Centering Sustainability: Furman’s Community Conservation Corps

A Legacy of Sustainability Ethic Furman University traces its history of strong leadership on environmental issues back thirty years. More recently, in 2007, President David E. Shi led the campus to...
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A Legacy of Sustainability Ethic

Furman University traces its history of strong leadership on environmental issues back thirty years. More recently, in 2007, President David E. Shi led the campus to become a charter signatory to the ACUPCC. This commitment set in motion a campus-wide conversation that has resulted in the deep, broad commitment to sustainability that exists today.

The ACUPCC as Catalyst and Benchmark

An audit this year of Sustainable Furman, the university’s comprehensive sustainability master plan, revealed that the university has completed more than half of the plan’s original 140 strategies. Examples range from the launch of a sustainability science academic major, to installation of large-scale geothermal systems to reduce campus energy use, to development of a sustainability division within Heller Service Corps to promote student volunteerism.

By FY2013, Furman had reduced its gross emissions by more than 7% from baseline FY2007. This reduction was achieved despite construction of an expanded science center and acquisition of a 182-unit apartment complex. The university Sustainability Planning Council continues to research and refine recommendations regarding energy efficiency measures, investments in renewable energy infrastructure, and development of offsets that will be required to meet our commitment of carbon neutrality by 2026. The progress Furman has made in reducing its footprint is especially noteworthy in a region of the country where energy is relatively inexpensive and the regulatory framework limits investments in renewable energy.

Sustainability as Educational Framework

Furman’s David E. Shi Center supports the university’s academic sustainability efforts and coordinates meaningful, robust partnerships on campus and in the greater Greenville community. Its mission is to promote interdisciplinary research and teaching in support of sustainability. The Center, now in its sixth year, has raised approximately $10 million in grants/gifts for the university. Last April, an external review team labeled the Center “best in class” nationally. The Center has 54 faculty affiliates (over 20 % of Furman’s faculty) and has hosted 125 funded Student Fellows. The Center has supported faculty-student teams in their desires to conduct locally-based research and faculty to develop innovative community-based courses including those examining conservation, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and community-partner based research. The Center has partnered with over 85 nonprofit, private, and governmental organizations.

Centering Sustainability:  the Community Conservation Corps Story

The Shi Center for Sustainability spearheaded discussions about the CCC in 2009 when Furman was looking for ways to create its own carbon offsets to meet ACUPCC-driven goals. The program ignited interest across campus due to the ways in which it would benefit the greater community. The nature of the program was a perfect way for the campus community to learn about the breadth and depth of what sustainability really means – connecting environmental, social, and economic concerns; taking the long view; and being problem-based and solution-driven.  

There were many early questions in setting up a first-of-its-kind program in South Carolina.  What should a university’s role be in setting up a program like this? What should the scope of the program be (how many homes could be worked on at a time, which homes, where)? Who should qualify (home owners, income level, etc.)? How would this all be funded (each home would take between $3000 and $5000 to weatherize assuming some volunteer labor)? How would energy audits be effectively conducted? How could students perform volunteer work that does not pose any significant risk?

In a mere four years, the CCC has not only answered the above questions, but has become a gem in the greater community and for the university – weatherizing more than 50 homes in the community to date, benefitting from 1,500 volunteer hours, and saving homeowners between 15-35% on their energy bills (most of whom live at or below the poverty line).

Although university interest in the program was initially driven by its ability to generate carbon offsets, the many cascading benefits have become the heart of the CCC.  Student Center for Sustainability fellows, volunteers, and classes have met and helped individuals that they were unlikely to interact with otherwise; have had opportunities to learn how to analyze electricity data and calculate economic, environmental, and social benefits; and have had real and positive impact in the community. Students have conducted senior research and thesis work on the program impact through the university’s Sustainability Science major as well as other majors including Economics.  The CCC has led to development of new courses, such as one on Conservation and Renewable Energy. The CCC has provided an important means for Furman to enrich town-gown relationships, through individual impacts and formal partnerships with entities like Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County and the City of Greenville, SC.

It is the university’s hope that others will see the “win-win” value in the CCC and consider developing programs that meet pressing needs in their own campus and greater communities.

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Carbon Offsets, climate action, Community, Furman University, Shi Center, sustainability, weather

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