The Greening of Gibson Hall

March 1, 1999

Mark Meister

Have you ever wondered how much copier and printer paper you go through in a year? Or how much water or energy you use? Charles Reith and Aaron Allen have. Reith, adjunct professor of business, and Allen, a senior in Tulane College and president of the Green Club for the past three years, are team teaching a course this semester that will put undergraduate students to work conducting an environmental audit of Gibson Hall to determine its environmental performance.

"We're going to be looking at the flow of materials--paper, water, energy--through Gibson Hall, how they're used, and how the people inside operate and use them," Allen says.

While Reith, who holds a doctorate in Environmental Science, has the academic credentials to establish the course, it was Allen who supplied much of the sweat. Ecological Design, a 400-level environmental studies course, was initially inspired by a campuswide environmental audit conducted by an environmental sociology class Allen took.

Students interviewed department managers and collected data to grade the university on how "green" it is. Wrapping his environmental interest around a theoretical framework of effecting institutional change, Allen developed an honors thesis last spring on how to effect institutional change on campus environmental issues.

This semester, he's putting his thesis to the test with Environmental Design, which is based in part on Allen's own research. "The class is an educational exercise, but it also has an agenda--to get Gibson Hall greener and to get our university greener," Allen says. "Gibson Hall is a major controlling element of the university," adds Reith. "We'll look at the Gibson influence and try to find ways to optimize its environmental performance. One of the things we'll do is apply models for the methods for optimizations that have worked in business and look at those relevant to Gibson's management policies."

The business world has thus far been more active in greening its operations than academe has, Reith notes. Part of the reason for that may be that steps now being taken toward environmental sustainability are extensions of TQM--Total Quality Management, that corporate buzzword of the early 1990s.

"The key thing we're doing," Reith says, "is taking TQM, which revolutionized longevity and quality of product, and applying it to environmental performance."

While you might suspect that the business world's orientation toward the bottom line can be a hindrance to implementing an environmental management system, Reith says just the opposite is true.

"One of the reasons that businesses are becoming so much more energy efficient is they don't know what's going to happen to the price of energy in the next five to 10 years," Reith says. "The more effective you are in reducing that component of your overall operating budget, the less likely you are to be hurt if that particular price goes up. A very efficient organization tends to be an environmentally good organization."

Reith says students in the course will be learning the kind knowledge that is attractive to employers. "How to analyze a system, identify where it has the greatest potential for improvement and deploy an improvement program takes an analytical skill, a knowledge of what kinds of information are meaningful and a toolbox of continuous improvement processes to find out what can be done," Reith says. "That's exactly what this class will cover."

The specifics of the audit aren't yet known, Allen says, because the students in the class will be designing it as the semester progresses. The overall process, however, will involve collecting data on use of resources in Gibson as well as interviewing deans, directors and department heads to learn how they use paper, electricity, water and other resources.

Students in the class will also collect data on the extent to which employees practice recycling or use excess electricity. While the term "audit" might sound intimidating, Allen is quick to emphasize that the project has nothing to do with pointing fingers and everything to do with developing processes to optimize performance and reminding employees to make those processes part of their routine.

"Little things that remind them make a difference," Allen says. "It's just not part of the culture here, but by doing this, we're going to be effecting change."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000