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Blessings in Disguise: How a Focus on Sustainability Fostered Antioch College’s Rebirth

courtesy of Antioch College

On October 25, 2014, Nick Boutis, Executive Director of the Glen Helen Ecology Institute at Antioch College delivered the following keynote address the University of Dayton's Sustainability Summit.

The gist of what I’m going to tell you over the next few minutes is that, when life gives you lemons, make a lemon meringue pie. Lemonade is fine, and all, but sometimes new challenges call for new solutions.

In the fall of 2011, after a three-year closure that many assumed was permanent, Antioch College reopened its doors to students.


What was so vital about Antioch College? Why were alumni of the institution so determined to see it preserved and sustained?

I’m going to give you three reasons:

For starters, I want to paraphrase David Orr, one of Ohio’s great environmental thinkers. He describes the cumulative state of our environmental efforts this way: Our environment is going down the tubes. It’s like we’re on a train speeding south. But, the good news is, to one degree or another, there are a lot of us who are aware of the challenges humanity faces, and we’re working to make a difference. Well, Dr. Orr likens us to people, walking north in that train heading south. Every now and again, we cross from one train car to the next and congratulate ourselves on our progress, rarely taking stock of the fact that while we were walking 50 feet one way, the train traveled five more miles the other way.

I don’t want to belabor the point, just hammer it home a bit further—there are great challenges facing humanity, yet the cumulative effect of everyone who is doing everything they can to make a difference has not yet reversed trends lines. Despite the fact that many schools have solid intentions, the nation’s colleges and universities offer unrealized promises with regards to the challenges of the world. The present trajectory of humanity remains unsustainable.

The second reason is that wanting to make a difference is part of the institutional DNA of Antioch College. Antioch’s founding president, Horace Mann, put it in stark, blunt, 19th Century terms when he exhorted graduates to “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

While I’m on a roll of quoting people, let me also share a few words from one of the great scientists to graduate from Antioch, Stephen Jay Gould. In “The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History,” Dr. Gould wrote,

We have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.

The point is, there are plenty of people out there who do not dwell on the state of the world, or who have not made it a personal or professional priority to seek change for the better. Antioch may be small, but its students and alumni are not willing to be on the sidelines of the future.

Last reason: And, allow me to spoon out a dollop of audacity here…

In simple terms, we boldly believe that Antioch College is positioned to make meaningful contributions to ensure the future of humanity and that few other institutions have a comparable capacity to affect change.

I’ll say more: There are colleges and universities around the country doing excellent and substantial work to confront issues related to sustainability. Unfortunately, many of these institutions are limited by their design, structure, and approach.

Typical colleges are highly bureaucratic, organizing their operations by academic discipline. The biology faculty are located in one building, across the street from the geology faculty. Philosophy faculty are across campus, as are the environmental studies professors. Facilities staff are elsewhere as well. The structural segregation that comprises the norm on college campuses creates a barrier to integrated teaching and weakens the potential for student learning that synthesizes content across disciplines.

Once a year or so, I get together with the sustainability coordinators of the schools within the Great Lakes Colleges Association. It’s an illustrious list of some of the most highly-regarded liberal arts colleges from Ohio and neighboring states. The group includes—in addition to Antioch—Oberlin, Earlham, Denison, Kenyon, Wooster, DePauw, and others. At a typical meeting, we find ourselves sitting at a conference table in LEED Gold certified building, natural light streaming in through triple glazed windows, organic shade-grown fair-trade coffee brewing in the hall. And, I listen as my professional colleagues complain.

A faculty member from one school laments that they can’t get the facilities staff involved. While, at another school, the facilities staff are the sustainability coordinators. They complain that none of the students can be bothered to recycle. Nearly everyone has a moment of bonding when they all agree that they can’t get their administration to care.

And so, it goes. I get to do this once a year. This may seem sadly ironic, but I find it pretty inspirational. It reminds me that, even though Antioch College is a micro institution, just now entering its fourth year of renewed operations, even though we don’t have the resources of the other schools sitting around that table, at least at Antioch we’re all rowing in the same direction. Sometimes there is a real advantage to having the opportunity to make a fresh start. Sometimes, it’s nice to churn out a fresh lemon meringue pie when everyone else is showing up to the party with lemonade.

I look back at that period from 2008 to 2011. Even though Antioch was closed. And, broke. We still had assets. And, opportunities. We had the opportunity to:

  • Embrace the fact that we get to have a fresh start, and bring with it a fresh way of thinking. We have the opportunity to avoid miss-steps that other institutions have made.
  • Recognize that we are small, and will need and want to collaborate wherever we can
  • Make the most of the fact that we are in Ohio. Yes, Ohio.
  • Make the most of the fact that we are a school that believes in experiential learning and recognizes that it is classroom learning and life experience combined that make students effective in the world.

So, let me tell you about some of the things we’re doing. I’ll focus on three areas: energy, land, and food. Every success we’ve had has been about making the most of our abundantly finite assets.
When I started at Glen Helen years ago, one of the things we wanted to do was to evaluate the energy efficiency of our buildings, both to see how they performed, and to decide what kind of future investments we might want to make. As we were thinking about this, I got in touch University of Dayton (UD) physics professor Bob Brecha. Dr. Brecha agreed that he would help us do energy audits for a couple of our buildings. We looked at gas and electricity use, how well sealed the buildings are, how well insulated they are. At the end of the evaluation, he came back with the assessment that we had exceptional facilities. In fact, of all the buildings that he had ever evaluated, these were the most exceptional—they were by far the worst performing buildings he had ever seen. It has been a few years now, but I believe the words used to describe them were “stone shacks in the middle of the woods.”

Fast forward a couple years, to the height of the economic crises. You’ll recall in 2009 the federal government rolled out a massive stimulus bill, basically aimed at spreading dollars around to try to create jobs. One of the ways that played out is that the U.S. Department of Energy offered grants for energy efficiency projects. So, knowing that we had these exceptional buildings in Glen Helen, I again sought out Dr. Brecha to discuss what we might propose to the Department of Energy.

We were interested in taking out our 40-year-old gas fired furnaces and putting in a new high-efficiency, ground source heat exchange system—what is commonly called geothermal. Dr. Brecha pointed out the biggest problem with that. Namely, when you switch to an electric system, you’re switching from gas to coal. You’re getting a functionally more efficient unit, but instead of fracked gas, you have mountaintop removal coal. And, is that really much better?

(Can you hear the train as it continues south?)

The gauntlet is if you want to have clean electricity, you have to power it with renewables. And, whether we’re talking about an electric car or a geothermal heating system, if you plug it in to the grid in Ohio, your electric car or geothermal heating system will be powered mostly by coal.

Lots of schools out there have their own power plant. They’ve invested millions in those plants, and can’t afford to turn their backs on that investment. Antioch too had its own power plant. It was designed to burn coal; then later converted to natural gas. By the time the college reopened in 2011, it was completely out of commission.

This was a classic blessing in disguise. If the power plant were functional, there would have been enormous pressure to continue using it. But, with no power plant, Antioch needed to look elsewhere to figure out how to condition its buildings. The solution: A central geothermal plant, with over fifteen miles of underground pipes, making use of the constant temperature 300 feet beneath the surface of the earth—large enough to heat and cool the entire campus. But, this huge geothermal system would use a honking lot of energy—about a megawatt a year. The solution: Build a solar array on top of the geothermal well field. The energy produced by the solar array production totally offsets the energy demand from the geothermal plant.

The first step to an energy efficient campus is to have a space efficient campus. We believe that most college campuses are overbuilt and that the design of typical college facilities in itself creates an insurmountable barrier to true sustainability. It is considered normal and acceptable to have classrooms that are used 2-3 hours per day, and laboratory rooms that are used 3-4 hours per week. As part of the Antioch master planning process, we established a space utilization benchmark to maximize the efficiency of our built environment: We intend to have a space utilization rate 50% above our peer institutions. The next challenge: Figure out a way to structure dormitories so that students sleep in shifts. Actually, that may be a challenge for the future.

Antioch intends to renovate existing buildings whenever possible, to make use of the embodied energy that went into the initial construction. North Hall, our first major renovation project, shows our approach. The building had served as a dormitory since the 1850s, is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and is one of three remaining original buildings on campus. Now, it is also one of the oldest buildings in the country to receive LEED Gold Certification for its top-to-bottom renovation.

None of this happens in isolation. We want intentionally to connect our work on the facilities of the campus to the curriculum, and to opportunities for student work. Students are introduced to issues of global significance through a series of freshman/sophomore seminars. Surprise, surprise: Energy is one of six topics covered in the seminars.

We intend for students to be involved in every step of achieving our sustainability goals, with the understanding that we seek both performance goals for low energy use, and education goals for how our initiatives can provide rich learning experiences that would not be easily possible at other colleges. Thus, for facilities improvements, students:

  • Serve on the project committees, where they will work with architects to design a project and establish a budget.

  • Actively work to maximize the operating efficiency of the building by monitoring energy use on a floor-by-floor basis, and comparing that data across each floor and against historical benchmarks.

  • Have jobs with the contractors and be able to learn project management skills for multi-million dollar projects.

  • Work with the facilities staff to evaluate materials used in the project, learning the challenge of weighing costs, benefits, and impacts.

  • Work with the development staff to raise funds for the project.

  • Their experiential learning would be reinforced by classroom study in economics, ecological design, thermodynamics, etc.

Okay, let’s talk about food: This is one of the times when we are lucky to live in Ohio. We are fortunate to have a relatively long growing season, quality soil, abundant rain, and plenty of arable land that has not been converted to non-agricultural uses.
So, from the get-go, we saw food and farming as one of the ways that Antioch could really shine, and offer a program that was exciting for students and faculty to participate in, and, I say with a touch of hubris, that might make a meaningful contribution to humanity’s understanding of what it takes to live sustainably.

Lots of campuses have a farm. So, when we started thinking about growing a farm on the Antioch campus, we spent plenty of time thinking both about what we would do, and what we would not do.

We ended up with three guiding ideas – we would integrate, collaborate, and diversify.

Most college farms exist at the fringe of the institution. A handful of students, maybe a couple faculty members. But, we wanted the farm to be an integral part of the school. And, because we were designing it from the ground up, that is what we were able to do. We had one immediate advantage, in that Antioch is a year-round school. Other schools have a particularly hard time keeping things going during the summertime, since most students and faculty skedaddle.

So, let me paint you a picture of the Antioch farm. Students take classes there. Not just the obvious ones like the global seminar on food, or introduction to environmental science, or an upper-level course in ecological agriculture. Faculty across the curriculum use the farm. An anthropologist who does her research in the Chiapas region of Mexico grows Zapatista corn on the farm. A sculpture professor involves students in a design-build project to construct a teahouse on the farm. A philosopher brings his students out to the farm to discuss whether plants have souls. I won’t mention that this same philosophy professor nearly did himself in by clearing the farm from invasive poison hemlock. He’s fine, but for a scholar who studies Socrates, that would have been a cruel, cruel irony. Curricular integration. It’s hard. But, when it works, it’s extraordinary.

Students work on the farm. Actually, the farm is the largest employer of students on campus. Depending on the time of year, we might have a dozen students on a half-acre garden. Most are part-time; a few will be full-time. Antioch, I should mention, is a co-op school, where students, every third term, take a break from classes and work full-time, anywhere in the community, the region, or the world. Students sometimes even work on the farm before they enroll as freshmen. Each year we have a handful of students who arrive early, and work a few weeks before school starts. They get to ease into their college career, and we get some fresh legs on the farm right when everyone else is reeling from a summer in the sun.

The farm is also integrated into campus dining. Everything that we grow on the farm goes straight to our dining hall. Vegetable scraps gathered in the dining hall come back to the farm where they can be composted. Each year, students and our cooks discuss what they would like to eat and see grown, and that informs planting decisions. You know, you can go to Kroger and get perfectly nice baby lettuce greens. But, I need to tell you, they simply don’t hold a candle to lettuce, picked earlier that day, 200 yards away from where you’re eating it.

The connection with the Antioch kitchen was important because we had decided up front that we wanted the farm to be collaborative. See, we had been to other campus farms where they operated as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects—selling their wares out in the community. While that might be a good learning experience for students, it essentially means that other local growers would be competing against a subsidized institutional farm and that just didn’t feel like fair play. Instead, we’re contemplating building a community kitchen, which local growers could utilize to create value added goods—and we might all benefit from local pickles or salsa, or cilantro pesto.

But wait, there’s more! The farm is connected with campus landscaping —leaf, grass, and tree litter are composted and used to build soil. It’s connected with alumni relations. Every year, in the week prior to reunion, a group of alumni comes out and spends a few days working on the farm. They get to work alongside students, connect with their alma mater, and generally be a part of making it all work.

We also wanted the farm to be diverse. You can drive at highway speeds around southwestern Ohio and identify the crops. Nearly every field is either corn or soybeans. Since every different thing that we grow creates another layer to the learning experience for students, we wanted to grow as many different things as possible. This means that, almost by necessity, we had to be willing to sacrifice productivity for diversity. We would almost certainly grow more pounds of veggies if we grew just a few types. But, we would learn less. And, the farm is about learning. I’m not just talking about veggies here. We have a food forest with fruit, nuts, and berries. We have bees. And chickens, and ducks, and sheep. We hope to add goats. And a couple of cows, and several pigs.

We’re not there yet, but eventually, we hope to build a barn, which students will have a role in designing, fundraising for, building, and operating. We hope to breed endangered heritage breeds of sheep and goats and chickens. And, bit by bit, we hope to learn, and to teach, what it means to think sustainably.

There was one thing that, I have to say, we didn’t fully anticipate. Joel Salatin talks about how everything that he wants to do is illegal. We haven’t had problems with the law, but we know about resistance because we’ve had all sorts of challenges from our neighbors. Letters to the editor of the local paper saying that our farm is robbing the community of green space, for example. I’ve had folks approach me on the street—such as a woman in her mid-eighties with a kind smile, a warm heart, and, evidently, razors up her sleeve, who wanted me to know that they would win and we would lose.

It’s tough. Change is tough. People who’ve gotten used to an empty field like to think that it will always be an empty field. In a vacuum, people’s minds sometimes go to a place of fear. They imagine a concentrated feedlot, rather than the healthy scene of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms.

In the next few months, we’ll be going before the Village zoning commission to request permission to diversify the animals that we can raise. The result of those discussions will determine, essentially whether we’ll have a farm or just a garden.

Okay, Land:

Antioch may not be a wealthy institution, but we are land rich. Other colleges own land labs, or arboretums, or nature centers, but none offer the scope, history, proximity, or diversity of Glen Helen. Glen Helen is a protected area of nearly 1000 acres immediately adjacent to the Antioch campus, with over 20 miles of trails, the Midwest’s oldest residential environmental learning facility, Ohio’s first educational forest, and Ohio’s first facility dedicated to the rehabilitation and release of native birds of prey. The Glen has 2.5 miles of the National Scenic Little Miami River, regionally significant stands of old growth forest, Native American earthworks, and the Yellow Spring for which Antioch’s hometown is named.

The Glen is used by faculty teaching environmental science and is a frequent venue for cross-institutional collaboration among student and faculty researchers. One of the projects that I’m particularly proud of is a collaboration between our Outdoor Education Center and UD. For the past six years, UD students have brought Dayton schoolchildren out to Glen Helen for a weekend immersion in nature, and our naturalists have helped with training and interpretation. In another project, Antioch and Wright State University chemistry students work together to test water quality in Glen Helen streams.

Like the farm, Glen Helen is one of the primary venues on campus for student part-time and full-time coop work. Students operate the Trailside Museum, learn the operation of a nature center and environmental learning facility, and engage in land stewardship. Year-round, Antioch students are in the Glen, cutting invasive species, maintaining trails, and learning the role of land management techniques in maintaining a healthy environment.

Many typical colleges use the campus grounds to reinforce their marketing. Well-manicured lawns and formal gardens convey order and competence, while ivy on buildings equates with age and substance. While we certainly appreciate a visually appealing campus, we also see an opportunity to utilize the campus itself as an integral part of our instructional landscape. Remember that solar array I mentioned? Remember those sheep I mentioned? To maintain the ground below a solar array, you have a host of mostly bad options. You could mow it. You could poison it. You could pave it. Or, you could bust out of the mold, and use sheep to graze under it. Guess what we intend to do? Students will be able to monitor the impact of grazing on ground cover, soil fertility, and impact on campus carbon emissions. At the end of the season, the sheep will provide a different type of benefit to us, through the campus dining facilities.

So, I want to wrap things up. It’s been an honor to be with you today. UD is doing important work in sustainability, and this conference is an amazing example of what a campus sustainability club can accomplish with committed and capable students, coupled with sufficient institutional support.

With the creation of the Hanley Sustainability Institute, clearly UD is positioned to take its leadership on issues relating to sustainability to an even more significant level.

And, I think we have a shared opportunity. To learn from each other. To lean on each other for our respective areas of expertise. To work together to elevate sustainability as a priority in higher education. To, through our collaborations, elevate the state of the environment in the Dayton Metropolitan Area and the world beyond it.

I guess we have a lot to do. Let’s get started.