Heard on Campus: Denice Wardrop on sustainability in higher education

Ann Taylor-Schmidt
December 22, 2015

One of the topics covered by Denice Wardrop, director of Penn State's Sustainability Institute, at a Dec. 16 public meeting of the Commission for Women, was the Sustainability Institute's Reinvention Fund. This fund encourages deeper cross-disciplinary and holistic sustainability capacity across the entire University.

When asked how the Sustainability Institute assesses Reinvention Fund projects, Wardrop answered, "Normally, when Penn State assesses the success of seed grants, we do it in the classical research way — we only give you a little money because you are going to go get a lot of money later, for example, from grants. The Reinvention Fund is saying, ‘No, no, no. That is not the only return! What about the environmental benefits and social benefits that we call natural capital?'

"Have you ever had the experience where you think you are the only one caring about something and then, oh my gosh, you find your tribe? So much of the social capital that came from those projects was that people, all of a sudden, found out where their tribe was and they were connected. That’s where I want to be investing some of this money, because that just has a longer life. That is so important."

"What about the environmental benefits and social benefits that we call natural capital?"

"What’s difficult about the work that we do is that it is difficult to articulate the returns. For example, the Office of Physical Plant (OPP) does quite a job here. It’s amazing. Look at the figures about energy reduction and the way we operate. It’s really a model and yet we task OPP with making this place affordable. We put that on their backs, and we ask them to make these trade-offs, all the time. They would love to have a reason to do something that wasn’t strictly economic, that didn’t just have to abide by the economic rules. So, for example, they say, ‘Tell us if it’s more expensive to have a lot of bins but it really does have a big educational benefit. Allow us to talk about that. Give us a way to talk about that.’

"So much of the work we do has returns that are very, very difficult to articulate."

The Sustainability Institute was created to lead Penn State toward the University’s sustainability mission: a comprehensive integration of sustainability into the University’s research, teaching, outreach and operations that prepares students, faculty and staff to be sustainability leaders in their professional, personal and civic lives.

The next Commission for Women public meeting will be held from 12:15 to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 20, in 404 Old Main or via the CFW Blue Zoom Room on the topic of engaged scholarship. Lunch is provided, and the meeting is free and open to the public. 

Last Updated December 22, 2015