From the Goucher Quarterly, Spring 2008

It has become fashionable to suggest that today’s college students are apathetic—insufficiently concerned about international crises, cynically indifferent to the political and economic issues that have some of us in a seemingly permanent state of agitation, and generally more interested in having a good time than fighting the good fight.  Why, it is often asked, aren’t they out there protesting the war in Iraq, the way earlier generations rose up against the war in Vietnam or on behalf of the civil rights movement?

From where I sit—literally, atop the steps to the Dorsey Center courtyard at Goucher—it is difficult to accept this gloomy judgment.  Through my windows I see groups of students setting off to rehabilitate houses in New Orleans, campaign in Ohio (even if not all for the same candidate), and work in the Baltimore City schools.  I also see them “tabling” in Pearlstone for their favorite causes of every political stripe, recruiting participants in the annual on-campus Relay for Life to fund cancer research, and occasionally blocking passage between buildings and demanding that people show IDs, in order to simulate the experiences of undocumented immigrants.  And yes, some of them do go to Washington to participate in marches and rallies, and occasionally even get arrested for what they believe in.

Not everyone backs every effort, of course, but there is one cause that seems to attract almost unanimous support on the Goucher campus: the fight for environmental sustainability.  I knew that something was definitely happening here when, on a beautiful Friday afternoon last September, hundreds of members of our community—students, faculty, and staff alike—packed into the Heubeck multipurpose room for an opportunity to brainstorm on the issue.  It was standing room only, and people were overflowing into the hall. 

It strikes me that members of our community may be devoting more attention to environmental issues than are the candidates now campaigning for the presidency of the United States.  When it comes to the environment, the recurring question here is, “What can I do?”  Goucher students have come up with quite a few of their own answers:

  • A group called Earthworks has completely redesigned and reinvigorated the campus recycling program; along with others, the group also raised funds to provide the first solar-powered street lamp at Goucher.

  • The Goucher Climate Action Group revived the celebration of Earth Day on campus last spring with a magnificent daylong festival on the residential quad and has even bigger plans this time, as part of our year-long and ambitiously named “Save the Planet” campaign.

  • The Goucher College Agricultural Co-op has launched a project that placed composting drums in various spots on campus with signs inviting passersby to “Turn Me.”  It also planted an herb and vegetable garden that has been very productive.  (When investigative journalist Bob Woodward came to dinner before his speech on campus last spring, I was able to boast that our salad had been grown by our students.)

And so it goes.  Thanks to the bright idea of one of this year’s seniors, every incoming student last fall received a compact fluorescent light bulb for his or her room.  We’ve just put up a second solar-powered street lamp.  The bookstore is selling an ecological alternative to traditional tote bags, designed and made by a former Goucher employee and a recent graduate.  Bon Appétit, our campus food service, patronizes only certified organic suppliers and has initiated the use of eco-friendly food containers.  We will soon be launching a program to encourage greater use of bicycles on campus.

I’ve signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, along with the leaders of 491 other institutions, and our Facilities Management Services staff is working hard at reducing the college’s carbon footprint and its local environmental impact.  I recently appointed the Goucher Environmental Sustainability Advisory Council, composed of representatives from a wide range of constituencies.  It will meet at least three times a semester to monitor our progress.  And don’t forget: in the Athenaeum, we are erecting one of the greenest buildings in town.

Environmental issues are, of course, a key component of our strategic plan, and the faculty has moved enthusiastically to implement a new requirement that every student, beginning with this year’s freshman class, take at least one course dealing with sustainability.  The options available to fulfill the requirement range across the academic disciplines from the sciences and math to philosophy, French, psychology, and communications.  New course offerings in this area are being developed continuously, and a steady stream of outside speakers is enriching our knowledge of these issues.

A growing number of students demonstrate interest in a major in the environmental field, and accordingly, we have just hired the college’s first Visiting Scholar in Environmental Studies.  She is Ariane de Bremond, a highly regarded teacher who has particular experience working with the conflict between social and environmental demands in Central America.  It will obviously be important that environmental studies at Goucher reflect the college’s international emphasis as well.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the burgeoning environmental movement at Goucher is that it is utterly devoid of an “us vs. them” mentality.  Students, faculty, and staff are working together at all levels to make this one more domain in which our college strives to be better than the world around us.  And this is only the beginning.

So the next time you hear some of those bromides about apathy on campus and you need a boost of optimism, head straight for www.goucher.edu/green, our new Goucher web page that details our environmental plans, programs, and progress.  And if you have some ideas for how to enhance sustainability on campus that may not yet have occurred to us, please send them in.