Encouraging Environmentally Sustainable Campuses

A sense of responsibility to the environment and to students is prompting colleges and universities to look for ways to limit their consumption of energy and other resources. Knowing that it’s critical to use campus resources efficiently, The Duke Endowment in 2008 launched a $500,000 initiative to help Davidson College, Duke University, Furman University and Johnson C. Smith University search for ways to become more environmentally sustainable.


By exploring measures that will reduce their carbon footprints, the schools are hoping to reduce long-term energy costs and meet the needs of current generations without sacrificing the needs of future generations. They’re also working to provide sustainability-related coursework and learning opportunities for students.


The Duke Endowment Task Force on Campus Sustainability was created in the summer of 2008 with top administrators, faculty and staff members from Davidson College, Duke University, Furman University and Johnson C. Smith University. It was the first time a grant had been made to the four institutions as a whole.

The unique collaboration began with a summit in Charlotte that included representatives from nearly two dozen schools from North Carolina and South Carolina. Duke Energy was a corporate sponsor. Afterward, Furman, Johnson C. Smith and Davidson signed up for comprehensive energy audits in 2009 to help them find ways to improve energy efficiency and save money. Performed by Advanced Energy in Raleigh, the audits gave the schools baseline numbers and technical expertise. (Duke University had completed an audit earlier.)

In January 2009, representatives from the four schools attended a Climate Action Planning meeting at Furman. With panelists from Middlebury College, Pomona College, Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire, the intensive, three-day workshop looked at the best ways to develop a comprehensive climate action plan. Davidson, Duke and Furman have signed the American Colleges and Universities Presidents’ Climate Commitment; Johnson C. Smith is considering signing.

The next month, in February, the Endowment hosted a Charlotte meeting with Furman President David Shi, Davidson President Tom Ross, Johnson C. Smith President Ron Carter and Tallman Trask, an executive vice president at Duke University. Forty other participants included Rhone Resch from the Solar Energy Industry Association in Washington, D.C.; Steven Strong from Solar Design Associates near Boston; and two Duke Energy executives responsible for renewable energy initiatives.

From that gathering, it became clear that the task force needed more technical expertise about campus sustainability. Angela Halfacre, a political science professor who directs the David E. Shi Center for Sustainability at Furman, was hired as chair of the task force.

With Halfacre as a leader, task force members began exploring whether the colleges could work together to construct a solar array on land owned by one campus. They identified Furman and Davidson as pilot sites, and Steven Strong visited both schools to assess solar possibilities. After a summer of studying the assessments, analyzing energy audits, working with attorneys and using financial models from specialists at the North Carolina Solar Center, the task force realized it wasn't financially feasible to pursue a large collaborative solar project at the time.

At a third summit in September 2009, the schools agreed on 14 priorities. Four working groups emerged to help sharpen the focus:

  • Joint Purchasing: Working with vendors to purchase items as a group and receive discounts. This is especially important for emerging technology that might be of interest.
  • Renewable Energy: Looking at renewable energy possibilities on each campus, such as solar, biomass and geothermal. Most recently, the group looked at using biomass to generate electricity and steam.
  • Energy Conservation Revolving Loan Fund: Revolving loan funds provide capital to institutions to finance energy conservation initiatives. Through the resulting utilities savings, they pay back the loan and interest charges. As loans are paid back, new loans are issued.
  • Curricular/Co-Curricular Initiatives: Finding ways to share best practices and curricular experimentation. Each school has a commitment to train students to be familiar with sustainability concepts and use problem solving and critical thinking skills to address long-term energy and resource challenges. The schools have efforts underway to provide sustainability-related coursework and learning opportunities, including service learning, applied research and internship experiences.

With the working groups in place, the collaboration expanded from the early days of 20 participants to nearly 150.

During a fourth summit in February 2010, participants received updates from the working groups and learned more about biomass as a renewable energy source.

Next Steps

In September 2010, the task force began a series of trips to explore activities on the four campuses. At Davidson College, participants learned about a computing system that uses technology to reduce paper use, a student-run herb garden and a composting project that turns dining hall scraps into mulch.

At Furman in March 2011, they toured an on-campus farm that practices sustainable agriculture and heard about a lake restoration project. The group also learned about a solar aquatic wastewater treatment system.

The visit to Duke in September 2011 included a look at the university's sustainability research and real-world applications, and a presentation on how to design a communications strategy to promote sustainability on campus. Participants also toured a chiller plant, a steam plant, a "Smart Home" and a campus farm that now supplies fresh food for the dining hall.

Participating Sites

North Carolina

  • Davidson College, Davidson
  • Duke University, Durham
  • Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte

South Carolina

  • Furman University, Greenville


Area of Work

  • Campus and community engagement

Program Area

  • Higher Education

Grantmaking Status

The Endowment is continuing to work through current grantees and is not accepting new applications.

Areas of Work

  • Prevention and early intervention for at-risk children

    To equip children and families with skills to ensure that children reach developmental milestones to lead successful lives.

  • Out-of-home care for youth

    To drive child welfare systems toward greater accountability for child well-being.

  • Quality and safety of health care

    Improving the quality and safety of health care delivery

  • Access to health care

    Improving health by increasing access to comprehensive care

  • Prevention

    Expanding programs to promote health and prevent disease

  • Academic excellence

    Enhancing academic excellence through program and campus development

  • Educational access and success

    Increasing educational access and supporting a learning environment that promotes achievement

  • Campus and community engagement

    Promoting a culture of service, collaboration and engagement among schools and communities

  • Rural church development

    Building the infrastructure and capacity of United Methodist churches to enhance ministry and mission

  • Clergy leadership

    Strengthening United Methodist churches by improving the quality and effectiveness of church leadership

  • Congregational outreach

    Engaging United Methodist congregations in programs that serve their communities