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AASHE Presidential Voices Interview Series: Wim Wiewel, Portland State University
Author: Judy Walton, AASHE
Posted: February 25, 2013

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, AASHE’s Chief Publications Officer, at Read the original article here.

Wim Wiewel, President of Portland State University, is our honored guest for this interview. Dr. Wiewel serves on the steering committee of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Under his leadership, PSU received the largest gift in its history, the $25 million James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation challenge grant for sustainability. In 2011, the university was awarded an AASHE STARS Gold rating. Dr. Wiewel’s books include Global Universities and Urban Development and The University as Urban Developer. He holds degrees in sociology and urban planning from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University.

Judy Walton: In 2008, soon after arriving at Portland State, you announced that a $25 million, 10-year challenge grant from the James F and Marion L Miller Foundation (at that time the largest single gift for sustainability in higher education) would be put toward sustainability research, engagement, and education. Why was sustainability chosen as the focus, and in what ways has the Miller grant made an impact?

Wim Wiewel: The Miller Foundation wanted to make a long-term catalytic investment in our region, via education. They saw Portland State as a natural partner, because of our mission of community engagement. We convinced them that sustainability was where we could make the biggest impact.wim_wiewel_photo_3-2009_0.jpg

At that time, PSU had been working on various initiatives under the banner of “sustainability” for nearly a decade. Sustainability is something that emerged very organically at the institution, building on strong programs in urban studies and planning, environmental science, interdisciplinary approaches to curricula, and our location in a region that values the sustainability ethos.

With the Miller Foundation investment, we were able to accelerate and amplify those efforts, in part by developing a university-wide infrastructure for sustainability activities that enhance the student experience, expand faculty excellence, and strengthen community engagement. Since then we’ve experienced rapid growth in scope and ambition, and have learned a lot along the way.

When we first put out a request for proposals from faculty, we had nearly 100 responses. That showed the level of excitement around this topic (the funding helped of course).

I’d say that we’re now positioned to effectively implement programming, expand partnerships both within and outside the university, and really position ourselves as a leader in the field.

JW: What is your role in the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, and what are you working on lately with your ACUPCC colleagues? What are PSU’s own climate targets?

WW: I’m a member of the ACUPCC Steering Committee. This is such an impressive organization: on a totally volunteer basis over 600 colleges and universities have developed detailed plans to cut down on their carbon emissions. It’s in the best spirit of American grassroots efforts, without any governmental directive or regulation. ACUPCC assists universities in reaching their greenhouse goals; educating the public about the threat of climate change; and developing plans to adapt to the climate change that’s already happening.

As an ACUPCC signatory, PSU has committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. We focus on a number of areas: Buildings and energy are major contributors to our carbon footprint. We’re increasing energy from local and renewable sources, upgrading HVAC systems and a closed loop energy system, and changing how we schedule these buildings to consolidate usage and increase efficiencies.

Although we now have about 3,000 students living on campus, PSU is still primarily a commuter campus. We’re right downtown, and space is tight, so we’ve worked hard to get students, faculty, and staff out of their cars and onto transit—less than 25 percent drive alone. Our campus is the number one transit destination in the metro system, served by bus, light rail and streetcar. We have partnerships with companies like ZipCar on campus, for those who need a car occasionally, and are constantly installing new bike racks and parking facilities for the growing number of cyclists.

We continue to work on diverting waste from the landfill through improved recycling, expanded composting, and education campaigns. My office is in a nine-story building, and volunteers recently conducted a waste audit—literally digging through two days’ worth of garbage, quantifying the results, and then running an education campaign on how the building occupants performed. We compost and recycle, but we also throw out a lot of empty Starbucks cups. So, there’s room for improvement.

JW: Congratulations on receiving the 2012 inaugural Presidential Leadership Award from the U.S. Green Building Council's Center for Green Schools. What key projects or policies on your campus led to this award?

WW: I had the pleasure of accepting this award at the GreenBuild conference—which is just an incredible event if you’ve never been, with something on the order of 40,000 attendees from all over the world. This award recognizes the hard work and commitment of our campus to sustainability, through operations, capital projects, research, and community outreach.

PSU is home to eight LEED-certified buildings, including the Platinum Lincoln Hall, which I’ll describe later. We’re partners with Oregon Health Sciences University and Oregon State University in a newCollaborative Life Sciences Building now under construction, with a goal of LEED Platinum. When it opens in fall 2013, it will be the largest academic building ever built in Oregon. We’re also assessing some of our current properties for LEED:EB (Existing Buildings) designation.

You can see green design all around campus. The new Shattuck Ecological Learning Plaza is a stormwater and “living wall” demonstration project that was collaboratively designed by architecture and engineering students and faculty. Students can monitor the performance of different commercially available planting systems here, and it’s also just a nice space to walk through.

As an an urban campus, we have 50 blocks comprised primarily of charming, hand-me-down facilities. An example is Lincoln Hall - which I mentioned earlier - a turn-of-the-century high school now home to our performing arts programs. Through a massive renovation, we transformed the run-down building into a LEED Platinum certified facility that’s helping us recruit and retain quality students and faculty while conserving resources.

Another model green building on campus is The Broadway, a mixed-use housing facility, rated LEED Silver. At the time it was built (in 2004) the ecoroof on top was the largest in Portland, at 20,000 square feet. Students and faculty have been monitoring the roof’s performance over time to get a better understanding of how green design functions.

JW: PSU’s motto is “Let Knowledge Serve the City” and it’s located right in downtown Portland. In what ways is PSU advancing sustainability in the city?

wim-wiewel-streetcar_0.jpgWW: One example is Electric Avenue, a research and technology showcase that features several of the latest EV charging stations along one city block on campus. It gives commuters a spot to plug in their hybrid and electric vehicles, and it’s part of a larger research initiative around EV use, adoption, and driver behavior. We’re working with government, utilities, and private companies to help define a roadmap for sustainability mobility, while supporting an industry that’s growing here in Oregon.

Another initiative is the Green Modular Classroom Partnership, which started with a couple of our architecture faculty—Margarette Leite and Sergio Palleroni—who saw portable classrooms as a low-cost, high-impact way to bring green design to schools. Traditional portables are short-term solutions to over-crowding that end up in use for decades. They’re poorly lit, energy inefficient, and loaded with off-gassing chemicals. Working with students, Leite and Palleroni designed an environmentally friendly alternative. Since then, they’ve partnered with schools, industry, and the state to begin manufacturing these. They brought a prototype to GreenBuild this year, and now have a couple dozen on order for schools in Oregon and Washington.

Our School of Business Administration’s Impact Entrepreneurs program helps bring social and environmental change through the power of business. One of their initiatives is the Social Innovation Incubator, which gives local start-ups a crash course in building skills, strategies and networks necessary to bring their ideas to scale. The program supports student learning, local business, and social causes.

Impact Entrepreneurs also helped connect PSU with the Ashoka University program, which has since designated PSU as an official Changemaker Campus.

JW: Last spring I taught a class at PSU on “Sustainable Cities,” and you graciously accepted an invitation to give a guest lecture. Students were not only inspired by your talk, but were touched that you made time for them (thank you again!). What are some other ways you get involved with students and faculty on sustainability?

WW: This past year we established the Sustainable Drinking Water Task Force with students in PSU's Take Back the Tap campaign, which includes students, staff, and faculty. The goals are simple: increase the availability of clean and free water while decreasing consumption of bottled water. As president, I don’t have a magic wand that says, “Let there be sustainability,” but I can say, “If you’re hosting a meeting on campus, serve tap water.” Portland has one of the nation’s cleanest municipal water supplies, and it costs about three cents per gallon.

Initiatives that lack support from leadership don’t go very far—that’s true of large organizations in academia, business, or government. I didn’t bring sustainability to PSU, but it’s one of the primary reasons I took the position of president, and I’ve tried to create and maintain a space for it to flourish, so I talk about it all the time. Having $25 million in seed funding has helped create that space as well.

JW: What would you say are the biggest challenges to advancing sustainability in higher education?

WW: In short: the chronic instability of funding from the state of Oregon.

With no sales tax, and capped property taxes, the state relies on income taxes for biennial budget planning. So, economists make their best guesses on how much money we’ll have in the next two years. In a declining economy, we may be forced to make cuts 18 months into our two-year budget. But if they underestimate revenues by more than 2 percent, the state sends that surplus back to taxpayers.

These ongoing revisions are a challenge to long-term investment commitments. But the general trend is a public divestment in higher education. We now get about 12 percent of our funding from the state. That has shifted the burden to students, who make up for it by working and taking fewer classes, and going into debt.

Another challenge is, we’re victims of our own (modest) success—as a university and as a community here in Portland. We’ve accomplished some of the “easy” stuff, and now we’re having to reach a little higher to pick the fruit.

There are also limits to how broadly we define (and fund) “sustainability”— it’s not a fit for everyone’s teaching or research agenda. Sustainability is an important perspective, but it’s a means to our mission, not the meaning of the mission.

JW: What would you like to see accomplished next in terms of sustainability at PSU?

WW: We’ve put a lot of effort into building an infrastructure of support for these key initiatives, with our Institute for Sustainable Solutions serving as the hub and heart of sustainability on campus. We’ve identified three focal areas for research—urban sustainability, ecosystem services, and social determinants of health—that best leverage our location and expertise.

We’re also looking at ways to scale sustainability ideas and efforts. PSU is part of a group of public, private, and nonprofit organizations working toward a regional economic “greenprint” that will position the Portland-Vancouver metro area as a leader in clean technology.

For our students, these economic concerns are more personal—will I find a job after graduating? Can I afford these loans? Part of the Miller Foundation money has gone to support career pathways to green careers, with advising and internship opportunities that help students land jobs in their fields of interest.

We’ll continue to integrate operations, research, and scholarships in ways that improve the campus and enhance the student experience. Our Climate Action Plan gives us a number of opportunities for that.

On the teaching side, we’re concerned with delivery and financial models for how we continue to grow and meet statewide education objectives while limiting our carbon footprint. To that end, we’ve launched a major initiative, ReTHINK PSU, that’s exploring new ideas and approaches to education delivery. We’re seeing disruptive innovation in higher education—such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that offer content for free from the Harvards and MITs to anyone with an Internet connection. In an approach similar to the way we launched our sustainability initiatives, we’ve asked faculty to put forth their best ideas on adapting to and capitalizing on this changing environment. We’ll fund the most promising of the more than 160 proposals, and see where they take us.

I’d say we’re enjoying the blessing and the curse of living in interesting times.

JW: What do you do in your free time?

WW: One of the most wonderful things about Oregon is its amazing natural beauty. Over the last four-and-a-half years my wife Alice and I have traveled all across the state, rafted, and camped in the mountains and along the coast - and we often spend weekends (if we can get away) in a cottage on the coast. But we also attend lots of performances and games in town, and like any president I have lots of receptions and dinners with friends and donors. Portland is one of the most liveable cities in the world, and PSU’s commitment to sustainability is helping to keep it that way.