Announcement Regarding Columbia University’s Sustainability Principles

September 12, 2016

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

With the beginning of the academic year and our renewed commitment to intellectual discovery, we should also be mindful of the importance of addressing Columbia’s role in the broader world.  Our community has long understood that climate change poses one of the gravest threats to society’s future.  Scholars at the Earth Institute and across our Morningside, Medical Center, and Lamont-Doherty campuses are recognized leaders in pursuing the new knowledge needed to confront this existential challenge.  As Columbia’s faculty and students conduct pioneering research with consequences for people around the globe, we are also determined to improve the environmental sustainability of the University’s operations and to change institutional and individual practices in service of this goal.

I am writing to share with you a new set of Columbia University Sustainability Principles that will serve as the cornerstone of an ongoing University-wide initiative that must involve our entire community.  I strongly support this effort and encourage you to familiarize yourself with the initiative and the important ways you can contribute to it.

The Sustainability Principles were developed through a collaboration involving University Facilities and Operations and a group of Columbia University Earth Institute faculty led by Professor Michael Gerrard, Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.  The process was enriched by a series of town halls held across the Morningside, Medical Center, and Lamont-Doherty campuses where we solicited input from students, faculty, and staff.  Combining the insight of the University’s world-class experts on sustainability with the expressed views of our community members has certainly elevated this effort.  The principles focus on three areas: advancing our educational, research, and outreach missions; strengthening initiatives for improving energy efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of our campus operations; and fostering a University culture that embraces sustainability.  After reviewing the Sustainability Principles, the University Senate’s Committee on Campus Planning and Physical Development and its Student Affairs Committee each indicated their support.

We are also in the process of drafting Columbia’s first comprehensive Sustainability Plan, a roadmap for building and operating a more environmentally conscious campus with the goal of ensuring coordinated action among all of the University’s campuses.  This far-reaching initiative is led by a Senior Sustainability Advisory Committee, co-chaired by Professor Gerrard and David Greenberg, our Executive Vice President for University Facilities and Operations, and is supported by the Environmental Stewardship Office.  The plan will set clear University-wide goals and priorities in the areas of transportation, waste and materials management, and greenhouse gas emissions/energy, and it will be shaped by working groups of faculty, students, and staff.  The Sustainability Plan is scheduled to be released in the spring.

An important element of this initiative is the Sustainable Columbia Leaders Network—a resource being created to facilitate communication among students, staff, and faculty across all of our schools.  The network will include a student, faculty member, and administrator from each Columbia school, to be nominated by the Dean.

These developments occur during a period of active discussion about whether the University should divest its endowment holdings in some or all fossil fuel companies.  At the end of August, consistent with its “stand up for science” approach, the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) presented a proposal for divestment/non-investment in companies holding tar sands oil reserves.  I encourage you to review the proposal and to express your views in the accompanying online survey.  Action on a tar sands proposal does not preclude other recommendations.  Indeed, ACSRI will be considering an additional proposal that has been submitted by a group of Earth Institute faculty.  In any event, implementation of our own Sustainability Principles and Sustainability Plan remains vitally important.

Each of us bears a responsibility to confront the threat of climate change, enlist others in this cause, and expand understanding of the problem and the multifarious responses required to address it.  Because of the thoughtful collaboration and dedicated work of many faculty and staff members at the Earth Institute, University Facilities and Operations, and the Environmental Stewardship Office, as well as through the efforts of participating students, we now have a clear path forward for maximizing the positive impact of your individual contributions toward this goal.  I want to thank all who have participated thus far and everyone who will engage in this critical effort in the months and years ahead.


Lee C. Bollinger