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Interview with the president

The sitting U.S. president was too busy launching a reelection campaign to meet for this column, but I did stop by the Allen Building where the president of Duke University, Richard Brodhead, agreed to let me into his office. What follows is an account of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Green Devil: Can you describe the process you went through in deciding to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment [in 2007, also signed by nearly 300 other colleges and universities, that set in motion the drafting of Duke’s Climate Action Plan and the commitment to reaching carbon neutrality by 2024]?

Richard Brodhead: You start by asking the question, does this university believe in sustainability? Yes. Do we believe that humans have an impact on the environment? Yes. Do we believe, therefore, that over time humans should alter their behavior so as to show greater respect for the environment? Yes. We also wanted to have confidence we could actually live up to the commitment, which pledges some degree of reduction over time, so we did some analysis to make sure that there was a realistic path by which we could actually achieve those reductions.

GD: Have any outcomes of the University’s commitment surprised you?

RB: I never would have foreseen the change in energy sources [from coal to natural gas]. The number of undergraduates taking classes offered out of the Nicholas School [of the Environment] has doubled over the last five years. That seems to me to be a very striking fact. But then there’s something else that I’ve just always found very remarkable about Duke. Duke, more than many other universities, rejoices in student initiative. For example, some engineering students had the idea that they could devise a house, in which they would invent the systems, and the systems would be more sustainable and more ingenious than systems commercially available. So the University gave a piece of land for this project and actually invested money in it and lo and behold, the Smart Home, the first LEED Platinum certified college residence on Earth, came into existence. Another example is the farm. A group of students thought it would be good for their fellow students to have more of a sense of where food comes from.... They had very good answers to our questions, so Duke helped them find a piece of land in Duke Forest that is now the farm.

GD: Have you read“Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer, the summer reading for the incoming Class of 2015?

RB: I haven’t read it yet. I have read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, and that is my very favorite of the works in that genre.

GD: What is the educational role of the University in promoting sustainability to students?

RB: I am not a believer that universities should tell students what to think, but that we should create a climate in which people learn what some of the serious issues are [in our society] and what the choices are in approaching those issues. I would be disappointed if any student came [to Duke] who didn’t leave here with more of a sense of the human and the natural.

GD: How important is environmental sustainability to Duke and to the future of the institution?

RB: It’s obviously very important. We take seriously the things we’ve learned about the impact of humans on the planet. We are also a great center for the study of the environment, so we want our practices to be informed by our teaching. We would also like the practices of the University to sit before the students as silent instructors about choices they themselves should reflect on.

GD: As the University’s priorities shift and evolve, does sustainability remain a priority?

RB: I do not regard sustainability as in competition with other priorities of the University. I regard it as a good thing to do, and therefore it’s a value that we continue to try to understand and to put into practice as we go about other projects. For example, when we dealt with the municipality of Kunshan about the possibility of building a campus there, we were very overt about our environmental expectations. In fact, in China you often meet an even greater level of concern about the environment because the threat is so much more evident there. Sustainability, properly practiced, leads to economies over time and is in our economic self-interest as much as anything else.

GD: How do you practice sustainability in your own life?

RB: Recycling is a concept that was invented in my lifetime, and I would say I am a fairly observant recycler. My eating habits have also changed significantly. I now eat healthier, more local things. I also like to grow things. I don’t have a vegetable garden here, but I have had many in my lifetime. And having a sense of the connection of the labor of growing things to the process of eating them is a powerful thing.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fourth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. This is her last column of the semester.

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