The Exeter Bulletin — Winter 2012

Building a Philosophy of Sustainability

Table Talk With Jill Robinson and Betsy Stevens

By Matt Heid

Eliminate bottled water from campus. Compost dining hall food waste. Reduce energy use. Establish guidelines for sustainable building practices. In the near future, all of these objectives will be realized at Phillips Exeter, thanks in part to the efforts of Jill Robinson and Betsy Stevens P’14.

The duo sits in their shared office in the Phelps Academy Cen- ter, surrounded by many telltale elements of their work.A shim- mering blue flag hangs on the wall, emblazoned with a picture of Earth from space. Snippets of paper rest on the windowsill, printed with messages like “Eating local means more for the local economy.” A partially erased whiteboard hangs on the opposite side of the room. Only one action item remains at the top, starred in orange dry-erase ink: “Save the World.” To help accomplish that modest goal, Robinson and

Stevens work to enhance and expand sustainability efforts across campus.They approach it, however, from two completely different angles. Stevens, a science teacher at PEA for 11 years, devotes half her time to her responsibilities as sustainability education coordinator, working to engage students and faculty in sus- tainability initiatives. Robinson approaches it from a position only recently established at PEA: environmental stewardship manager. In this new role, her job is to work with Facilities Management staff and oversee the administration and implementation of sustainability projects across campus. Their collaboration represents a milestone partnership between

facilities and faculty. Prior to the creation of Robinson’s position, efforts were focused through a full-time sustainability educator, who faced the challenging task of managing both the education and implementation aspects of campuswide projects.With a two- person team now in place, Robinson and Stevens can more effectively focus on their respective roles in facilities management and education. By working together, they also achieve a cooperative, big-picture view of the many elements necessary

to implement and enhance sustainability programs. “[This partnership] communicates that sustainability and minimizing environmental impact are very important here,” Robinson says, “and shows an understanding that we have to look at all the dimensions and all the people.”

Student and faculty engagement is a crucial part of the effort, Stevens notes, but “in reducing environmental impact, so much comes from operations.” She cites their current effort to eliminate bottled water from campus as an example. “My job is to educate the community and explain the science behind it,” Stevens explains, “but Jill’s role is crucial in working with our caterers and other suppliers, as well as obtaining the filtration equipment needed to provide increased access to high-quality drinking water across campus.”

Other sustainability efforts are already well established. Stevens rapidly ticks off several of them. More than 60 student volunteers serve as environmental proctors and work to educate the Exeter community about environmental issues, including recycling, composting and junk mail reduction. A free film series and regular guest speakers raise student awareness of environmental and sustainability programs and challenges. The Niebling Fund—a special grant program created through an alumnus’ donation—gives students the opportunity to apply for financial support to implement their own sustainability projects. And each year the school participates in the “Green Cup Challenge,” an interscholastic competition to produce the greatest reduction in electricity use during a given time period.

On the facilities side, PEA has constructed several buildings that achieved LEED certification—a nationally recognized award given to structures that meet strict sustainability standards. These include the Phelps Academy Center and two on-campus faculty houses. “Four houses on campus have geothermal heating, ventilation and cooling; and one has solar panels, which were a gift from the class of 2007,” Robinson notes. “Several other renovations have incorporated sustainability elements through the choice of materials, windows, insulation, energy monitoring, site design considerations, or other elements.”

For future construction, Robinson is actively developing guidelines for sustainable building practices and establishing ways to measure the results of their efforts. “We need to know if what we’re doing represents an actual improvement,” she explains. “Our goal is to actually make a dent in a problem rather than just do things that are highly visible.” But even little things can add up to make a big difference, Robinson adds. “We purchased four bicycles for our facilities staff to use around campus. Our goal is a noticeable reduction in vehicle use as a result.”

Downstairs from their office, in the building’s large communal area, it’s Food Day. The nationwide event raises awareness about the environmental impacts of food production, as well as emphasizes sustainable solutions. Student-created tabletop displays highlight a variety of topics—factory farming, buying local, eating more vegetables—and are tangible results of Stevens’ work with the school’s student-run Environmental Action Committee. The event also offers a window into one of the team’s top priorities: Deal with dining hall food waste in a sustainable manner. “We have to get composting into the dining halls,” Stevens notes determinedly.

“Composting would provide a tremendous education opportunity,” Robinson agrees, but is quick to note the associated challenges that she’s working to overcome, including the large volume of compostable material, the facilities necessary to handle it, and the strict regulatory framework that she must operate within. Nevertheless, she remains equally determined. “Right now tons of food become waste in a landfill instead of becoming soil that’s actually useful. Finding a workable solution is simply the right thing to do.”

Both Robinson and Stevens believe that PEA is uniquely positioned to both enhance sustainability programs and provide a leading example for others to follow. “Exeter is a manageable size in terms of the number of students, faculty and staff,” Robinson explains. “We have the ability to implement a variety of pilot programs and a lot of support to do so.” Stevens agrees, “We have the potential to make a difference and have the resources to make it happen. Our job is to set an example as one of the leading institutions in the country.”

But despite all their successes, the biggest long-term goal is something far less tangible. “If we get students interested and engaged, they will be the ones to find solutions to these pressing environmental problems in the future,” Stevens explains. Robinson nods in agreement. “We want the philosophy of environmentalism to be a natural part of things here,” she concludes, “for sustainability to be a core value that students can take with them into the world.”