Oberlin’s Climate Commitment

Sustainability is integral to the way we learn and live at Oberlin.

Students crouch at the edge of the pond behind  the Adam Joseph Lewis Center.
The Adam Joseph Lewis Center was designed with all things green in mind—from waste water recycling to solar panels.
Photo credit: Office of Communications

Climate change defines the world our students will inherit for generations to come. It must be a defining factor in how we operate our campus, how we educate our students, and how we plan for the future. To create an enduring ecological and human community, we shape our college and curriculum to be responsive and responsible to the local, regional, and global environment.

In 2000, we opened the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, which helped launch the green building movement. On campus and in town, we monitor energy and water use in real time—using technology developed by students and faculty. We eat foods that are grown locally, and we reuse and recycle extensively.

Over the last decade, the college has invested in a broad spectrum of energy-efficient technologies, installed a 10-acre solar array, and worked with the city of Oberlin to secure green electricity for the entire town.

Our goal? Carbon neutrality by the year 2025.

Oberlin students volunteer throughout Lorain County, including at the Lorain Metro Parks. Many students work at George Jones Memorial Farm, a 70-acre research farm and nature preserve that grows a third of the produce served on campus. On campus, Oberlin students work as recyclers or staff the Living Machine, a wetland-based wastewater treatment system that treats and then recycles 70 percent of the water used in the Adam J. Lewis Center for Environmental Studies.

During Orientation, new students engage in Day of Service projects, many of which focus on preserving and enhancing the local environment such as weeding public gardens, assisting local farmers, planting trees, and restoring wetlands. During the academic year, students volunteer across Lorain County, including at the Lorain Metro Parks. Many students volunteer at George Jones Memorial Farm, a small farm that grows a third of the produce served on campus. 

A quarter of all students eat through the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA), a student-owned and managed cooperative dining system that buys a majority of its food from local vendors.

Clubs such as the Resource Conservation Team and the Ohio Public Interest Group promote environmental stewardship on campus, keep the student body informed, and engage in environmental advocacy work on and off campus. Students and community members teach Experimental College classes on a wide variety of issues related to the environment such as bicycle repair, vegan cooking, environmental films, permaculture, and grassroots organizing.

To get to class or around campus, many students rent bicycles from the Bicycle Co-op, a nonprofit, student-run bicycle shop located in Keep Cottage residence hall. When we have new ideas on how to conserve energy, the student-run Green EDGE fund provides the financial backing to put our ideas into action.

In the classroom, professors offer courses that integrate sustainability across many disciplines—economics, art, history, physics, politics, and chemistry, to name a few. For example a geology class on coral reefs spends a significant portion of time discussing the human effect on reef ecology. A recent first-year seminar in field writing focused on the intersection of narrative nonfiction and ecology. Environmental studies is among the most popular majors, but no matter your major, it’s easy to integrate sustainability into your studies.

We view the built environment on campus not just as place in which learning occurs, but also as a fundamental component of a curriculum emphasizing environmental stewardship.

Oberlin has received national awards from the U.S. EPA, National Wildlife Federation, the Great Lakes Protection Fund and Energy Efficient Markets for its Campus Resource Monitoring System . This is a technology developed by students and faculty that provides residents of student housing with instantaneous feedback on electricity consumption via websites and glowing “energy orbs.” The monitoring system also enables the annual dorm energy competition, the Ecolympics.

The college signed an innovative agreement in 2005 with the local utility that ensures that approximately half of the college’s electricity comes from environmentally favorable sources. Oberlin requires that all new buildings constructed on campus achieve a minimum of a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED silver rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. To date, the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building for jazz studies achieved a gold rating in 2010. Other LEED buildings are Robert L. Kahn Hall (NC silver, 2012), the Allen Memorial Art Building (gold, 2011), and Williams Field House (gold, 2009).

Oberlin’s Board of Trustees adopted a comprehensive environmental policy in 2004 that covers all aspects of campus management including buildings, food, energy, transportation, purchasing, and recycling. The Committee on Environmental Sustainability, a body composed of students, faculty, administrators, and community members, work with Oberlin's Office of Energy and Sustainability to oversee the implementation and further development of this policy.

The college’s Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies (AJLC) has served as a showcase for green design. The building houses Oberlin’s nationally recognized Environmental Studies Program. Its design-oriented curriculum helps students understand the causes and consequences of the environmental predicaments and develop the creative problem-solving skills necessary to create a more sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world.

In 2006, the college was also the first of its peers to sign on to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, a commitment that requires Oberlin to develop and implement a plan for achieving zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Through the Farm to Fork program, we eat excellent locally grown foods in the dining halls: cheese without additives, milk-free from artificial hormones, and chicken raised on a diet without growth stimulants or harmful products. At every dining hall, students may eat healthy vegetarian and vegan meals, with all prepared foods accompanied by a list of ingredients. Campus Dining Service welcomes student suggestions and will change its ordering styles to adjust to student tastes.

Because of our innovations, the Sierra Club has consistently ranked Oberlin as one of its top schools in terms of sustainability work. Sierra magazine has, in 2019, ranked Oberlin 35th of 282 overall among undergraduate colleges and universities on its “America’s Greenest Universities” list. Oberlin also shared the highest marks on the College Sustainability Report Card with Dickinson College and Brown and Yale universities. (The organization ceased data gathering in 2012.)

In town, alumni founded socially and environmentally mindful companies such as Sustainable Community Associates , New Agrarian Center , and Full Circle Fuels .

Oberlin was recognized in 2014 by President Barack Obama’s administration for its efforts to become resilient to climate change and reduce greenhouse gases. The city is one of 16 local governments named a Climate Action Champion, a new designation from the Department of Energy.

Read other examples of our collaborations on campus:

Read student and alumni submissions about sustainability from the Oberlin Stories project: