Annual Update on Environmental Initiatives

Dear Williams students, faculty, and staff,
Our ongoing efforts to more fully realize the college’s environmental commitments moved forward this past year on myriad fronts.  Many of us have learned more about climate action, expanded knowledge about environmental issues, and advanced sustainability practices at the college and beyond.  This work to understand and address the complexities of environmental challenges remains urgent at a time when our health and vitality, especially of the most vulnerable, are threatened by increasingly severe weather events, war, energy crises, and acute economic pressures.  Outlined below is some of our work this year as well as aspirations for the months ahead.
Research and Teaching
Educating students through courses and research continues to be at the heart of the college’s environmental initiatives.  Opportunities to study the environment can be found throughout the curriculum, from biology to economics to art.  Students are exploring topics about the environment and climate in record numbers.  And faculty are conducting research at the cutting edge of their fields, as can be seen through even a few of many noteworthy accomplishments.
Faculty Research
  • Assistant Professor of Chemistry Anthony Carrasquillo published a co-authored article in Atmosphere titled, “Condensed Phase Kinetic Studies of Hydroxynitrates Derived from the Photooxidation of Carene, Limonene, trans-Carveol and Perillic Alcohol.”
  • Associate Professor of Geosciences José Constantine, Edward Brust Professor of Geology and Mineralogy Emeritus David Dethier, and J. Hodge Markgraf Professor of Chemistry Emeritus Jay Thoman were co-authors of an article in Geology about, “The Importance of Oxbow Lakes in the Floodplain Storage of Pollutants.”
  • Giuseppina Forte, Assistant Professor of Architecture and Environmental Studies, joined the Art Department and Environmental Studies Program this fall, researching and teaching her specialization of race, gender, and climate vulnerability in the Global South.
  • Laura Martin, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, published Wild by Design, an examination of the history, philosophy, and science of ecological restoration in the United States.
  • Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Brittany Meché authored an article titled “Black as Drought,” examining representations of arid environments, and the meanings of Black life and death, in African and Afro-diasporic texts.
Student Education
  • Over twenty students in the Class of 2024 declared a major in Environmental Studies, a historic high.  And over a dozen students chose the concentration in Environmental Studies or concentration in Maritime Studies.
  • Thirty-five students pursued internships, research positions, and independent projects through the summer program of the Center for Environmental Studies.  Topics ranged from science fiction to corporate responsibility to urban agriculture, as can be seen in the center’s annual report (Fieldnotes, starting on page 21) written by Director and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Nick Howe.
  • Almost twenty students participated in Williams-Mystic: The Coastal and Ocean Studies Program of Williams College and the Mystic Seaport Museum, immersing themselves in the experiential and multidisciplinary curriculum that engages with environmental topics from fisheries to plastics to sea level rise.
Campus Sustainability
It was an especially active year for campus sustainability efforts, with the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives bringing together many areas of the college to advance a number of projects.  Energized and guided by the college’s Strategic Plan, which elevates sustainability as a cross-cutting commitment, work continues in each of five priority areas.
Climate Action
  • The college is developing an Energy and Carbon Master Plan that lays out pathways for decarbonizing the campus, with the central aim of transitioning our heating plant away from fossil fuels.  Considering that campus heating is our largest source of carbon emissions, this monumental project would be crucial for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, both scope 1 (direct emissions from on-campus fossil fuel use) and scope 2 (indirect emissions from purchased electricity), by 80 percent from 1990-1991 levels.
  • Just this month, the college launched the Air Travel Greenhouse Gas Emissions Information and Reduction Program to encourage informed decision-making about flying and reduce the climate impacts from air travel, which currently constitutes our second largest source of emissions after campus heating.
  • Since 2016, the Investment Office has dedicated $50 million to impact investments as part of a strategy to support companies, projects, and technologies with attractive return potential that seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Investments have been made in renewable energy (e.g., solar, wind, and hydropower) as well as other decarbonizing technologies.  In 2021, the college’s impact investments were estimated to have offset more than 67,000 metric tons of CO2.  In addition, President Mandel announced a decision by the Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee to not make any new investments in, and phase out of, funds engaged in oil and gas extraction.
Buildings, Landscaping, and Land Use
  • A number of campus buildings have recently received green certification: Fort Bradshaw (LEED Gold & Living Building Challenge Petal Certification), Garfield (LEED Gold), Horn Hall (LEED Platinum), Hopper Science Center (LEED Platinum), Wachenheim Science Center (LEED Gold), and the Williams Inn (LEED Gold).
  • The Zilkha Center and Planning, Design & Construction are working on a proposal for an updated and expanded Sustainable Building Policy that will further embed sustainability considerations in the construction and ongoing operation of campus buildings.
Community, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • The Zilkha Center’s academic year and summer internship programs expanded their focus on social and environmental justice.  One new summer internship gave four students an opportunity to pursue projects on environmental and climate policy at the influential Ecologic Institute, an environmental think tank in Berlin, Germany.
  • The Davis Center and Zilkha Center partnered to offer the EphVentures program Root, designed for first-year students interested in sustainability and social justice.
  • The inaugural TAPSI house was the Sustainable Living Lab, which organized workshops, activities, and dinners around sustainable living practices.
  • Through contributions to the Community Climate Fund, the college has continued to invest in regional climate projects including: the weatherization of small businesses, renewable energy on farms, and building material recovery from construction and renovation projects.
  • The Zilkha Center supported local sustainability projects such as the Williamstown Composts! pilot program and Winter Blitz, an intern-led program that partners with MCLA and Bennington College to recruit students for community weatherization.
Responsible Consumption
  • A planning group drafted the Zero Waste Action Plan that maps out steps for increasing the circularity of materials on campus, reducing consumption, and diverting waste from landfill. An early success was the introduction of compost collection bins in kitchenettes for compostable coffee pods and tea-related waste, but limited funding for composting has also posed a challenge to waste diversion efforts.
  • Dining Services with support from the Zilkha Center has signed on to the Cool Food Pledge, which calls on the college to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2030 and to shift to more plant-rich menus.
  • A pilot program began this fall introducing GenCo laundry detergent sheets to students.  These sheets reduce plastic and water waste as well as encourage circular economies; the first refill station has been installed just inside the entrance of Mission.
Accountability and Transparency
  • The college achieved its first-ever STARS Gold sustainability certification from the American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education.  The STARS system tracks sustainability performance in many areas: academics and research, engagement, operations, planning and administration, as well as innovation and leadership.
  • A Sustainability Action Planning Group has been formed to develop a shared understanding of sustainability actions and to facilitate the articulation of sustainability action plans by administrative departments across the college.
Making progress on our environmental initiatives has required the commitment and dedication of many of us across the college.  Of deepest impact are the ongoing expansion of environmental offerings across the curriculum and integration of sustainability into campus operations, which form a strong foundation for the work that we will continue to do together in the coming years.
Yours sincerely,
Eiko Maruko Siniawer
Provost & Class of 1955 Memorial Professor of History