Update on sustainability and strategic planning

Dear Williams students, faculty, and staff,

This year has brought another depressing series of worsts in the area of climate change: the worst wildfires in California history, the second worst Atlantic hurricane season on record, and one of the worst summers for Arctic sea ice. The pandemic has disrupted almost all aspects of life on our planet, but the impacts of climate change have continued unabated. As an educational institution, Williams has a special obligation to address climate change through its teaching, scholarship, and actions. We have made progress in all of these areas, but given the magnitude of the challenges and our own aspirations, much work remains. This letter summarizes where we are in the college’s sustainability efforts and how we plan to move that work forward in the coming years.

Recent commitments and our 2020 goals

Williams has a long history of engaging with sustainability and the environment, dating back to the creation of the Center for Environmental Studies in 1967. The more recent emphasis on campus sustainability emerged as a response to increased calls to action on climate change and a growing recognition of the importance of addressing environmental challenges both inside and outside the classroom. In 2015 President Falk and the Board of Trustees issued a statement describing the college’s obligation to address climate change in “substantive ways,” and defining five goals for addressing climate change by the end of calendar year 2020:

  1. Reduce net greenhouse gas emissions 35% below 1990 levels.
  2. Purchase sufficient carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2020.
  3. Partner with students, faculty, staff, and the community to reduce fossil-fuel use.
  4. Invest endowment funds in projects that benefit the environment.
  5. Make new investments in our educational mission.

These goals transformed the college’s efforts around sustainability and led to key investments in renewable energy projects, high-performance buildings, carbon neutrality, impact investing, and academic programming. Nevertheless, as the working group report on sustainability makes clear, fossil fuels continue to power much of campus through the central heating plant, and some of the gains from renewable energy investments have been offset by the increased demand for energy through new square footage and increased college travel. While the college is on track to fulfill most of the goals that it set for 2020, it will struggle to meet the goal of reducing emissions 35% below 1990 levels. We will close much of the gap with the help of a substantial investment in a collaborative solar project, but we may still come up short due to our emissions from combustion and travel. This lesson will inform the design of our next generation goals. Meanwhile, we’ll publish a detailed accounting of how we did against all five 2020 goals shortly after the new year.

The 2020 goals constituted an essential step in the evolution of the college’s commitment to sustainability. They showed the power of publicly announced goals to motivate actions and more transparent reporting of our progress. They led to substantial investments in both on-campus and off-campus sustainability. And they taught us that succeeding at this work will require consistent leadership at all levels of the college, as well as widespread commitment to sustainability on the part of the whole community.

Strategic planning

Our successes and failures in our pursuit of the 2020 goals played a crucial role in the design of the strategic planning process initiated by Maud in 2018. In structuring the planning process, Maud elevated sustainability as one of three cross-cutting themes, along with diversity and inclusion and college governance. This was an intentional signal of the importance of sustainability to the college’s strategic priorities in the coming years, as well as an acknowledgement that any progress will require efforts on the part of all areas of campus. Informed by campus conversations during 2019-20, the Strategic Planning Working Group on Sustainability proposed six areas in which Williams should set new goals for the next decade:

  • Climate action: the college should reduce its carbon emissions over the next decade and study a pathway for eliminating fossil fuels from our power plant by 2035. The plan calls for the creation of a climate action plan with specific goals around emissions reductions through reduced combustion, travel, and energy use on campus.

  • Buildings, landscaping and land use: the college should follow rigorous standards in the construction, renovation, and maintenance of its buildings and seek to contain or contract the total amount of square footage. It should develop a comprehensive landscape design and management plan. And it should ensure that Hopkins Forest remains a site for research, community recreation, and biodiversity conservation for generations to come.

  • Education and research: the college should increase the depth and breadth of sustainability offerings in the curriculum. It should continue to incorporate sustainability teaching and research across multiple disciplines. And it should strengthen the presence of sustainability in the co-curriculum and the intellectual life of the college.

  • Responsible consumption: the college should reduce the total amount of consumption on campus. It should increase the proportion of sustainable products and materials in its purchasing. And it should reduce waste and increase the amount of waste that is diverted to reuse, composting, and recycling.

  • Community, equity and inclusion: the college should foster cross-college partnerships and community collaborations. It should promote inclusive decision-making and make clear connections between environmental actions and social justice.

  • Accountability and transparency: the college should establish sustainability as a core institutional priority that is supported by a clear leadership structure. It should charge departments and units with creating department-level sustainability plans and integrating sustainability into job descriptions. It should target a Gold rating in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). And it should clearly communicate goals and progress toward goals.

The report lays out more specific recommendations within each of these broader categories, which together provide a roadmap for a renewed commitment to sustainability across a broad range of areas. Over the course of this year, the board, college leadership, and campus partners will use these recommendations as a starting point for the creation of a college sustainability plan, which we plan to share in 2021. Maud and the board are also committed to this work, as evidenced by the creation of a sustainability committee to oversee the college’s efforts in the years to come.

Coordinating our campus-wide sustainability work

A great deal of responsibility for our sustainability work, operationally and educationally, is shared among the Zilkha Center, the Center for Environmental Studies (CES) and the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC).

As we announced this summer, Tanja Srebotnjak will join us in January as the new Zilkha Center director. Tanja will build on the accomplishments of Interim Director Mike Evans and the Zilkha Center team, including a comprehensive campus waste assessment and, in partnership with Dining Services, a deepened commitment to sustainable food purchases. The Zilkha Center will play a crucial role this year in supporting the creation of a collegewide sustainability plan. Working with OIDEI and the Davis Center, among others, the Zilkha Center will also continue supporting initiatives around environmental justice, antiracism and inclusion.

Our most important commitment is our responsibility to engage with climate change and the environment as teachers, scholars and students. Despite the disruptions of Covid, CES has continued to advance this mission. The Class of 2021 has a record number of Environmental Studies majors and concentrators, with ten students planning to write theses. (To get a sense of student work, watch these videos of last year’s thesis presentations.) Mohammed Memfis, Environmental Studies ’21, won a prestigious Udall Scholarship, the first Williams student to do so since 2010. Mohammed is studying the relationship between environmental racism and COVID-19 mortality in his hometown of Atlanta, GA. Brittany Meché, who joined the program as a Bolin Fellow, studies and teaches about international environmental politics and climate justice in Sub-Saharan Africa. And Laura Martin was named Distinguished Junior External Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center for 2020-21. Across the campus, Williams faculty and students continue to advance our understanding of everything from sea ice and meandering rivers to aerosol particles and climate justice.

Students are contributing outside the classroom, too. Although Log Lunch has been canceled for the fall, students continue to work in Hopkins Forest, doing coursework, research and maintenance. Meanwhile, environmentally-minded groups including Williams Sustainable Growers and the Purple Bike Coalition are operating with new Covid protocols in place.

Finally, CEAC will also continue its contributions to the college’s sustainability priorities and commitments. These date back to the committee’s role in informing the sustainability goals set in 2015, and include their 2019 analysis of carbon offsets and last year’s advocacy for substantial reductions to travel emissions. This year, CEAC plans to work with the campus to develop strategies to reduce travel emissions and partner with the college in the creation of the campus sustainability plan.

While these three groups contribute to the coordination of our campuswide sustainability efforts, I also want to acknowledge and thank people from innumerable areas that contribute to the work, including Dining Services; Facilities; Planning, Design, and Construction; the Davis Center and OIDEI; the Williams Mystic Program, and Athletics, as well as thesis students and interns, and many more.

The pandemic’s impact on sustainability at Williams

The coronavirus has disrupted almost every aspect of college life, including our sustainability efforts. In order to reopen campus we’ve had to rely on single-use products, temporarily close self-serve beverage stations in response to state law (as of the time of this writing, the state guidance has changed, and we will again be offering self-serve beverages), and lease micro-fridges for every student on campus.

Despite these challenges, many college operations have implemented new sustainability measures. For example, Dining has begun providing reusable clamshell containers to reduce waste from to-go dining and has been expanding the college’s compost program to divert compostable cups, utensils and other items from our town waste stream. Facilities lowered temperature setpoints in unoccupied buildings to reduce energy consumption. And many of us have made a virtue of necessity by significantly reducing our use of paper, including for purchasing card reconciliations, course packets and signed documents.

Interestingly, the pandemic has also had a strong positive impact on emissions. While college travel serves an important purpose, it’s also a primary driver of emissions. Both the sustainability working group and CEAC have urged Williams to reduce our footprint in this area, and we now want to ensure that Williams doesn’t simply reset to previous levels if and when travel becomes easier. The Zilkha Center, CEAC and the Office of the Provost will co-develop a program this year to protect our progress and keep travel emissions down long-term without impairing the college’s mission.

This has been a challenging year in almost every respect. Staff and faculty have devoted countless hours to reopening campus safely. The college has invested the resources needed to manage testing, dining and socially-distant and remote teaching. Students, too, have made significant adjustments and compromises in the ways they do coursework and live, on campus or off. It’s not always easy to prioritize sustainability when we’re all contending with such immediate disruptions. But, while climate change operates on a longer time-scale than a pandemic, its impact is at least as profound and our need to act at least as urgent.

Just as the college did with our response to Covid, we’ll continue to set ambitious goals for sustainability and strive to communicate openly and clearly about both our successes and our challenges.


Dukes Love
Provost and Class of 1969 Professor of Economics