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Environmental mission permeates Northland College
May 20, 2008
By Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Published Sunday, May 18, 2008 (used with permission of Duluth News Tribune)
ASHLAND - Step into almost any room at Northland College, and its mission as an environmental liberal arts college becomes instantly clear: The lights are off.
"The environmental mission adopted more than 35 years ago totally suffuses the campus," President Karen Halbersleben said of the Ashland school. "You can tell in the commitment of the students and the way they ride bikes around campus and carry their Nalgenes [water bottles]."
That commitment - which already includes composting, wind towers, geothermal cooling and heating and a building that was a prototype for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for environmentally friendly buildings - will increase in the fall of 2009 with a narrowing of its focus. Curriculum will be transformed to be almost completely environmentally based for most classes and majors.
"The goal is to be no matter where you open a Northland College catalog, you can see on the page some representation of our environmental commitment," Halbersleben said.
The college was built more than 100 years ago on the cutover region of the late 1800s, when huge swaths of forest were cut down by lumber companies.
"It was environmental devastation," said Rick Fairbanks, provost and vice president of academic affairs. "So there's a sense of being shaped by place and environmental awareness from the beginning."
The college's mission as a liberal arts institution with an environmental emphasis was formed in the 1970s, when concern for the environment was a new consciousness in the country. Over time, the focus of that mission drifted as new programs were added. The school wants to capitalize on its environmental foundation and create more of a niche to stand out from other liberal arts institutions.
"We're approaching a couple of decades of challenges to higher education because numbers of high school graduates will begin dropping after this year," Fairbanks said. "Everyone is positioning themselves to survive."
Northland has about 700 students, with room for 200 more without adding buildings to the campus. Students come from all over the country seeking an environmental education. It is part of the Eco League, a consortium of five colleges in the U.S. dedicated to environmental learning.
"If we do this really well and are true to our mission, there are enough students out there in the country to make a little college work," Fairbanks said. The school understands it's taking a risk by making the changes, but officials say it's also a risk to stay the same.
Some programs will be consolidated or eliminated to allow for changes. The environmental studies major will go away, because several more focused environmental majors - such as sustainable community development and humanity and nature studies - will be added. Those looking for environmental studies will be directed to these and other more focused programs.
Classes that generally have little to do with the environment, such as European history, may have some of those teachings sprinkled in. Halbersleben teaches European history, and she said she probably would talk about how the industrial revolution affected the landscape.
"I would include elements of that I wouldn't think of including if I were at another college," she said. "It becomes part of everything you do."
Scott Grinnell teaches physics and meteorology at Northland and was instructing a May-term photovoltaic installation class in the building of a solar electric system Wednesday. The 12 students were building the system at Halbersleben's house. The panel will allow her to use some power and send power back to the utility grid, and offset about six tons of carbon dioxide annually. Hands-on classes like this that deal with problem-solving will increase with the new curriculum, Grinnell said.
Sophomore Rodney Claiborne is an environmental studies major from Wichita, Kan. He hopes to get a job working with renewable energy systems post-college, and said bigger universities also are starting to emphasize a deeper commitment to the environment.
"It's kind of cool to be on the cutting edge of it," he said.
Although there will be fewer majors at Northland, students will have more in-depth choices to study areas of the environment better suited for jobs that have cropped up in recent years.
"Students are looking for relevance," Halbersleben said. "They want to know that what they are studying is going to tie into their future."
Things such as the solar panel, which will save only about $350 a year in electricity costs, and geothermal heating and cooling, which costs three times as much as regular air conditioning, aren't done to save money. The hope is to teach students what's best for the earth.
"Part of it is convincing people that being environmental isn't a barrier," Halbersleben said. "We all need to be learning to be better ... stewards of this planet. Students are attuned to the urgency of the environmental problems we face."