Auburn News

Auburn University Focuses on Sustainability

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] I [/dropcap]n 2013 a thicket of trees spurting out of a fenced-in ditch crowded the view between the soon-to-be Auburn University Wellness Kitchen and the Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum. When the trees were full it was hard to know a section of Parkerson Mill Creek trickled underneath.

Then in the summer of 2014 Auburn University took initiative. The trees and brush were removed, the floodplains widened, the stream cleaned and landscaping put in, including an outdoor classroom.


Parkerson Mill Creek

Parkerson Mill Creek floodplain with the Wellness Kitchen and Donahue Residence Hall in the background.

Parkerson Mill Creek

The beginning of Parkerson Mill Creek restoration area.


Parkerson Mill Creek is one of many sustainability projects that may have been ignored if it weren’t for Dr. June Henton, dean of the College of Human Sciences, and Dean Bennett ’68, dean emeritus of the College of Architecture, Design, and Construction, setting the stage more than 10 years ago for Auburn University to become the sustainability leader in the state of Alabama.

In February of 2015, Auburn University was the first, and only, university in Alabama to be recognized as a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

[box type=”shadow”]The Green Ribbon Schools Award recognizes K–12 schools, districts, colleges and universities that excel in three categories:

  1. Reducing environmental impact and costs.
  2. Improving the health and wellness of schools, students and staff.
  3. Providing environmental education.

More information can be found at the U.S. Department of Education website.[/box]

 The Office of Sustainability at Auburn University, founded in 2008, wrote the 21-page, single-spaced report detailing why Auburn should be considered for the award. Twenty-one, single-spaced pages because that was the limit, not because everything Auburn is doing could fit, said Director of Campus Sustainability Operations Michael Kensler.

Kensler’s office in Langdon Annex is itself a testament to sustainability. The low ceiling over the staircase and the creaky wooden floors leading to the sustainability office hints at the 1887 completion date. But above, the building has been retro-commissioned for energy efficiency. Modern furniture and cork-board walls fill each office and meeting space.

One image is pinned on the walls of multiple rooms: a compass with the words nature, economy, society and wellbeing.

Sustainability Compass

“One of the things we find is that sustainability as a concept is not well understood,” Kensler said. “Often I’ll hear in response to my saying that I work for the sustainability office, ‘Oh, I recycle,’ inferring that sustainability equals recycling. Recycling is very important, but it’s one small part.”

The entire campus was involved in the 21-page report. Much like the Green Ribbon Schools Award, the Sustainability Compass brings together a number of factors for a sustainable campus.


[quote type=”center”]“We’ve come up with the sustainability compass as a way to describe what sustainability is,” Kensler said. “It’s not just about the environment, it’s not just about being green, sustainability is all about people.”[/quote]


In the 2014 Princeton Review survey “College Hopes and Worries,” the final question asked about the importance of a college’s commitment to environmental issues and how much that commitment would contribute to a potential student’s decision to apply or attend a school.

Sixty-one percent of graduating high school students and 60 percent of parents replied that a commitment to environmental issues is at least somewhat important.

Kensler has seen that desire for a sustainable university first hand.

Walking on campus in his Office of Sustainability polo shirt, a prospective student and her father stopped to ask where Cater Hall was. The student saw the logo and lettering on Kensler’s polo and exclaimed that sustainability is part of what she wants to do in college, and was excited to see that Auburn was a part of the sustainability movement.

But Auburn and the rest of Alabama still have a lot of work to do, and as the movement grows, sustainability at Auburn must keep growing as well.

[box type=”shadow”]

Improvements to the sustainability of Auburn University:

  • Hybrid buses in the Tiger Transit line.
  • Fresher food and ingredients provided through Tiger Dining.
  • Sustainability minor offered to any major on campus.
  • Be Well Hut for health advice.
  • On-campus pharmacy and medical clinic.
  • The Recreation and Wellness Center.
  • Office of Sustainability to organize sustainable efforts.
  • Solar panels on the stadium parking deck. [/box]

“I would say that Auburn University is a national player, but I wouldn’t say we’re at the cutting edge of leadership,” Kensler said. “Alabama in general is behind the curve. Commitments to renewable energy, commitments to energy efficiency, commitments to organic farming; there are a lot of things that are happening in other places that are catching on (in Alabama), but not to the same degree.”

Solar panels on the top of the stadium parking deck provide energy to Auburn University's power grid. Photo contributed by the Office of Sustainability.

Solar panels on the top of the stadium parking deck provide energy to Auburn University’s power grid. Photo contributed by the Office of Sustainability.

At the forefront of innovative sustainability on campus and around the city are the students finishing their minor in sustainability through a capstone class.

Nanette Chadwick, director of academic sustainability programs and associate professor of biological sciences at Auburn, has seen six years of growth since the minor started in 2008.

The minor requires an introductory course, three electives of the student’s choice that specialize on sustainability and a capstone course of advanced reading in sustainability and how it applies to the business world. In the students’ final course, they get to use their studies to develop a plan for a real-world sustainability project.

Groups of students are encouraged to include members from different colleges, which isn’t hard since nearly every school on campus is represented in the minor. Past projects have inspired bike share programs, campus building design and sustainable foods in the Auburn dining system.

“Some of those projects weren’t taken exactly how the students designed it, when they were translated into an on ground project, but they served as a foundation or inspiration for related projects,” Chadwick said.

One project from last year, Rails With Trails, has moved to the cities of Auburn and Opelika. The two cities are using the exact project in consideration of building a bike and walking path on the six miles of railroad between Auburn Depot and Opelika Depot.

Chadwick came to Auburn with an undergraduate degree in biology from University of California at Santa Barbara, and a graduate degree at University of California at Berkeley. For most of her career she specialized in coral reef ecology, and has seen a decline in the past 30 years in the coral reefs across the globe.

“I’ve come to realize through my own research and from my perspective from biology that we need to take a holistic approach into preserving ecosystems,” Chadwick said.

The changes that Chadwick and the sustainability staff and students are initiating in Auburn have an impact larger than the loveliest village on the plains. All rivers lead to the sea, and when Parkerson Mill Creek flows through Auburn University, the water will have a clean path.