Dear Members of the Oberlin Community,
Next month, we will enter the construction phase of a significant transformation in campus facilities, replacing our failing, century-old heating infrastructure with a geothermal energy system that will improve our campus experience and put Oberlin at the forefront of clean energy technology. As we start to see trucks and work crews converge on campus, this is a good time to step back and remind ourselves of the process that brought us here and the opportunity that lies ahead.
The story of this project is really two converging narratives, many years in the making. The first goes back to the early 20th century, when the college built the steam heating system that is largely still in use today. While careful maintenance has allowed that system to continue in service well beyond its projected lifespan, its increasingly frequent breakdowns now threaten property and disruption, not to mention limiting our ability to create the excellent campus experience that we aspire to every day.
The other narrative, rooted deep in Oberlin’s culture, reached a milestone in 2006, when Oberlin became one of the first and most ambitious signatories of the American College and University Presidents’ Carbon Commitment, pledging to dramatically reduce harmful emissions by 2025. Since then, the college has cut its carbon use in half, through efficiencies in power and heating use, a significant solar-power project, and the conversion from coal to natural gas. However the hardest part of the commitment remained.
Faced with these two imperatives, we had to act, so we did this the Oberlin way. We started with a rigorous, exhaustive examination of every possible option. Then, armed with that data, our trustees made a bold decision that will not just fix the problem—it will show other large institutions across the country that it is possible to improve living and working conditions for students, faculty, and staff, while addressing a global challenge that touches all of us.
This is a major investment, roughly $140 million that the institution expects to fund primarily through long-term capital borrowing, federal grants, tax credits, and other external sources. That estimate also includes significant upgrades to the campus electrical and information technology infrastructure, which will be less expensive if we do them at the same time. This investment is necessary to the future operation of the institution. It will save more than $1 million a year in operating budget in the short term and pay for itself in the long term. And, it is the right thing to do.
This project is also a model for collaborative, proactive planning, involving years of consultation among representatives of our faculty, staff, students, and trustees, often working side-by-side to find the best solution for Oberlin. Together they have also used this project to create a comprehensive set of new opportunities for students, from experiential clean energy curriculum to future internships—and given that more than 300 of our admitted students have already expressed interest in environmental studies, that becomes an important new part of the Oberlin education and experience.
I encourage you to read more about this project on our website, and to take advantage of many other opportunities to engage in the months and years to come. And I hope you will join me in thanking the many people from all parts of campus and beyond whose hard work has made possible this important leap forward.
Carmen Twillie Ambar