Carl Bower

Peter Walker, the new dean of the Falk School of Sustainability at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, is a researcher and educator who has spent the last 25 years working in the field on humanitarian crises. Walker, who holds a bachelor of science in environmental sciences and a doctorate in soil science from Sheffield University, has specific goals for the next generation of sustainability leaders centered on the construction of Falk, billed as the U.S.’s first completely sustainable campus. “You don’t learn everything by sitting in a classroom,” he says. “You also learn a great deal by doing.”

Our campus is an example of what you can do when you question assumptions about living and working. Being part of a university, it’s an example of creating a laboratory from scratch, where we can try ideas, test them, and refine them. Our first residents will arrive in the fall of 2015.

We’ll be doing all of our own water treatment on the site via natural systems, generating all of our own energy through PV arrays, geothermal wells, and a farm that currently produces all the vegetables we eat on campus. A truly sustainable campus is not just about the buildings, but about how we use these buildings and how we incorporate the community into the campus. We are in a rapidly growing economic area, and so there are a lot of opportunities to bring people in—whether for workshops, night classes, or to create startup farms on campus with school-supported training.

For a degree like sustainability, which is in its first round of development—maybe five or 10 years—what you’re looking for is a strong mix of academic experience and practical skills. We don’t want this to be simply vocational. We want it to be a rigorous exploration.

Looking at the market, the sustainability sector is one of the fastest-growing in the U.S. Ten years ago, virtually no businesses had a sustainability officer. Now, a wide range of companies have sustainability officers—banks, engineering firms, school districts, and so forth. Conservation, efficiencies, optimizations—these are concepts that inform our MBA/Master of Sustainability dual degree. The reason we created it is because most MBA degrees are relatively generic. We’re saying that, yes, you need basic business skills, but you also have to have an understanding that increasing margins and cutting expenditures is not the only way to profit.

If you’re truly going to think about things sustainably, you have to look at scale. Sure, you can deal with individual buildings and their performance or materials. But if you step up the scale and think about infrastructure around that building, such as the fact that it may sit in a valley or the weather patterns that affect that valley, you start to see how a building affects—and is affected by—a much larger area than its immediate footprint.

You also have to step up the time scale. Let’s say you want to build sustainable systems. My questions are: For how long? Will it be sustainable in 50 years? 100 years? In other words, it’s not just a generational concern with short-term goals and quick wins to simply do something that will benefit one’s children. It’s an intergenerational challenge. —As told to William Richards