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Posted on Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 11:51 a.m.

Mary Sue Coleman: Sustainability at University of Michigan must be 'meaningful and measurable'

By Kellie Woodhouse

Four years ago hundreds of college presidents signed a letter promising their institutions would become carbon neutral in a matter of decades.

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In September 2011 Mary Sue Coleman issued a list of sustainability goals she wants the University of Michigan to meet by 2025.

Angela Cesere |

The movement gained the signature of 674 college presidents and dominated the news circuit for a period of months, but you won't find University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman's signature among those on the guarantee.

Instead U-M took its time and developed its own set of sustainability goals, which it released on Sept. 27, 2011. Coleman spoke about U-M's progress during a sustainability event on Tuesday evening at the Michigan Union.

The 2007 letter had been a bold move, with the leaders of top-tier schools like Cornell University, the University of California's Los Angeles and Berkley campuses and the University of Maryland committing to drastically reduce their emissions by 2050 and make their progress _or lack of it_ publicly visible.

But at the time, U-M was considering purchasing the North Campus Research Complex and the health system was growing rapidly, with the $754 million C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women's Hospital under construction. Coleman says she wasn't convinced such a commitment was realistic.

"Presidents around the country were signing this climate letter, they were going to make their campuses carbon neutral by 2050," Coleman recalled Tuesday evening. "I thought that would be very easy for me to sign, that I am going to [sign] it and leave it to the next person."

[But] I'll never put us in the position where somebody in the future says 'Well, why the heck did she do that?'"

Last year Coleman announced a $14 million sustainability initiative that set a series of goals tailored to U-M, including reducing carbon emissions 25 percent by 2025.

The reduction goal was more modest the the commitments from Cornell and other schools, yet still a challenge for an institution with 34 million square feet of building infrastructure and roughly 43,000 students.

From 2004 to 2011, greenhouse gas emissions at U-M had increased 28 percent.

U-M also created a minor in sustainability and promised to reduce the amount of chemicals it uses on its 13 million square feet of turf by 40 percent by 2025. Coleman vowed to increase the amount of campus food sustainably sourced by 20 percent, make all campus buses hybrids by 2025 and install solar panels on North Campus. The commitment followed a 2010 promise that new construction over $10 million would be built LEED certified, a measure that enforces sustainability and energy efficiency in construction.

"It has to be meaningful to me and it has to be measurable... I have to be honest with people about what we can and cannot do," Coleman said. "I think some campuses and presidents are sort of (regretting) the day that they made a commitment without knowing how to get there."

Coleman highlighted Mott, which opened in December 2011 and was built to meet LEED requirements, adding a 15 percent premium to the initial cost of construction.

"When you've got a $754 million facility, a 15 percent premium is a lot of money," she said, though she acknowledged that U-M would recoup its money (an estimated $155 million) through energy savings over time.

Since launching the sustainability initiative a year ago, U-M has introduced 7 hybrid buses, which cost $518,345 each, begun negotiating with local food vendors and replaced select lighting and windows with energy efficient alternatives, among other things.

Throughout the year the university installed blue recycling stations around campus in an effort to reduce waste by 40 percent in 2035. Waste in 2011 equalled 17,000 tons, a significant increase from the 13,800 tons of trash the Ann Arbor campus generated in 2004.

The cans, first introduced in September 2011, were installed years after U-M originally got rid of recycling bins because students filled them with trash, contaminating the contents and making them impossible to recycle.

"One of the things that I didn't anticipate was how important human behavior would be (in becoming sustainable), that people would just thwart all of our efforts," Coleman said. "That wasn't the way they always behaved."

Since then, environmental awareness has increased and people have become more educated about recycling and more willing to sort their trash.

Coleman said Tuesday that becoming a grandparent has elevated the importance of sustainability in her mind.

"It certainly makes you think more about the future and what sort of life you want for your grandchildren, what sort of world you want them to live in."

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.



Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 11:28 p.m.

Doesn't anybody care whether we divert our planet from its current path of environmental destruction due to climate change? Otherwise, we are facing rising oceans, loss of species, more crop failures, more weather catastrophes, and collapse of our carbon-based economy. There is no doubt about the underlying science. I think it's the proper role for the universities to lead the way toward solutions to these problems. The changes she is making are good, but in the grand scheme, they are small. She should be doing more.

Ron Granger

Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 11:14 p.m.

I cannot help but feel this chatter is just part of an on-going PR campaign by Mary Sue Coleman to deflect attention from the child-porn delay/cover-up, and the very overdue "investigation" results. I say "investigation" because they hired lawyers to do it, and one assumes the negotiations about the contents of any public disclosure will be protected by attorney-client privilege.

VO Key

Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 9:51 p.m.

Well well well Mary Sue up in her ivory tower trying to find more ways to fritter away our hard earned tax dollars on these green schemes. It really makes me sad to see how far this University has fallen. There was a time when being a Michigan man stood for something more than knee jerk liberalism. I'm afraid those days are long behind us as the U continues to spiral into the abyss. Great job everyone


Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 8:23 p.m.

" Carbon neutral " what a colossal load of crap...polish it package it and wrap it in lies and you can actually sell the sheeple manure ( I'm being polite for the word censors ) ...


Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 5:56 p.m.

When I first saw "sustainable" and "University of Michigan" in the headline, I thought this article was going to be about keeping college affordable. Now I see that its about something that will probably raise tuition.


Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 7:27 p.m.

Not necessarily. They could save a huge whack of cash through basic energy consumption reduction. Of course, passing that savings on to the students tuition rates would be ludicrous.

Top Cat

Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 5:40 p.m.

Really, this lady need something to do.


Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 5:27 p.m.

A huge component of evaluating this University's sustainability is INCREDIBLY EASY TO MEASURE. It's called your kilowatt-hours of electrical consumption, and the amount used here in Ann Arbor by the U of M is truly disgusting. Case in point - the un-needed football stadium expansion is guilty of sucking down many megawatts ALONE. As we all walk or drive by it in the evenings and days with next to no human presence inside, almost every light bulbs is pointlessly converting coal and/or natural gas into WASTED HEAT. Mary Sue, get real about this, or SHUT UP! I am so sick of this empty green washing campaign. Start actually trying to conserve some energy, stop selling plastic bottles of water, get better recycling options in every campus hallway, run your bus system on a higher blend of biodiesel, AND SO ON. It's not that confusing - you just actually have to try. And efforts thus far are truly pathetic.

Macabre Sunset

Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 5:23 p.m.

Of course it didn't work; they didn't account for all the hot air released from all that sanctimonious bleating from the top of the ivory tower.