Walking the Talk at  Keene State College

Keene State College students recycle cardboard at the campus. Photo taken pre-pandemic and courtesy of KSC.

At Keene State College, sustainability is more than just about recycling or reducing water usage on campus.

“We look at sustainability like a three-legged stool,” says Dr. Cary Gaunt, KSC’s director of sustainability. “The three legs are financial sustainability, environmental sustainability and human well-being.”

Gaunt has been overseeing sustainability efforts at KSC since 2015, bringing to the college 30 years of experience working in sustainability science, planning and policy analysis. Before coming to KSC, Gaunt served as a senior fellow for Second Nature, a national nonprofit organization that works to integrate sustainability into college campuses. She also worked with the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, studying sustainability at higher education institutions, such as Harvard, MIT and Boston University, and looked at ways the schools could integrate their sustainability programs with Boston’s Climate Action Plan.

“This position addresses both academic affairs, as well as facilities, finance and planning,” Gaunt said at the time of her hiring at KSC. “Keene State is truly visionary in recognizing the vital importance of collaboration among all aspects of the campus.”

After receiving her master’s degree in physical geography in 1989 from the University of Maryland, Gaunt used her training in coastal geomorphology and climate change, primarily in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, working on a sea-level project and as an environmental consultant to local and regional watershed organizations.

But Gaunt had an itch to learn more and found herself in Keene in 2000, attending Antioch University.

“I wanted to move in the direction of higher education,” she says. “And when I decided to get my Ph.D. in environmental studies at Antioch, I decided to move to the area.”

Gaunt works with other members of the KSC staff to develop and maintain sustainability projects at KSC.

“This is a team effort,” she notes, which involves faculty, administrators, staff and students in shaping not only campus sustainability efforts but also specific courses taught by the Department of Environmental Studies that reflect the interest in sustainability. “Our role is to facilitate and plant seeds.”

Gaunt is also building upon the foundation set by Mary Jensen, who led college sustainability programs for 15 years before Gaunt arrived. Gaunt is also relying on a checklist put together over many years by experts in the field who have worked in or analyzed sustainability programs.

Sustainability got its start on campus in the late 1980s, when student Jackie Caserta kick-started after a period of dormancy, the Recycling on Campus Program (ROCKS).

“ROCKS is how sustainability got started at KSC, as a student-led initiative,” says Gaunt.

The students who come to KSC are not just interested in learning the subject matter, the hard science of sustainability notes Gaunt. They also want to make a difference in the world.

“How do we help them become leaders for change?” she asks.

The best way to do that is to empower them, whether in designing a course of study in response to their needs, working directly in KSC’s Office of Sustainability, in internships or focused senior projects with the ROCKS program or the Eco-Reps program, a sustainability advocacy group.

“We are fortunate because the field of sustainability and climate action has emerged as an important priority,” Gaunt says. “Students are interested in going to colleges that care about climate and sustainability and are walking the talk. Pres. Melissa Treadwell has named environmental and financial sustainability as one of our strategic commitments in recruiting and supporting students at Keene State College. And we have learned that students have come to KSC because this is the kind of college they want to attend.”

Gaunt also works with Diana Duffy, the coordinator of energy and administrative services, Matt Bacon, KSC’s recycling coordinator, and Chartwells, the company that manages the Zorn Dining Commons.

“Composting food waste is a challenge,” says Gaunt. “Especially in New Hampshire, which has very restrictive regulations. They are quite old, and they need to be updated.”

But Gaunt and Bacon did not let that stand in the way. Working with a Vermont company and students in the ROCKS program, they developed a plan to ship their food waste to the Windham Solid Waste Management District in Brattleboro for composting as part of its Brattlegrow Compost.

Before Gaunt’s arrival in 2015, KSC won an award from the Environmental Protection Agency in the Education and Outreach category for its campaign to reduce wasted food that ends up in landfills. But they didn’t rest on their laurels, and as a result, in 2019, the EPA recognized KSC as the No. 1 school in the nation at increasing food waste diversion efforts.

“We couldn’t have done that without the students,” notes Gaunt.

KSC also relies on the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, offered by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. AASHE, according to its website, “defines sustainability in an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods and a better world for all generations.”

“AASHE looks at a whole spectrum of activities,” says Gaunt. “Academics, operations, administration, finance and planning, community and campus engagement, helping us to balance the three legs of sustainability.”

In the fall of 2016, KSC became the first college in the nation to replace its heating oil systems with purified used vegetable heating oil. And in 2017, the college released its revised sustainability goals, focused on achieving a 50% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050 and using 100% renewable electricity for its classrooms and dorms by 2030.

These goals are meant to be complementary to the city’s own goals for powering its public buildings with renewables and achieving zero waste by 2030, and becoming carbon neutral by 2050, notes Gaunt. 

Robert Audette writes from Swanzey, New Hampshire.