Toward A More Sustainable Barnard

The College aims to become a leader in protecting the planet

By Liz Galst

Up in the James Room on the fourth floor of Barnard Hall, with its high ceilings, broad columns, and portraits of Barnard luminaries, about fifty students, faculty, and staff—everyone from Vice President for Campus Services Gail Beltrone to first-year students toting reusable water bottles—buzzed about, brainstorming. On brightly colored Post-it notes, they scribbled ideas, divided those ideas into categories, and tacked them up, appropriately enough, on the backs of repurposed architectural plans Beltrone dug up from a store room. The subject of the exercise this October afternoon: how to cut consumption and waste at Barnard. Surprisingly, the stuff Barnard buys, and the stuff it gets rid of, together account for about 30 percent of the College’s carbon footprint.

At the event, ideas ranged from the specific—“Create a system for Hewitt [Dining Hall] so we can go trayless” (studies show less food is wasted if you don’t use trays)—to the aspirational: “Make low consumption/low waste sexy—on campus and beyond.”

This brainstorming session—the first of five this academic year—is key to Barnard’s sustainability process. In March of 2017, when the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to divest the endowment from companies that deny climate science or otherwise seek to thwart efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change, it also included the recommendation “that the College undertake a robust climate action program to reduce its carbon footprint…and…further instill a culture of sustainability across the campus.”


Much of this work has happened behind the scenes: lighting has been retrofitted to save energy; old machinery has been recalibrated so it works efficiently. Low-flow showers and sinks reduce the amount of water heated by oil and natural gas.

Now, a committee made up of faculty, students, and staff is working to make that recommendation a reality. “What the Sustainable Practices Committee is really trying to do,” says Sandra Goldmark, the associate professor of professional practice in theatre who, in August, became Barnard’s first-ever director of sustainability and environment, “is to extend the vision of how responding to climate change fits into who we are at Barnard, in everything that we do.”

This year’s effort builds on an already impressive environmental track record, largely facilitated by Campus Services and student groups. Since the College first signed on to New York City’s Mayor’s Carbon Challenge in 2007, committing to cut its building-related carbon emissions by 30 percent in ten years, it’s been a high performer, climate-wise. Barnard met its Carbon Challenge goal four years early, then recommitted to a more ambitious goal: 50 percent by 2025. The College now gets 50 percent of its electricity from wind power. It’s worked with vendors to reduce the frequency of deliveries (thereby cutting carbon pollution from trucks), source local produce in season, and promote a low-carbon diet by offering vegan options in dining halls.

Much of this work has happened behind the scenes: Lighting has been retrofitted to save energy; old machinery has been recalibrated so it works efficiently. Low-flow fixtures in residence hall showers and sinks reduce the amount of water heated by oil and natural gas.

But the energy plan Barnard commissioned in 2013 and is methodically working its way through is just the beginning. Students have been out front, pushing for more. “They were the driving force getting the divestment process started,” Goldmark says, “and now they’re transferring that passion to sustainability.” This year, until the College rolls out its own composting program, explains Rachel Gates ’20, who has worked with the Student Government Association’s Sustainability Initiatives Consulting Board, “we’re encouraging people to compost at the farmer’s market” on Broadway and West 115th Street. Groups such as EcoReps coordinate Give and Go Green—a service that helps reduce waste when students move in and out of residence halls. Additionally, a Facebook group provides a forum for students to exchange clothes, shoes, ironing boards, and even computer keyboards, keeping them out of landfills (where they generate methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas.)

The question now is how to create a culture of sustainability not just among stalwarts but campus-wide. (A workshop on campus culture is slated for March 2, 3-5 p.m. Alumnae are invited to attend.) “This conversation,” Goldmark says, “is purposely open, broad, and loose, to get people thinking and excited—to encourage people to talk to each other and not feel constrained by having to come up with the final answers yet.” Goldmark hopes that at the end of the process, the group will create an open-ended plan, “an iterative document” that can adapt to future circumstances, one that has mechanisms for student, faculty, and staff buy-in. Sustainability principles could be added to the Student Code of Conduct. A campus-wide referendum could be created to approve the plan. (Research shows that signing pledges makes participants more committed to courses of action they agree to. Thus, such efforts aren’t just good PR; they’re drivers of social and behavioral change.) The goal is to make Barnard not just a sustainable organization but a leader—a model of climate action, an innovator, and an educator of students who want to lead, too, once they leave the shelter of Barnard’s gates.

“A little committee could write this whole plan all by itself in an office,” Goldmark says. “But that is not the point.” •

Latest IssueSpring 2023