Zoe Wong-VanHaren

Deep Roots

Seeds sown 60 years ago are bearing fruit in Pitzer’s focus on sustainability

By Bridgette Ramirez

I

n the spring of 1976, Professors Carl Hertel and Paul Shepard immersed six students in Baja California’s desertscape of native shrubs and rolling hills colored in purple, orange, and sepia.

It was a special experience. By day, they roamed through majestic archaeological sites. They sat around the campfire late into the night to talk about nature. They took a boat to a remote island in the Gulf of California to study birds.

“Environmentalism and sustainability permeate so many of the disciplines and courses. …It’s flowing throughout the curriculum.”

–Paul Faulstich, professor emeritus of environmental analysis

This three-week field trip was part of Hertel and Shepard’s course, The Desert Colloquium, and it was a formative experience for their student Paul Faulstich ’79. Faulstich later became a professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College (he retired in spring 2022). Hertel and Shepard’s class was so inspiring that, as a professor, Faulstich adapted that class for his students. He called his class The Desert as a Place, an interdisciplinary exploration of arid environments that included multiday camping field trips and studies in anthropology, art, and literature. This class is still taught at Pitzer.

“Environmentalism and sustainability permeate so many of the disciplines and courses,” said Faulstich. “It’s flowing throughout the curriculum.”

That flow, in fact, is something many institutions in higher education are trying to develop now.

Climate consciousness is rising among colleges and universities according to a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education. After a devastating 2018 wildfire near California State University, Chico, the Chronicle noted that “62 faculty members in more than 30 disciplines across six Cal State campuses revamped 75 courses to incorporate climate issues.”

Sustainability and the environment have also become top of mind for many students. Inside Higher Ed, College Pulse, and Kaplan recently surveyed 2,164 undergraduates. Eighty-one percent of students said they were at least somewhat worried about climate change. In the same survey, 46 percent of students reported taking sustainability-related courses, and another 25 percent would like to do so.

But there’s a challenge for many institutions. It’s not that adding features related to sustainability is difficult, it’s ensuring that these additions are organic and meaningful. It isn’t enough, notes Inside Higher Ed, to have a recycling program or a compost pile. Pitzer has a well-established approach to sustainability across its academic and campus life thanks to the community’s work over six decades, not a handful of years. For Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Allen M. Omoto, there’s an obvious reason why Pitzer’s ongoing efforts are deeper than what one finds elsewhere: the College’s mission.

“Our educational mission is derived from the College’s core values, one of which is sustainability,” he explained. “Pitzer’s curriculum is deeply integrated and is closely connected to enduring societal concerns. That’s not the case with some of our peers that have only recently begun to embrace the ethos of sustainability in their curriculum. They are realizing the critical importance of sustainability, and that’s terrific, but they don’t necessarily have the deep heritage, the deep roots that we have.”

Pitzer students visit Indian Canyon, Anza Borrego desert

Pitzer students visit Indian Canyon, Anza Borrego desert, in 1985 as part of a class on desert ecology. (PHOTO COURTESY OF PITZER ARCHIVES)

Curriculum is the Key

Educators agree that the most important way to achieve an intensive, holistic integration of sustainability—or any other subject area, for that matter—into a higher education institution boils down to how the institution develops its curriculum.

In Princeton Review’s 2024 student surveys, Pitzer’s comprehensive approach to its curriculum along with a deep integration of sustainability-related features in campus life has earned the College a ranking of No. 3 in the area of “Green Matters: Everyone Cares About Conservation.”

The College also achieved a gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in 2023. The AASHE is considered the gold standard in sustainability education; it is a nonprofit associated with colleges, universities, businesses, charitable organizations, government agencies, and K-12 schools all over the world working to create a sustainable future through higher education.

According to Pitzer’s latest AASHE report, more than half of the College’s field groups offer sustainability courses. From literature to art to STEM, faculty continue taking the coursework to the next level.

“To have so many of our field groups addressing sustainability is not coincidental,” said Omoto. “It’s the result of intentional planning and institutional commitment. It shows you how deeply Pitzer cares about this. In fact, this emphasis and course offerings will expand. We are in the process of hiring new faculty across the College, and by design, many of them will have expertise and research interests related to climate change and sustainability issues.”

“To have so many of our field groups addressing sustainability is not coincidental. It’s the result of intentional planning and institutional commitment.”

–Allen M. Omoto, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty

The Academic Planning Committee (APC) has been fundamental in this process and has especially provided “vision and planning” for further integrating sustainability and the environment across Pitzer’s curriculum, according to Professor Amanda Lagji, who chairs the Curriculum Committee. Last year, the APC allocated several faculty expansion lines “that clustered around environmental issues,” said Lagji. Searches are now underway.

Professor Claudia Strauss, who chairs the APC this year, said that Pitzer’s Board of Trustees created an exciting opportunity when they approved six new faculty positions. Pitzer faculty were interested in a cluster hire, which makes hires in different fields based on the same theme. The environmental analysis field group and Pitzer’s Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability proposed the cluster hire with climate crisis as the theme.

“The primary topic that emerged as the focus for a cluster hire was the climate crisis because it is one of the most pressing issues facing the planet,” said Strauss.

As last year’s APC chair, Professor Emeritus Daniel A. Segal helped move the proposals forward. Strauss pointed out how transdisciplinary climate crisis education is illustrated in the proposals that APC approved, including “a media studies professor specializing in ecomedia, a math professor specializing in climate modeling, and an Africana Studies professor specializing in environmental justice.”

With current courses, such as Environmental Economics, Ethnoecology, and Nature and Society in Amazonia, students have many ways to learn and live environmental values even if they aren’t majoring in environmental analysis or a related field.

“Students who are exposed to different disciplinary approaches to the same issue can think about it more flexibly and see new connections,” said Strauss.

Pitzer’s course offerings are already becoming more robust with the hiring of new faculty just this academic year. Lagji has seen this happen firsthand; more sustainability-related courses are on the way.

Pitzer’s Environmental Education Origins

That threading of environmental awareness throughout the curriculum dates to Pitzer establishing an environmental studies program in 1970. Pitzer was one of the first colleges in the nation to do so.

But even before that, Pitzer faculty wove the environment into the curriculum.

In 1968–69, Hertel, who was a professor of art and environmental design, taught the Environments and Happenings Seminar, which was described as “a seminar in ‘the new art.’” Professor of Sociology Thomas E. Carrol also taught Urban Environment. The next year, Professor of Political Studies John R. Rodman taught Contemporary American Problems: The Environment and Environmental Policy.

Rodman spearheaded environmental consciousness not only in his classes but in Pitzer’s landscape. He facilitated creating the arboretum and Outback Preserve in the 1980s as safe havens for native vegetation and as living laboratories for classes in creative writing, art, anthropology, environmental studies, and more.

“John Rodman had this vision of environmental studies being like a tree,” said Faulstich. “The branches would reach out into different avenues and the roots would hold us deep to our commitment to place. He had that vision of creating a landscape that is sustainable and facilitates teaching about sustainability.”

Unexpected Examples

On a weekday afternoon you might see activity out in the garden next to the Office of Black Student Affairs (OBSA) on Seventh Street. It’s an unexpected example of Rodman’s vision of a branching tree.

lla Schweizer ’26 works with classmates Elshiekh Ahmed PO’25 and Tadius Frank PO’24 in the garden by the Office of Black Student Affairs

Ella Schweizer ’26 (center) works with classmates Elshiekh Ahmed PO’25 and Tadius Frank PO’24 in the garden by the Office of Black Student Affairs as part of Professor Laura Harris’ class, B(L)ack to Nature: Poetry & Theory.

It would be easy to assume the students trimming the plants and taking care of the yards are biology or botany students. But they’re members of Professor Laura Harris’ class, B(L)ack to Nature: Poetry & Theory.

Writing and gardening? They’re far more intertwined with ideas of Blackness, nature, and creativity than one might think, Harris said.

“The course provides a poetic historical context to environmental knowledge in Black artistic expression. …In some Black aesthetic traditions, the garden is a poem.”

–Laura Harris, professor of English and world literature and Africana studies

Harris described her course “as a creative writing course centering 20th-century Black feminist poetic forms and themes, specifically nature poems and environmental justice themes at the intersections of Blackness, gender, class, and queer sexualities.” Students kept a reading journal as they delved into Ntozake Shange, Claudia Rankine, and other authors. Then they wrote poetry, from haiku to spoken word.

“The course provides a poetic historical context to environmental knowledge in Black artistic expression,” said Harris. “In some Black aesthetic traditions, the garden is a poem.”

Harris’ class made this point literal by developing and tending to the OBSA garden, based on a plot of land offered by OBSA Dean and Director Lydia Middleton. As they felt the sunlight from above and the soil below, students became environmental stewards of what Harris terms “a Black culturally relevant student space.”

“A garden project provides a tactile opportunity for a creative writing class to ‘put hands to dirt’ as both resonating with and part of creative process,” said Harris.

A Hands-On Approach

Combining poetry with gardening is not the only way that sustainability creeps into unexpected corners of Pitzer’s curriculum. Professor Sarah Gilbert’s Sustainable Sculpture class trains students in the foundations of art creation and also takes pains to emphasize the creative and ethical use of found materials—from carving a broken bookshelf to scavenging and replanting seeds from food scraps.

Professor Sarah Gilbert (front row, first on far right) with her Sustainable Sculpture class at the Julia Bogany Talking Circle. The site’s design was completed during this academic year by Gilbert, students, and Bogany’s relatives.

“At an art supply store, you decontextualize where your wood comes from,” said Gilbert. “We’re thinking of how extraction works globally and locally.”

As a resource- and labor-intensive art form, sculpture requires collaboration. This is a regular practice for Gilbert’s students, who focus not just on individual success but forming a collective.

“The first goal is building community in our classroom,” said Gilbert. “The second is to take stock of the ecologies of the 5Cs and materials that are just being thrown away. We’re thinking of community not just in terms of humans but the plants and animals we rely on.”

“As Julia [Bogany]was quick to point out, Tongva history is also Tongva futurism. We can feel this with Julia’s legacy being so present and visible here at Pitzer and throughout the region.”

–Sarah Gilbert, assistant professor of art

Back in 1994, a 12,000-square-foot parking lot was transformed into the Pitzer Student Garden. It was revitalized in 2021 thanks to the efforts of a committed group of stakeholders, including students, faculty, donors, and staff.

Olivia Frakt SCR ’27 prepares her hanging sculpture as part of an exhibit for Professor Sarah Gilbert’s Sustainable Sculpture class.

Last fall, her class also worked with Tongva community members for a Talking Circle installation that honors the late Tongva elder Julia Bogany. Gilbert’s class installed a sculptural glass sign and a native plants border designed with Bogany before her death and later with her granddaughter and great-granddaughter. A dedication ceremony took place in November.

“In her meetings with students and her generous sharing of Tongva culture, Julia focused on reciprocal relationships with the environment,” said Gilbert. “As Julia was quick to point out, Tongva history is also Tongva futurism. We can feel this with Julia’s legacy being so present and visible here at Pitzer and throughout the region. The glass sculpture bearing her name is part of a larger installation that contributes to this visibility by highlighting and activating interactions with the environment as it reflects the light, trees, and skies.”

More Than Just the Facts

While professors in many field groups are pursuing similar approaches to sustainability integration, Pitzer’s interdisciplinary education is apparent in the environmental analysis program. In 2011–12, the College changed the environmental studies major to environmental analysis. Now, the major comes with four tracks: environmental science, environmental policy, environment and society, and sustainability and the built environment.

In every track, the major draws from the social sciences, arts and humanities, and natural sciences to build creative solutions for environmental problems. Additionally, all environmental analysis majors complete a semester-long intensive internship that takes them beyond the classroom and into the community.

Faulstich, an environmental analysis field group member for over 30 years, believes combining passion with transformation is what makes Pitzer’s environmental education unique.

“Environmental analysis isn’t just about understanding the facts,” said Faulstich. “I don’t know a place that does better than Pitzer in merging intellectual engagement with on-the-ground living.”

Paul Faulstich tends to the garden with students

For Professor Emeritus Paul Faulstich, seen here in 2013 planting trees with students in The Outback, Pitzer’s momentum in developing its sustainability focus will continue in the years ahead. (PHOTO COURTESY OF PITZER ARCHIVES)

Other Branches

Rodman’s vision of sustainability touching almost everything can be seen in other complementary features at Pitzer.

These features vary from Pitzer’s LEED-certified residence halls to green roofs to a gym powered by people’s workouts. The Green Bike Program (founded in 2001) promotes cycling and provides free loaner bikes. McConnell Dining Hall participates in community composting. The Pitzer Student Garden hosts workshops in planting, pruning, and caring for the chickens. Pitzer’s roots in sustainability, in other words, have borne a lot of fruit.

Pitzer has also had several firsts in sustainability in higher education. The Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability holds the first higher education building certification in California for using zero net energy. In response to student activism, Pitzer also became the first higher education institution in Southern California to commit to divesting its endowment of fossil fuel stocks in 2014.

That passion for sustainability also extends far beyond campus, from local community partnerships to international ecological sites. A few examples include:

  • Leadership in Environmental Education Partnership (LEEP) has brought ecological literacy to over 3,000 local children since 1996. At LEEP, Pitzer students and Native elders teach elementary school children from diverse socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds.
  • Critical Action & Social Advocacy (CASA) Pitzer collaborates with Huerta del Valle, an urban farm and community garden. Students are involved in community-based participatory action research and engagement with Huerta del Valle (read the story).
  • The Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology in Costa Rica has provided intercultural explorations of environmental stewardship since 2005 and features collaborative resource management, human and tropical ecology, and more.
  • The Adelanto Water Justice Coalition joined Pitzer’s Community Engagement Center, Redford Conservancy, Department of Natural Sciences (Keck Science), and CASA Pitzer to collaborate in science and activism with students, faculty, and local partners about water quality in the city of Adelanto.

Of course, the greenest jewel in Pitzer’s sustainability crown is the Redford Conservancy. The Conservancy advanced environmental justice in the Inland Empire through mapping warehouse growth, climate adaptation planning, agrivoltaics, and other initiatives (for more on the Conservancy, read the profile).

The Future

Despite the increased attention that many higher education institutions are paying to climate change, there is room for these schools to do more. At Pitzer, the challenge has been keeping up the momentum. As they demand change, students are playing an important part in this momentum. Last fall, for example, in Professor Barbara Junisbai’s Organizational Theory class, students produced a podcast sharing student activists’ assessment of environmental education at Pitzer and how the College should do more.

For Faulstich, keeping up momentum shouldn’t be a problem. The beauty of sustainability efforts at Pitzer is that they are not limited to one building or major. Every innovation made for greener living and learning is a new leaf sprouting forth, reaching for a brighter and more resilient world.

“What sustainability means in a practical way is being a leader with visionary environmentalism,” said Faulstich. “I do think that Pitzer is that. It is fostering an awareness of environmental concerns that all students are exposed to and are able to translate from awareness into action.”

Check out the Environmental Sustainability timeline:

pitzer sustainability timeline