Our Work for a Sustainable Future

To the Williams Community,

Welcome to the start of a new academic year! With the arrival of the Class of 2020 and a fantastic cohort of new faculty members, the year ahead holds great promise. And I hope you’ll take these last few days of summer weather to enjoy the beautiful new (and car-free!) library quad, a space that I expect will become a new heart of the Williams community.

But before we dive into the semester, I’d like to spend some time updating you on the important work that’s been done over the past year to advance our sustainability goals and implement our plan for addressing climate change.

Last year at this time, the Board of Trustees and I announced an ambitious set of initiatives that are both symbolically and practically significant—commitments worthy of Williams and requiring broad financial investment as well as dedication by individuals and the entire community to help lead in the fight against climate change. I’m grateful for the work of so many over the past year to make meaningful progress, and happy to be able to share with you now details of our forward movement. As you’ll see from the length of this letter, I have a lot to report to you, and there’s much more to come.

Reducing emissions, investing in renewable energy
A final analysis of our emissions for the past year will be complete later this fall, but preliminary indications are that our emissions were down significantly, due in part to a warmer than normal winter, maintenance of gains made in previous years, and reductions in energy use thanks to the retrofitting of exterior lights to LED and weatherization and air-sealing work in some of our most energy-intense buildings.

We continue to invest in sustainable design and building practices, and that’s especially important as we embark on projects like the Science Center, which will add significant space and flexibility for the teaching of science while using less energy. We’re aiming for the new buildings to use about half the energy per square foot of the existing Bronfman Science Center, and we hope to achieve LEED Platinum certification for the South Building of the project, an ambitious goal for what will be an intensively used lab building.

With donor funding secured, planning is under way for a residential annex for the Center for Development Economics. The project will provide adequate and appropriate housing for the adult students who come to us from around the world, and it will be a net-zero energy building, using solar panels for electricity and geothermal wells for heating and cooling. We’ll be installing solar panels this fall on Hollander and Schapiro halls, as well as on Horn Hall, our first new residence hall in more than 40 years, which was constructed with numerous sustainability-related features, including LED lights, low-flow plumbing, and an excellent, air-tight, and well-insulated building envelope that will keep energy use low (and make the spaces quiet and comfortable).

We’re actively exploring large-scale solar and wind projects that could generate much, if not all of our campus’ electricity, and we’re collaborating with colleagues from Amherst, Smith, Hampshire, and UMass-Amherst on possible collective energy purchasing. A group of Williams students has worked closely on these projects, gaining valuable practical experience in renewable energy development.

Beyond our own energy supply, we’re also investing in the renewable energy sector, and in particular, projects very close to home. This fall we’re partnering with the Town of Williamstown on a 1.9 megawatt solar installation on the town’s capped landfill, and we helped make possible a smaller solar project at the Williamstown Youth Center.

As we work to reduce our emissions, we know we’ll have to do more than that to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020. Although eventually we will likely need to purchase some carbon offsets on the market, right now we’re looking for opportunities to invest in energy reduction projects in our local region. Collaborating with Smith, Amherst, and Hampshire in working with the Center for EcoTecnology, an environmental nonprofit based in Pittsfield, we’re launching a pilot program for replacing inefficient boilers and doing basic weatherization and insulation for local nonprofit and educational institutions. Instead of purchasing carbon offsets, then, we’d be claiming emission reductions for investing in projects that would benefit local organizations and allow them to focus their resources on their missions in support of the community. I am especially pleased that this work is being done in collaboration with nearby institutions that share our values and commitments.

It’s been nearly a year since we kicked off the effort to meet the Living Building Challenge with our new Class of 1966 Environmental Center. It’s an ongoing experiment and an incredibly ambitious endeavor. We’re seeing higher energy use and lower energy production than we’d expected, so we’re examining data and trying new strategies to bridge the gap. If you haven’t been in the environmental center lately, I encourage you to visit: you’ll see new educational signage throughout the building explaining its systems and goals—designed by a Zilkha Center intern over the summer.

Investing in our educational mission
We’ve made climate change a campus-wide theme of inquiry for 2016-17, and I’m grateful to those faculty and staff who’ve taken the lead in planning an extraordinary array of programming and speakers for Confronting Climate Change. We kicked things off with our Williams Reads event on Monday, when the campus engaged in discussions of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

Confronting Climate Change will be a key theme of Convocation, at which we’ll honor five alumni who’ve made important contributions in the fields of conservation, urban planning, organic farming, energy security, and climate justice. We’ll hear a convocation address by Maxine Burkett ’98, a professor of climate and environmental law at the University of Hawaii who’ll be back in October to present a talk on climate justice. You can learn much more about Confronting Climate Change on the college’s Sustainability website.

Meanwhile, the Zilkha Center is working with the Davis Center to engage students in discussions at the intersections of climate change, race, colonialism, and class, and with the Center for Learning in Action, Office of Student Life, and Chaplains’ Office to incorporate climate issues into programming, events, and experiential learning and community engagement opportunities. We highlighted the importance of such work in a video we featured at our spring Teach It Forward campaign event in Washington, D.C., where we spent an afternoon in conversation with alumni about how to build a livable future.

Impact investing
We’ve put considerable new effort over the past year into seeking opportunities to invest the college’s endowment in ways that have the effect of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. In the spring, the board’s Investment Committee amended the college’s Statement of Investment Policy to include a section on impact investing in support of such work. We’ve developed a plan for integrating impact investments into the overall investment pool and worked hard to cultivate a pipeline for such investment opportunities, meeting with more than 50 fund managers, peers, and consultants, and attending conferences on the subject of impact investing. We’ve identified several potential investments, and we expect to make our first investment this fall.

At the recommendation of the Retirement Plan Governance Committee, we have added to the college’s retirement plan a “low carbon” investment option, the TIAA-CREF Social Choice Low Carbon Equity Fund. We’ve also recently established a dedicated fossil fuel-free investment fund to which donors may direct major gifts to the endowment. Furthermore, donors to the Alumni Fund and Parents Fund may now choose to direct their contributions to support current campus and curricular investments in sustainability.

I’ll continue to share updates with you on these wide-ranging efforts. I’m extremely grateful for the commitment of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni to address the ever-more critical issue of climate change. It’s through our individual and collective determination and leadership that Williams can make a real difference.

Best wishes to you for a wonderful semester.


Adam Falk