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Green Commitment Infuses Every Facet of University of Phoenix Life

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education

For many organizations, “going green” seems more a public relations campaign than a cultural commitment to change. But, for the University of Phoenix, “going green” reaches far beyond a simple slogan. Across the institution, quiet yet sustained action abounds in place of mere words, and has made the school one of the greenest in higher education.

It all began with a shovel and a statement on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. University of Phoenix founder, John Sperling, then a professor of humanities at San Jose State University, marked the occasion by leading a group of students to a local auto dealership, purchasing a car, pushing it back to campus, then burying it— an unmistakable declaration of support, and one less resource-guzzling vehicle polluting the air. 

More than thirty years later, Sperling’s dedication to the environment remains as strong as ever, and has become an inseparable part of university life. From internal employee education programs to outward-facing community projects, the school has pursued a range of nationwide initiatives that have made it a leader in the environmental movement in higher education— a position powered by the school’s more than 350,000 students and 50,000 staff and faculty enlisted in the effort. Says Bill Pepicello, university president, “We recognize our responsibility to take care of the Earth for ourselves and future generations and we understand our role in providing education and outreach to encourage sustainability of the natural resources we all share. And our green initiatives are the fulfillment of our commitment to a better environment.”

The university’s new administrative complex in Phoenix, Arizona, embodies that commitment, built from a sustainable design that eases environmental impact. Facilities are oriented to maximize sunlight, lessening reliance on artificial lamps— with energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs switched on only when needed. Under-floor air distribution allows occupants to control their own thermal comfort, decreasing power usage and increasing efficiency. Low-flow plumbing conserves water. Even the disposable coffee cups in the breakrooms are eco-friendly, made from biodegradable corn.

To power the buildings, the university became the largest institutional purchaser of renewable energy in Arizona history—with local provider Salt River Project delivering 46.5 million kilowatt-hours of wind-turbine generated electricity throughout the complex. The university’s purchase matches the amount of energy required to power 100 percent of its Phoenix facilities—or 27 percent of its more than 100 learning centers—the equivalent of electrifying 3,800 homes or eliminating the carbon dioxide emissions of more than 5,280 cars per year. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ranked the university among the top-ten greenest energy users in all of academe.

That concern for conservation and sustainable design is spread throughout the university’s nationwide network of campuses. Recently, in Meridian, Idaho, the school broke ground on a new center that is the first non-government, nonresidential building in the state to be awarded Silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The use of regionally produced recycled building products, energy-efficient technology, water-conserving landscaping—even recharging stations for electric cars—makes the center the prototype for other green campuses within the university system. Moreover, notes Pepicello, the Idaho center has become a model not only for the school, but the community as well. “Through our actions we hope to become an environmental leader in those places where we have a presence,” he says. “It’s a way for us to give back to the communities we work so closely with.”

Brick-and-mortar solutions are important, explains Ayla Dickey, vice president of public affairs and social responsibility, but changing people’s behaviors can have an even greater impact. Staff and faculty are encouraged to join the cause through a multi-faceted internal communications program created to raise awareness and provide tools for adopting long-term living practices. Among the components of the internally focused “Go Green” campaign is an online tutorial developed to illuminate environmental problems and encourage employees to become part of the solution; a companion website offers practical tips that can be immediately applied. “Movements succeed when people are emotionally engaged,” says Dickey. “And key to our internal initiative was to foster in our employees a desire not only to be good environmental stewards, but to carry that imperative into their personal lives. When you engage people in such a way, the chances of success are multiplied.”

At each campus, “green captains” coordinate local efforts, negotiating the purchase of environmentally friendly products, powering down computers when not in use, and recycling every possible article. And with the administration’s aid, staff and students from Plantation, Florida, to San Bernardino, California, have staged “Green Expos,” providing public venues for environmentally conscious groups to share practices and promote green technologies. Says Dickey, “With the size of our student population, the number of faculty members and employees, and our presence in hundreds of communities, our possibilities for creating positive change are endless.”

Students are encouraged to get involved both personally and professionally, including career choices. “We see the greening of America as a growing sector of the economy,” says Pepicello, “and have created a range of offerings aimed at preparing our students for green careers.” A new bachelor of science in business is built around green and sustainable enterprise management, emphasizing social responsibility and corporate action. In addition, the school has created an MBA program with a specialization in energy management, and offers a bachelor of science in environmental science. Meanwhile, environmental ethics courses guide students in a closer examination of the effects of behavior on ecology. And a program in photovoltaic (PV) installation helps workers prepare for the PV installer certification exam, and to take advantage of a burgeoning solar energy market.

Partnerships for Environmental Progress

The university’s green initiatives are not isolated events in academe; a recent study by the Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education revealed that two-thirds of member colleges and universities were deploying green technologies to save energy and aid the environment. Chief among the enumerated actions was developing distance learning and online education programs, thereby reducing resource consumption and carbon emissions engendered by commuters, as well as decreasing the attendant need to power additional on-campus classrooms.

If online learning is regarded as a key green practice, then the University of Phoenix has been the leading proponent for 20 years, launching the nation’s first online degree programs in 1989. Moreover, the school’s movement to a paperless institution, beginning with the debut of the University Library Online Collection in 1995, followed in 2001 by a sweeping project resulting in the digitization of all course learning materials, has saved innumerable trees, lessened landfill waste, and conserved the energy expended in producing traditional, paper-bound texts. “We know that digital materials don’t eliminate printing onto paper, but with improved digital reading devices, and by fostering a culture of environmental awareness, we’re headed in the right direction,” says Pepicello.

Today, partnerships with outside organizations are enlarging the university’s efforts. Whether it’s giving K-12 schools a “green makeover” with Earth Day Network or being a national sponsor of Keep America Beautiful’s Great American Cleanup campaign, the university is devoting considerable resources in support of nationwide environmental action—and in the pursuit of new studies and applications of sustainable green technologies.

Recently, University of Phoenix and University of Arizona’s Research Institute for Solar Energy (AzRISE) have joined forces to create a global institute focused on the development and demonstration of practical solar technology. “We’re helping to build a dynamic center where researchers and concerned citizens alike can come together to advance the solar effort,” says Dickey. Already, students at the center are investing new knowledge in events such as the American Solar Challenge, a competition to design, build and race solar-powered cars, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, an international exposition displaying the latest developments in energy-efficient, fully solar-powered homes.

“Our support for this cutting-edge institute brings a solid research component to our efforts,” added Pepicello. “And through this and other partnerships, we hope to educate, inspire and drive students to become dedicated stewards of our environment, both today and tomorrow.”