Office has included sustainability in Homecoming activities. Residence Life regularly teaches students how to live more efficiently. And all of this happens without central direction, even though our current president is a supporter of all these endeavors. In fact, his first question to me when I met him was "What's the next big thing?"

Community Service and Outreach

In "Doing Good Work Together," William Kittredge writes that "We live in stories. What we are is stories. We do things because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark and rework our stories. We do it again the next morning, and all day long, before the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing reasons for our lives. Other than such storytelling there is no reason to things."  

In the past five years, the St. Olaf community has been reworking our story to nest within the larger story of sustainability.  We've shared this story in many different ways. 

We share it physically by opening our natural lands to the Northfield community and by hosting the Cannon River Watershed Project (CRWP) in a farmhouse on St. Olaf land.  CRWP works to protect and improve the surface and ground water resources and the natural systems of the Cannon River watershed.  Executive Director Dave Legvold, a local farmer and educator, is a guest in many college classes, and also appears as "Sewer Man" in local elementary schools.  And St. Olaf faculty and students help with CRWP's research and organizational agenda.

We've also shared our sustainability story at St. Olaf in the orientation of our incoming students, in our news stories, in an extensive essay on "What Sustains Us" in St. Olaf Magazine,and in the activities of our Sustainability Year.  The Associated Press published a good article on the friendly competition between Carleton and St. Olaf which appeared in at least 70 different publications, and Sojourners published an essay in May 2006 called "Food for Thought," looking at the philosophy and practices of our food service, from farm to fork and back again.  In July 2006, Day Burtness wrote an essay on the STOGROW farm for .  And Jim Farrell is working on a book called The Nature of College.

In January 2005, we established the black & gold & green website to fulfill the last of our sustainability principles, giving "an honest accounting of our successes and failures."  The website includes stories about our work at St. Olaf, and resources for other colleges wishing to follow our example.  It includes a section on "A Day in the Life," with short essays exploring the everyday activities of college students.  In July 2006, the college's Conference on Worship, Theology and the Arts focused on "The Fruit of All Creation."  The keynote address explored "The Nature of American Life," including its religious life.  And the faculty (including environmental ethicist Larry Rasmussen (author of Earth Community, Earth Ethics) and theologian Gordon Lathrop (author of Holy Ground) explored religion as a natural resource for environmentalism, and the musical and artistic expressions of creation spirituality appropriate to America's churches.