UB hosts SUNY sustainability leaders

Sustainability leaders from across SUNY attend a reception in the Solar Strand after the day's conference sessions. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

Published June 19, 2014

In 2006, Charles F. Zukoski, then a high-ranking administrator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was asked to support a plan to make the university climate neutral by 2030.

“At universities, we educate the leaders of tomorrow. We can talk about living in a sustainable way, but we also need to practice it.”
Charles Zukoski, Provost

His initial reaction?

“I thought it was crazy,” said Zukoski, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at UB since 2012.“Why in the world would you commit to something like that?”

He kept thinking it over and, eventually, came to the conclusion that he was wrong. Finding a way to reduce or offset all of the university’s greenhouse gas emissions wouldn’t be easy or inexpensive, he said, but it was the right to do.

“I’ve come full circle since 2006,” he said.“At universities, we educate the leaders of tomorrow. We can talk about living in a sustainable way, but we also need to practice it.”

The story was one of many shared during the 2013 SUNY Sustainability Conference held earlier this week in UB’s Jacobs Executive Development Center in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood. With UB acting as host, roughly 75 leaders from across the state met to discuss what they’re doing to make New York’s college campuses more sustainable.

That includes, but is not limited to:

● Farmingdale State College, which recently installed a solar-powered charging station for 20 electric cars.

● Binghamton University, which, among other efforts, offers a minor in sustainable engineering.

● UB, which recently launched a sustainability academy that allows like-minded undergraduates to live and learn together. The university also operates the nation’s most publicly accessible solar array.

The aforementioned projects, as well as the conference itself, are indicative of SUNY’s commitment to not only use its resources wisely, but also to educate the roughly 465,000 students that populate its 64 campuses, SUNY Sustainability Director Deborah Singer Howard said.

It’s small projects, such as bike-sharing programs, as well as larger projects, including UB’s 750-kilowatt Solar Strand, that will help SUNY achieve its plan to reduce system-wide, nonrenewable energy consumption by 30 percent by 2020, she said.


The conference included lectures by Robert “Skip”Backus, CEO of the Omega Institute, which The New York Times called in 2007 “perhaps the most prominent New Age institution” in the nation, and researchers such as UB’s Samina Raja.

Backus spoke of the Omega Institute’s efforts to turn its sprawling, nearly 200-acre campus in Rhinebeck, N.Y., into a more sustainable and eco-friendly business. The process, he said, is similar to what many SUNY institutions are attempting to do.

Raja, an associate professor of urban and regional planning in the School of Architecture and Planning, discussed creating sustainable food systems on university campuses. She has partnered with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the Massachusetts Avenue Project and other entities to promote healthier living and eating in Buffalo and beyond.

The conference included tours of the Solar Strand and Buffalo’s West Side, where PUSH (People United for Sustainable Housing) Buffalo, a nonprofit organization, is dedicated to providing energy-efficient and affordable housing.

Ryan McPherson, UB’s director of sustainability, said that UB was among the first 100 universities nationwide to pledge to become climate neutral by 2030—the same effort Zukoski spoke of during his time in Illinois.

McPherson also noted UB’s tradition of creating more sustainable communities, from its engagement in Love Canal in the late 1970s to more recent efforts, such as conducting research and service to help clean up waterways in Western New York, as well as reduce air pollution.

“It was a pleasure hosting our SUNY colleagues here in Buffalo as we continue to chart a course forward in building resilience, increasing awareness and minimizing our environmental footprint on the future,” McPherson said. “As public research institutions, our model of sustainability focuses on finding solutions to global challenges through research, educating individuals about these challenges, setting the bar high for sustainability in our own operations, and sharing our experiences and partnering with the external community.”