Sustainability and the new U of U College of Law

College of Law ceremonial groundbreaking.

President Pershing, Myron Willson, and other project leaders place ceremonial shovels into the ground at the College of Law groundbreaking on June 4, 2013. Photos courtesy of the College of Law.

The following is a transcript of the speech given by U of U Sustainability Director Myron Willson at the June groundbreaking of the new University of Utah College of Law building. The building’s design, done by VCBO Architecture, sets the structure on a path to be the world’s first LEED-Platinum law school. Learn more about the College of Law building at

The University of Utah has been engaged in efforts to green the campus for years. Highlights include projects responsible for saving the equivalent of 32,000 barrels of oil, similar to the energy used annually by 3,000 average households. More than 40 percent of people coming to campus do so by something other than a car. A cogeneration plant produces more than 6 MW of electricity from heat formerly wasted up the flue stack of a campus power plant (20 times the peak production of all of the solar panels on the Natural History Museum of Utah roof or 100 times annual production). Other efforts include recycling, student-run organic gardens, solar panels, a full-time bicycle coordinator, energy-efficiency standards among the most aggressive in the nation and a student-run sustainability grant/loan program. The list goes on and on.

A rendering of the new S.J. Quinney College of Law building by VCBO Architecture.

A rendering of the new S.J. Quinney College of Law building by VCBO Architecture.

These amazing efforts in operations are being matched on the academic side with 16 centers and 45 departments providing courses with sustainability content or a focus on sustainability research. New courses, programs and interdisciplinary certificates are being imagined at an exciting pace.

The U’s administration is also highly supportive of sustainability initiatives. President David Pershing names “the pursuit and practice of sustainability” as one of the university’s seven core commitments. Sustainability is also a central component of the Campus Master Plan and the University is actively working toward its goal of climate neutrality by 2050.  The Office of Sustainability works to be a catalyst for sustainability projects and for environmentally responsible change.

But there is still more we can do to affect positive change. Donella Meadows defines a sustainable society as “… one that is far-seeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social systems of support”. In spite of all of the wonderful accomplishments I’ve mentioned, we are far from being a truly sustainable campus because our collective actions continue to undermine social and physical support systems. Climate change’s looming impacts are just one example of a society out of balance.

Myron Willson, director of the University of Utah Office of Sustainability.

Myron Willson, director of the University of Utah Office of Sustainability.

I often view my job as a lobbyist for our grandchildren, sent backwards in time to help change our current trajectory (imagine a League of Women Voters + Utah Taxpayer rep from the year 2050). How should we change our habits and actions to be more in line with the needs of future generations?

But, should is a dangerous verb. Building on that point, Dr. Robert Nelson noted at this year’s Stegner Symposium that many environmental activists espouse messages that are akin to “Calvinism” without God – with similar guilt and brimstone a consequence of our failure to act. People need to feel empowered, not shamed into action.

Through the practice of sustainability, we can move beyond guilt by focusing on creating possibilities of transformation. This new building for the College of Law is an amazing example of how to create an environment for trans-disciplinary learning, applied research and practical work to advance a sustainable future – a Living-Learning Laboratory.

Not only will this project contribute a vision for future buildings by reducing energy and water consumption, it will lead a broader conversation about institutional transformation.
The process for its design has and will continue to engage faculty, students, staff and community regarding how we can meet the imperatives to create that “far-seeing and flexible society”.
The problems we face can’t be solved by individual faculty, students, professionals, governments or businesses working independently. The issues require holistic and visionary actions by interdisciplinary teams working to create systems-level solutions. That’s exactly where this building, through the College of Law leadership, has already started to have an impact.

Let me close my remarks by sharing just one example from the design process. The steering committee created a goal to become water neutral, using only the moisture falling on site for all of its building needs. As a consequence of that vision, the following groups collaborated beyond the bounds of their normal professions, looking at whole systems, not individual issues: architects and landscape architects, civil and mechanical engineers, greywater treatment specialists, biologists, operations staff from facilities, behavioral specialists, life-cycle cost experts, and operational managers. Most importantly, law school faculty and students were personally involved to help review building codes, water law, health department rules, and Utah Division of Facilities Construction and Management guidelines and to suggest and help imagine creative solutions. Each has learned to see value in the skills brought by others in an effort toward that far-reaching goal.

Without the vision and enthusiastic support from College of Law administration, faculty, and staff this project would not be as innovative and remarkable as it is. The collaborative approach they have pioneered is a process that I hope defines upcoming work here on campus and in the community.

Through this facility, the University of Utah will take a more active role as a center for inquiry and action. And paraphrasing an expert in sustainability education, it will provide “…an education based on inquiry, discovery, depth of understanding, and careful prioritization of learning material…developing self-aware, critically thinking, (and) technically skilled, problem solvers”  to create a sustainable society that is far-seeing and flexible (Sherman, 2013).

Thank you.

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