A Housing Challenge at the University of Michigan

The Declaration, Volume 3, Number 3 : February 2000  [Operations]

By Michael Shriberg

The University of Michigan Housing Division has shown an interest in environmental issues since the mid-1970’s. Housing was on the cutting edge of recycling, Green Lights and other environmental initiatives. Unfortunately, many efforts ended with initial, piecemeal solutions to environmental problems, rarely blossoming into broad or comprehensive institutional change. However, University Housing, which oversees a vast budget and physical area, is poised to move to the next level of environmental stewardship. In fact, as an integral operational unit of a powerful learning organization, Housing has both the obligation and ability to pursue the goal of environmental (and social) sustainability.


As the sixth largest campus housing system in the United States, Housing manages 4.2 million square feet of floor space, a $66 million budget, 760 full-time employees, approximately 3,000 part-time employees, and a resident population of approximately 14,000 (including Family Housing apartments). The needs of the 15 residence halls, 1,520 Family Housing units and multiple office spaces are varied. To this end, University Housing operates, in a fiscal and managerial sense, largely as an autonomous entity despite its location in the Division of Student Affairs. Student fees are the largest direct component of the budget and dictate funds for expenditures. Therefore, Housing considers residents (and the payers of resident fees) the customer and the party to which the organization is largely responsible.

University Housing’s Mission Statement reflects the fact that the residential services provided by University Housing are an integral part of the University of Michigan (see below). The residential services extend beyond providing a place of inhabitancy to supporting a community replete with “services, programs and facilities.” Moreover, the goals of providing this community experience are accomplished through partnering in a “caring, responsible and cost effective manner.”

The Mission Statement reflects the major functions of University Housing and provides a base upon which all actions within the organization are conducted. While in practice, this Mission Statement may not always be closely followed (as in almost every organization), it is important to keep these general goals in mind when framing a sustainability program since the mission statement provides the concrete and tangible framework for the organization.

University Housing Mission and Values Statement:

Mission Statement

The mission of University Housing is to create and sustain diverse learning-centered residential communities that further the goals of the University. Through partnership with others we provide quality programs, services, and facilities for those we serve in a caring, responsible, and cost effective manner.

Housing Values Statement

We are a community which respects and celebrates the contribution, dignity and intrinsic value of each member. We serve one another and society by striving to live by and uphold the following values.

  • Stewardship. Responsibly and creatively using social resources. Pursuing continuous improvement. Striving for excellence. Practicing intergenerational equity.
  • Ethics. Balancing the legitimate needs of those affected by our actions. Abiding the highest professional standards of honesty and integrity. Working in good faith.
  • Teamwork. Using participatory approaches in our community. Involving those who have to do something in order for us to achieve a goal, along with those who will be affected. Creating common understanding and commitment when problem-solving.
  • Communication. Being open, honest and authentic. Promoting mutual understanding. Seeking and utilizing constructive feedback.
  • Service. Cultivating the spirit of service among all community members. Being unselfish. Demonstrating a genuine concern for the welfare of others.
  • Human development. Providing personal and professional growth opportunities for all community members. Creating and sustaining a learning organization and community. Promoting intellectual growth and academic achievement.

A direct commitment to sustainability is spelled out under “Stewardship” in the Housing Values Statement. The values of “practicing intergenerational equity” and “responsibly and creatively using social resources” are comparable with the end goal of sustainability. Moreover, “balancing the legitimate needs of those affected by our actions,” “working in good faith” and “being unselfish,” under “Ethics” and “Service,” provide an important philosophical link with Housing’s current interest in more comprehensive sustainability initiatives.


University Housing has attempted to play a leadership role in terms of environmental issues across all functional units. For example, Dining Services, in conjunction with University of Michigan Grounds and Waste Management Services and the City of Ann Arbor, conducted a pilot program on “food waste collection and composting” during the 1997-98 school year in three residence halls (Recycling Matters, Fall 1998). The pilot program tested methods of diverting food waste from landfills to composting heaps. In total, 31 tons of food waste was diverted. The program is continuing with funding from University of Michigan Grounds and Waste Management Services and expansion is “being considered.” In residence education, Housing Information produced a newsletter about environmental issues to coincide with the University-wide Environmental Theme Semester in winter 1998. Other non-facilities based environmental efforts have occurred sporadically throughout the Housing organization, but there has never been an effort to consolidate environmental activities under one philosophical framework.

The largest current environmental initiative in terms of funding in Housing Facilities is the EPA Green Lights Program. Housing Facilities, in partnership with the EPA, is in the process of retrofitting lighting to more energy efficient units assuming the payback period is fewer than five years. The program is now completing the third (out of four) phase. Additional energy and utility efficiency efforts to date have included: (1) implementing a better energy tracking system; (2) adding higher efficiency roof insulation and window systems; (3) installing higher efficiency steam traps, boilers, furnaces and heating controls; and (4) installing low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators. Facilities estimates that it saved $1,062,000 during 1997-98 through the reductions in energy consumption from these initiatives (including Green Lights) (The University of Michigan Housing Facilities Department, 1998).

In 1989-90, recycling of corrugated cardboard and newsprint began in the residence halls. Since then, the standard recyclable materials have been added to collection capabilities. During 1997-98, 12,120 bulk cubic yards of recycled material was collected in the residence halls (The University of Michigan Housing Facilities Department 1998). However, according to data from a spring 1998 Waste Sort, the current waste stream from residence halls still contains 39.6% (by volume) of recyclable material. The major impediment to recycling, according to Facilities, is education of the relatively transient population of residents. Facilities conducts a fall move-in and spring move-out program to capture and divert (i.e., donate or recycle) extra cardboard, clothing, household items, food goods and loft wood. Over 63 tons of material was collected during 1997-98. Recent efforts have aimed at standardizing recycled-content xerographic paper, letterhead, stationary, newsletters and informational booklets.

Regarding environmental compliance, environmental health and occupational safety, Housing has:

  • Expended over $1,908,000 to date on asbestos removal and remediation
  • Planned to expend $50,000 to $75,000 annually to manage the remaining in-place asbestos
  • Managed retrofits, recovery systems and staff training and certification to comply with the Clean Air Act in terms of chlorofluorocarbons (total cost: $125,000)
  • Begun surveying and testing for as well as passive remediation of radon gas for buildings with below-ground living space (approximately $20,000 spent to date)
  • Initiated a lead-based paint removal program to comply with federal standards for food preparation and serving areas in all residence halls as well as all areas in Family Housing (approximately $190,000 spent to date)
  • Redirected old PCB-containing light ballasts from trash to incinerators since they are toxic waste
  • Begun to redirect fluorescent bulbs containing mercury for capture, recycling and re-use
  • Started to perform testing on drinking fountains for lead contamination (The University of Michigan Housing Facilities Department, 1998)

Overall, environmental efforts in Housing have been fairly extensive, but have been pursued mainly through the framework of pollution prevention. While this is important for reducing use of resources, a pollution prevention framework fails to address ecosystem carrying capacity, the planet’s life support system, equitable distribution of resources and ultimate limits to growth. The broad concept of sustainability offers a chance to incorporate these issues and concepts in a more proactive and coordinated framework encompassing all functions of Housing.


The first step toward sustainable management in many organizations is the development of a philosophical framework and general goals. The Canadian National Roundtable on Environment and Economy, in their book entitled A Practical Guide to Environmental Management on Canadian Campuses (1995), suggests that organizations “draft the mission statement (sometimes called a vision or philosophy statement). Keep it to a simple statement initially to improve the likelihood of consensus. Send it out for comment and endorsement.” Many universities across the world have taken these initial steps and drafted an environmental or sustainability statement (examples in the Report include George Washington University, Oxford Brooks University, Northland College, Tufts University, University of British Columbia, University of Edinburgh and University of Toronto). From these examples, leading edge practices (outlined in Section 4 of the Report), and the theoretical framework provided by The Natural Step (outlined in Section 2 of the Report), a sustainability mission and goals statement for University Housing has been proposed (see inset).

University Housing Sustainability Mission and Goals Statement (Proposed)

We, the University of Michigan Housing Division, recognize that we play a role in environmental degradation and society’s current unsustainable trajectory. We also recognize that future generations of people and biota have a right to at least the same advantages currently enjoyed. We believe that we have the responsibility and ability to take the lead as stewards of the Earth in moving toward a sustainable and restorative society that respects health, wholeness, balance and diversity. Furthermore, we realize that benefits exist for organizations willing to take on the challenge of sustainable operations. Therefore, we resolve to:

  • Encourage sustainable and restorative practices through education and engagement with all stakeholders, including staff, the University community, suppliers and contractors.
  • Assess and eliminate the long-term environmental impacts of all our decisions in all functional units through tools such as life-cycle assessment and full-cost accounting.
  • Reduce our use of water, energy and materials to the maximum feasible extent while incorporating technologies and practices consistent with a sustainable and restorative organization, such as the use of solar energy or life-cycle assessment.
  • Eliminate pollution and use of toxins or other chemicals that damage ecosystems to the maximum feasible extent with the eventual goal of zero discharge and use.
  • Provide staff with the training and resources necessary to meet sustainability objectives.
  • Openly communicate and monitor our progress toward sustainable operations.

The opening statement explicitly recognizes the environmental impacts of operations on current and future generations. It advocates the holistic and diverse approach necessary to facilitate sustainable organizational operations and it indicates that there are possible benefits for organizational alignment with sustainability.

The six goals are a first step in outlining a program to reach the sustainability vision of the organization. While these goals are general, they are designed to lead to concrete and measurable objectives in the future. Moreover, they are far-reaching and address the interrelationships between University Housing and other entities. Openness, communication, engagement, learning and sharing are encouraged along with more operational goals related to resource usage reduction, technological and methodological improvement, and ecosystem preservation. Overall, the proposed statement could serve as the framework for sustainable management within University Housing by setting the philosophical and directional basis.


Throughout the report, Development of a Sustainability Management Framework for the University of Michigan Housing Division, three important principles of management for sustainability in Housing consistently emerge. These principles can serve as a general summary of the broad recommendations in the report:

  1. A holistic perspective on environmental issues is required for movement toward sustainability: Environmental impacts of decisions and operations must be considered from the perspective of society as well as Housing. This principle is applicable at many levels, but in general requires broad thinking about implications of actions affecting our collective environment.
  2. The changes inherent in management for sustainability must be made systemic using tools such as The Natural Step, full-cost accounting and life-cycle assessment: This principle highlights the requisite changes in thinking at every level with every stakeholder to manage for sustainability. Piecemeal solutions to environmental problems cannot substitute for institutionalized changes in systems and values.
  3. Management for sustainability must be integrative both within and outside of the University of Michigan: Housing will require assistance and input from various entities and thus needs to develop and retain ties with students, faculty, staff, the community and other entities. If Housing positions itself as a visionary organization on the leading edge of a movement, interested parties will begin to seek out Housing and help alleviate any burdens on staff time.

Overall, implementation of these three principles will require time, effort and commitment on the part of Housing since they are not quickly or easily achievable. However, the rewards of commitment to these principles can be substantial.

The isolated environmental projects currently being undertaken in Housing, while often very beneficial, fall far short of the sustainability vision for each operational area and decision-making structure. The report attempts to build off strong initiatives outside of the University of Michigan, such as in recycling and energy management. Most importantly, the report offers an abundance of suggestions for bridging the gap between Housing’s current situation and its vision for the future. These recommendations, along with sustainability visions and indicators, were developed for all key operational and decision-making areas of Housing. The following ten recommendations figure most prominently in the report:

  1. Hire or appoint a sustainability coordinator or sustainability task group
  2. Align Housing mission and goals statements with sustainability and develop a department-wide, free-standing sustainability policy statement
  3. Conduct an annual sustainability audit in Housing and set goals (and incentives) for the future
  4. Provide training for staff in sustainability
  5. Use full-cost accounting and life-cycle assessment as tools for decision-making for sustainability
  6. Create an environmentally preferable purchasing program
  7. Form an environment/sustainability team in dining services
  8. Involve non-Housing students, staff, faculty and groups in sustainability efforts
  9. Develop partnerships for material reuse
  10. Implement energy and water efficiency measures (short-term) while moving toward renewable energy and sustainable water usage (long-term), perhaps incorporating elements of incentive-based pricing for energy to spur behavioral change.

Implementing these ten recommendations (as well as many others in the report) would constitute significant next steps in Housing’s movement toward management for sustainability. As is stressed in these recommendations and throughout the report, Housing will need to simultaneously adapt its operations and decision-making mechanisms in order to make effective and efficient progress.


National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy. The Practical Guide to Environmental Management on Canadian Campuses. National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy, Ottawa: 1995.

Recycling Matters: The Newsletter of Waste Management Services at the University of Michigan. Fall 1998 edition.

The University of Michigan Housing Facilities Department. 1997-98 Annual Report. Unpublished: August 1998.

Waste Management Services Plant Operations Division. 1998 Residence Hall Waste Sort. Unpublished: May 1998.
Michael Shriberg is currently a PhD student in Environmental Studies in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. Housing’s report can be accessed at www.umich.edu/~mshriber. Michael can be reached by email at mshriber@umich.edu or by phone at 734-332-1989.

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