Wim Wiewel: ‘Universities Can Be Catalysts for Climate Change Action’

Through the Chevrolet Clean Energy Campus Campaign, we are supporting 11 colleges going above and beyond to combat climate change.
Nov 24, 2014 9:25 AM ET


Guest post by Wim Wiewel, president of Portland State University.

I start with the belief that climate change is the single biggest challenge humanity faces. If we don’t deal with it, rising global temperatures have the potential for devastating impact on a global scale. Widespread drought, disappearing habitat, catastrophic sea level change — we’ve all heard the forecasts.

That puts me — and all of us — in a challenging position. What do we do about it? With a threat this daunting, do I drop everything and focus only on it? What about all the other issues that dominate university campuses: access, diversity, student success, cost drivers and pursuit of excellence?

Of course I can’t let those go. I wouldn’t last long in my job if I did. Nor am I so arrogant to think that my impact as a university president on climate change — even in my wildest dreams — is going to be anything more than very modest.

Yet, I can’t stand idly by, either.

In fact, university presidents are in a uniquely influential position to not only shape the debate about climate change, but also to be catalysts for action. We lead institutions that are full of brilliant, forward thinkers (our faculty) and eager idealists (our students). We also oversee multimillion dollar budgets and large-scale construction projects.

From that vantage point, we can help make a difference in climate change. Universities, under guidance from their presidents, provosts and deans, can be leaders in advancing the science that reduces carbon emissions and global warming. We can become central stores of shared information on the best practices for combatting the threat. And we can lead by example.

At Portland State University, all our new construction meets the criteria for LEED designation. We house the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, which develops curriculum and works with community partners to do just what its name implies. We ensure that all our facilities are easily accessible by bike, bus, streetcar or light rail. Those are only a handful of efforts that give PSU its national green reputation.

That reputation prompted Chevrolet to approach PSU about selling the auto manufacturing company carbon credits associated with our campus-wide improvements in energy efficiency. The deal made perfect sense — we’re raising funds for our continued efforts to improve efficiency while breaking ground with an innovative market transaction.

Our work with Chevy may be a small step, but I operate from a profound sense of optimism that we can ultimately meet the climate change challenge. I believe American business will come to see the profitability in reversing the impact of commerce on our global environment. I see the day when real incentives are put in place to eliminate the pollutants that do such damage to our atmosphere. The huge costs of postponing action, and the consequences of dealing with climate change are starting to resonate on a far bigger scale than just a few years ago.

One last thought on the issue, from an academic perspective:

Our scientists, our economists and our urban designers may be on the forefront of climate research, but that doesn’t exclude the liberal arts from the equation. After all, if we do not have an understanding of history, we would easily be misled about the centrality of our own role in creating this problem. We need historians. We need novelists, poets and artists. What’s the point of having humanity survive without the beauty and wisdom they bring us?



Through the Chevrolet Clean Energy Campus Campaign, we are supporting 11 colleges going above and beyond to combat climate change. During the next two weeks, we highlight several dynamic campus leaders who are taking big steps to leave a smaller footprint.

Join the trailblazers from Ball State University, Valencia College,Portland State University Spelman College, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, Boston University, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Grand Valley State University, andSouthern Oregon University in the drive to a clean energy future.

Follow the sustainability conversation at #CleanEnergyU and tell Chevrolet why clean energy is important to you.