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Harvard Examines its Role in Environment

By E.k. Anagnostopoulos

As ecological issues move to center stage nationally, Harvard's own policies toward the environment are increasingly coming under scrutiny.

Environmental activists say the University is not only responsible for its own impact on the environment, but that it should play a leading role among universities in the fight to save the environment.

Several activists say that in its day-to-day practices, Harvard has shown itself to be more environmentally conscious than they had expected.

"I am struck by the high level of awareness among the facilities maintenance and plant management people," says Mary Ann Hill, a student at the Kennedy School of Government and one of the authors of the Harvard Environmental Network's recent investigation of Harvard's resource use.

According to Thomas E. Vautin, director of facilities maintenance, projects to reduce energy and water consumption are high on administrators list of priorities. The cost of electric power has increased by 10 percent in the last 18 months, and water costs have just risen 25 percent for the next year, says Vautin.

"The financial incentives are becoming more evident," Vautin says, "because energy and water conservation have a real payback, the hurdle of getting people to think about it is not as high."

Kelsey Wirth '91, a member of the Environmental Action Committee (EAC) who helped organize the Cambridge Earth Day celebration, says students will continue to stress the economic advantages of conservation policies in their meetings with administrators.

"People say you are doing this for all the wrong reasons, but basically that is the only way you get people to do things," says Wirth, adding that it is also important to supplement the economic incentives with educational campaigns.

But a handful of recent administrative decisions show that the University is sometimes willing to put its money behind sound environmental policies, even when it means operating at a loss, activists say.

At triple the cost to itself, the University decided to replace styrofoam cups in the dining halls with biodegradable paper cups in the spring of 1989. The decision came after a major campaign led by the revitalized EAC, now one of the largest committees of the Phillips Brooks House.

And only a few days ago, President Derek C. Bok announced that the Harvard Gazette, the University's weekly newsletter, will be printed on recycled paper. Gazette officials estimate that the switch will cost them an additional seven to 10 percent in production costs.

Julie Wong '92, who spearheads newspaper recycling efforts for EAC, says she hopes Harvard will institution-alize the program by next year instead of continuing the current practice of having student volunteers collect old newspapers every week.

"I want to lose my job," she quips.

National Role

Although sound in-house practices are important, student activists and environmental experts say Harvard's most significant contribution to the environmental movement could result from its place as one of the leading research and educational institutions in the country.

"Harvard University has the potential for being the leader in biodiversity because we already have an excellent faculty working on different aspects of the field," says Edward O. Wilson, Baird professor of science. "Harvard has an advantage because of its extensive libraries and collection of plant and animal species, the largest closely associated with a university."

Faculty members say there has been a groundswell of interest among undergraduates in studying the environment, prompting some University affiliates to consider setting up an environmental studies center in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, parallel to the Energy and Environmental Policy Center at the Kennedy school.

While EAS Co-Chair Brian R. Trelstad '91 says he would also like to see an undergraduate concentration in environmental science, others say they doubt Harvard will adopt such a plan any time soon.

"It's very unlikely that a separate department in terms of an administrative unit will be formed," Wilson says, "but at the same time, there has been a significant increase in the interest of some members of the faculty in providing more training, especially at the graduate level, in environmental issues."

The future of environmental studies at the University will be determined in part by a 15-member faculty committee to be chaired by the Kennedy School's Pratt Professor of Public Service Lewis M. Branscomb. Bok announced the creation of the panel in his Earth Day report.

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