Struggling Toward Sustainability at Northland College

The Declaration, Volume 4, Number 1 : October 2000  [Curriculum]

By Juliet Harding and Tom Wojciechowski

Long before many of its current students were even born, Northland College began its first environmental studies program. By the time those students were five years old, Northland’s Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute was founded and built, a Native American Studies program was established, Outdoor Education majors were initiated, and Northland’s first environmental theme house, the Conceptual Urban Dwelling, was opened for student residents.

By the time the students were ten years old, the College had invested $172,000 in water-saving devices, energy-efficient lighting, and heating system upgrades, as well as $4,231,000 in building upgrades, which included energy-efficient systems. Campus Facilities Master Planning had begun, the Environmental Council was formed, and townhouses for students were built with many environmental elements, making them the most efficient buildings on campus to heat.

The College had also performed two environmental audits, sponsored a six-week discussion on sustainability through its Lifelong Learning Center, and won the Renew America Award for environmental achievement.

It has been at least a decade since the college community began struggling with sustainability. The Environmental Council developed the Sustainability Charter, completed audits and assessments, and continues to develop policies and promote practices. The student association created indicators particular to student impact on the campus. Classes explore the theoretical and global as well as the practical and local. Northland’s multiple lecture series brings national and international big thinkers to challenge our idealism and to give light to pessimism. Even so, it is difficult for Northland to determine whether we are doing things right, or doing the right things.


Northland College began as North Wisconsin Academy in 1892, and opened its collegiate doors in 1906, taking “Northland” as its name to represent the 10 million acre area of cut-over pine that students called home. The College is located one mile from the south shore of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay and within a short drive of rivers, beaches, the Chequamegon National Forest, two Native American reservations and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Northland remained a traditional four-year liberal arts college until 1971, when it launched its environmental emphasis. Northland believes that an environmental liberal arts college is one in which understanding the natural world and our place in it is recognized as intrinsic to success in all facets of our existence.

At the same time, the College maintains that the liberal arts provide the appropriate intellectual skills to apply to the world’s challenges, including environmental challenges. Northlanders major in biology and music, meteorology and English, environmental studies and sociology, outdoor education and mathematics.

Northland is, at its heart, a liberal arts college, so classes in various disciplines focus on what one would expect in a traditional curriculum. In English, Shakespeare is still Shakespeare – the timeless and magnificently insightful illustrator of the human condition – but there are also classes like “Writing the Environmental Essay” or “Humanity and Nature in Literature,” which develop traditional knowledge and skills by focusing on the natural world. “Foundations of Visual Art” provides students with basic skills necessary for advanced courses like “Art Collaborations with Nature: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.” Business Economics offers courses in accounting, marketing, and management, but also teaches “Economics of Sustainable Development.”

In addition, Northland College has a long tradition of outreach activities, and for nearly 30 years, those activities have included environmental education. In 1993, Northland’s Lifelong Learning Center sponsored a six-week discussion on sustainability. The following year, the Center brought Pliny Fisk and David Orr to campus. Some area residents, as well as Northland faculty and staff, credit those activities with the sustainability movement both in the region and on campus.

In 1989 the College formed an Environmental Council, institutionalizing a “watchdog” body comprised of students, faculty and staff. Through the decade of the 90s, the Council kept a constant watch on the operations of the campus community. Some define the Council as the environmental conscience of the College and many members considered the phrase “walk the talk” as a guiding principle.

Recent accomplishments of the Council include the development of a campus sustainability charter that was adopted by the College’s Board of Trustees in 1998. Ongoing work continues on principles of sustainability for the college. The Council used a consensus process to complete the ULSF Sustainability Assessment Questionnaire, and developed a Green Building Policy for all future major building projects, adopted by the Board of Trustees in May 2000. It also developed a list of environmental research projects based on campus operations, for independent study and senior capstone projects.


Northland’s entire student body has also been a source of energy for sustainability. Over the years, student interest has altered the way the College does business, affecting everything from the food that is purchased to the way facilities are built.

Northland’s food purchasing policies were challenged by students in government professor Dorothy Lagerroos’ class. Lagerroos, who has been interested in sustainability ever since she attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, encouraged students in her Environmental Issues Seminars to do something about their desire for organic food in the cafeteria and to tackle the realities of changing “business as usual” at Northland. She points out that Northland is small enough that students can “poke and prod to try and get it to do some new things.”

In 1993, Lagerroos’ interdisciplinary class decided to investigate “a more healthful and environmentally and socially sound alternative for the Northland College cafeteria’s food supply.” They researched the possibility of buying locally grown, organic produce, examining the economics of altering Northland’s food purchasing patterns.

The class named their 26-page report “Potatoes and Onions: Northland’s Step Toward Sustainability.” The report documents the criteria used to establish guidelines for the project, and the environmental, social and economic consequences of food purchasing. The investigation compared (among other things) the consequences of conventional farming and sustainable agriculture methods, of pesticide use and organic techniques, and the energy costs of local and distant food sources.

The students determined that given availability, storage needs, and cost, potatoes and onions were the most feasible local crops to purchase at first. After working with President Parsonage, the food service director, and the Chequamegon Bay Organic Growers Association, the group’s recommendation went to the Northland College Student Association. The proposal resulted in a vote for local produce, despite a six-cent-per-meal increase in food costs, which students agreed to absorb.

“It is a big step from saying sustainability is about redesigning human society to saying we jolly well better give our students some experience in doing it,” says Lagerroos, recalling the outcome of that seminar.

“The students learn how difficult it is,” Lagerroos says, “and they stop saying, ‘Why don’t we just…’ The students experience what a huge step potatoes and onions is – they’re not talking about all produce – just two little pieces.”

Since those early steps several other organic foods have been added and Northland is currently working closely with a local organic farmer who offers tours of the farm to students and who has set up an information booth in the cafeteria. It is a rare educational opportunity for college students to be able to talk with the people who produce their food.


Another area in which students have had a big impact on Northland policies is the new facilities arena. In 1995, Northland College began planning a new residence hall that would meet the needs of students, model its environmental mission, and provide a living/learning laboratory for environmental studies. Plans included renewable energy, recycled materials, certified green lumber, composting toilets, efficiency and durability – a building for the long haul.

Students were involved throughout the planning process. They gave their idealistic input, made demands, asked naive questions and were heard. Everyone compromised within budget constraints. In 1998, the Wendy and Malcolm McLean Environmental Living and Learning Center (ELLC) was completed. The American Institute of Architects selected the ELLC as one of the top 10 environmental buildings in its 2000 roster. This was due, in part, to student agitation for the most environmental features given limited economic resources.

A new three-credit non lecture-based course was developed to integrate students’ living environment in the ELLC with the study of various components of sustainability. The ELLC serves as both a classroom and a lab for the course, which has been offered two semesters so far. The instructor, Tom Wojciechowski, and the students talk, stroll around the building, put hands on recycled surfaces, rake the compost, listen to the whoosh of the wind generator, and dig their hands into the red clay while planting trees in the unfinished landscape. They talked with architects, engineers, green builders, wind and solar energy contractors, organic farmers, a naturalist/writer and other students.

A tour of the local power plant was viewed by many in the class as a chance to reconnoiter the enemy. Engineers with their white hard hats led them through the cavernous bowels of the plant. But as a one-hour tour turned into two and questions poured from the students, a black and white issue blurred to multiple shades of grey. One student summed up the feelings of most of the class in this way:

“The trip to NSP (Northern States Power) was enlightening. I spoke with the plant manager before the rest of the group arrived, and I was relieved to like the man. It’s important to meet people from industries that represent such negativity. It makes thinking of solutions and compromise so much easier. I was so uneducated about the plant. We can hear the hum from inside our house (in Ashland, Wisconsin) and smell the wood chips some days. The smokestacks make the view of afternoon sunsets from the marina a mocking irony. The coal pieces that turn the water black near the plant point the mind down a negative path of blame ending at NSP’s front step.

“To find out they’re not the dirtiest, but one of the cleanest (power plants) in the area, and one of the only ones to use wood instead of coal, has really changed my attitude. The people there have a hard job to do, and seem to care about what the plant is affecting around them. If we didn’t demand so much power, they wouldn’t be there – a fact nobody likes to confront. The blame is in reality on my front step. It’s nice to feel communication rather than confrontation during a meeting like that. There is an expectation that industry hates environmentalists, because so many of us seem to hate them. Vicious circle….”

The course structure attempted to broaden students’ knowledge, but more importantly, to challenge preconceptions and to free students’ imaginations. A good example of this was the exploration of energy. After introductions to renewable systems at the ELLC (wind power, photovoltaic power, passive and active solar heating) and analysis of student energy demands, the students spent several class periods discussing their personal, as well as national, energy futures. Throughout the course, the class kept coming back to the question: Is this sustainability thing possible?

One student wrote, “The principle tenets of sustainability, the word, concept, movement, vision, way of life, cannot be embraced without the right congruence of life experiences. Something happens to all of us, some one thing, or equivalent combination of many things, to make us care.”

Another said, “Sustainability, for the purposes of this paper, is the elephant in the center of our circle. We can all hold a glimpse of what it means, but without discussing the path to it with others, our own positions remain weak and lack a holistic vision…. Sustainability becomes not only a ‘green lifestyle’ but an inclusive mind set as well.”


During one class in the ELLC course, a renewable energy contractor went off on a tangent about the energy crisis of the ’70s. Everyone had a laugh when they realized that all but one of the students had not been born then. A historical event can be a great motivator for some, and merely trivia to others.

This is amplified on campuses everywhere. While the faculty and staff may stay, the students usually leave within four years. None of Northland’s students can remember that the townhouses were once an example of environmentally friendly design, as was the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. Most students take Northland’s pesticide-free landscaping policy, environmentally friendly cleaning products, food waste composting program, or the campus-wide paper policy for granted. Each was a small battle in its time.

Northland’s students also have a tendency to be enthusiastic, idealistic, and not the least bit satisfied with what they perceive as the glacial movements by the administration toward sustainability. Often, it is only after students leave campus to attend national conferences that they find out just how much Northland has accomplished, and how advanced the College is compared to its peers.

Even six year ago, one of three Northland delegates to the Campus Earth Summit at Yale University said upon his return: “One of the things I learned is that we can accomplish much more at Northland because it is relatively small. Northland is great,” he continued, “because most of the good changes an environmentalist would hope for have already occurred. That means that I don’t have barriers set up by the College, and I can go past pure activism into areas of increased learning and involvement with the larger community.”

Building the Straw Bale Energy Education Lab, tending the organic garden, providing and repairing bright yellow bicycles without charge to students – these and many more enterprises are examples of student-initiated or student-maintained projects at Northland today. In the future, the straw bale building may be passé, food production may not use earth, and bicycles will be abandoned for some mode of transportation that uses neither rubber nor steel.

Students will pass the ELLC without noticing its once state-of-the-art features, and growl about the slow-moving administration. But Northland will continue to do as much as it can, despite the gap between what is desired and what is possible. The College can look back over 30 years of good work, but our environment-Lake Superior, its beautiful shores, and all the inhabitants therein – and our planet need us to look forward to continued efforts toward sustainability, which may be the only future ahead.

Juliet Harding is the staff writer in Northland’s public relations office. She has created extensive self-sustaining perennial flower gardens at her home near Chequamegon Bay.

Tom Wojciechowski is the Director of Student Development at Northland College and serves on the Facility Master Planning Committee and the Environmental Council. He attended the ULSF Environmental Literacy Institute in 1997.

For details as well as energy performance data see the Northland webs site. Select the Student Life section and then ELLC.

Leave a reply