Vitarelli, left, and Segall: environmental visionaries Photo: Les Todd
Vitarelli, left, and Segall: environmental visionaries Photo: Les Todd

The Green Team

Activists for a Different Age: The founders and co-presidents of DUGI, a new "greening" initiative, say they won't be satisfied until Duke becomes the national leader among colleges and universities on the issue of environmental sustainability.
Writer: 
June 1, 2003

Justin Segall and Anthony Vitarelli are explaining what not to say if you are out to win support for a grassroots environmental movement--especially if, like them, you're a couple of sophomores trying to get the powers-that-be to take you seriously.

" We should make Duke green." Segall's voice takes on a higher pitch. His eyes widen into a look of feigned earnestness and naïveté. As if on cue, Vitarelli matches the mocking tone and expression: "I love the environment, don't you? Wouldn't it be great if we could do some environmental 'stuff?' "

Rewind. Same situation, the Segall-Vitarelli way: "We come in there firing," says Vitarelli. "We have to show them that we know what we're talking about and that we're serious about this and that we're not just some idealistic kids that think doing this will just be 'swell.' "

Segall and Vitarelli are the founders and co-presidents of the Duke University Greening Initiative, known by its acronym DUGI (pronounced "doogie"). The initiative, which began as a gleam in Segall's eye freshman year and took baby steps as a project for a public-policy class fall semester, has evolved over nine months into an organization with twenty-plus members, including undergraduate and graduate students in the schools of the environment, engineering, divinity, law, medicine, and business; a $25,000 seed grant from private donors, with more funding likely to follow; and heavy-hitting advisers, including the former dean and two members of the board of visitors of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

Since September, the duo has enlisted the support of everyone from President Nannerl O. Keohane to Jerry Black, director of facilities management at Duke. By February, what had begun as a campaign to get administrative support for green buildings had evolved into a more comprehensive, campus-wide "greening initiative."

" Justin and Anthony didn't have a vision just to implement green buildings," says Mandy Schmitt, a joint-degree candidate in law and environmental management, who is a member of DUGI's executive committee. "They had a very articulate, detailed vision of what is a green building, what is a green campus, and they realize the political channels you must go through and how you can unite that with the environmental vision. They're also constantly coming to the table with new project ideas and new people we should talk to and how we can raise money."

DUGI members are now working to develop a strategic plan, to set up a grant program of $50,000 a year to pay for green projects, to incorporate environmental issues into the curriculum, and to build partnerships with other universities in the area. This summer, they will finance nine research projects, including an inventory of successful programs at other universities, as well as a preliminary survey of greening efforts already under way at Duke.

The organization's vision statement gives a sense of just how high the students have set the bar for themselves: "The Duke University Greening Initiative will integrate environmental stewardship into every local, national, and global facet of life at Duke University." Segall and Vitarelli say they won't be satisfied until Duke becomes the "national leader" among colleges and universities on the issue of environmental sustainability.

" When I get on board with a project, I don't see why it can't go ten times further than people plan it to go," says Vitarelli. "Why can't we be the national leader? I mean, if we prioritize, why can't we?"

" We just see that there's no reason we can't go all the way," adds Segall.

Segall and Vitarelli are an unlikely pairing. Segall is a Conservative Jew from Denver, Colorado; Vitarelli is Roman Catholic, from Voorhees, New Jersey. But not since Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland decided to put on a show has there been a more energetic, enthusiastic, or dynamic duo. And, while it is too soon to predict the ultimate success of the partnership's efforts, their unusual combination of passion tempered with pragmatism has gotten them far, fast. Segall says he has learned the efficacy of tenacity: "My outlook on things is, I will never take no for an answer. And people can tell me as much as they want how 'You're not going to be able to get that done--you're just one person, you're just a college sophomore.' I say, 'So what?' You know? 'So what!' I'll do more than somebody else, because I'm young, and I have the energy."

There's a certain synergy that emerges when the two come together. Segall is the racing engine, revved up, ready to lay rubber in a dozen directions. Vitarelli is the cruise control. Edward E. May, a joint M.B.A. and environmental-management candidate who serves on DUGI's executive committee, recalls sitting next to Segall during a lecture. "While the speaker was talking, he kept trying to talk to me. Finally, I looked at him and said, 'Justin, do you ever stop talking?' He constantly keeps people going--poking and prodding people--and you know it took that to get DUGI off the ground. Anthony is very mature for his age, and he brings that level of maturity necessary to say, 'We're very serious about this. We're not just a couple of students off after a wild hare.'" Simon B. Rich Jr. '67, one of DUGI's advisers, adds, "they are classic social entrepreneurs--a perfect pair."

They may also be emblematic of a new type of activism for the new millennium. Students who've been building rÈsumÈs since middle school for admission to top-tier universities like Duke are often wise beyond their years in the ways of the world. Instead of fighting the system by leafleting or staging sit-ins, they're working it--grassroots idealism meets boardroom savvy.

That doesn't mean there isn't real passion at work. Segall embraced environmentalism at a young age. Raised in Denver, he's an enthusiastic mountain climber. He talks about the first time he scaled a peak higher than 10,000 feet, Mount Zirkel, near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He was a ten-year-old camper on a wilderness outing. "I got to the top. There was a beautiful view--360 degrees--the most gorgeous natural thing you could have." As he turned his head, scanning the horizon, "in the northwest, I see a huge plume of smoke going up into the air, and I turn to my counselor and ask him, 'What's that?' And he tells me, "That's the smoke from the Hayden coal-fired power plant.' And it was just such a black mark on such a beautiful view. And I said, 'I don't like it.' And he said, 'Well, do something about it.'

" I said, 'Okay.'"

In middle school, Segall helped develop a pilot program that used a wetlands system to clean up a polluted stream. The summer before his freshman year at Duke in 2001, he worked in the Denver office of the Environmental Protection Agency. He focused on green buildings and other types of sustainable development. Then, first semester freshman year, he signed up for the FOCUS program, an interdisciplinary course of study centering on a particular theme, in this case global environmental change. In a class on climate change, "We were discussing what some other schools had done in relation to the Kyoto Protocol," Segall recalls. "And one of the professors challenged us. He said, 'Who's going to do that here?' And nobody put their hand up, and then I said, 'I'll do it.'"

Meeting a green standard: the 45,000-square- foot, three-level divinity school addition includes Goodson Chapel, which seats 315

 Above: Meeting a green standard: the 45,000-square- foot, three-level divinity school addition includes Goodson Chapel, which seats 315

 

"And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'Let's do more than just that. Let's do something bigger.' "

The university already has a student initiative, the Duke Environmental Alliance, which, this year, successfully promoted campus projects like replacing incandescent bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescents and helping obtain grants to aid a switch to cleaner-burning fuels for the Transit Services bus fleet. But Segall says he was after something more. Because of his experience at EPA, he decided to work on a green building initiative as a project for a class on leadership, taught in the Sanford Institute of Public Policy. That's when Segall and Vitarelli first teamed up.

Vitarelli's motivation, like his manner, is less passionate, more thoughtful. The summer before his freshman year at Duke, he worked part-time for a small nonprofit in New Jersey on issues of indoor air quality and health issues related to the environment. He's an Eagle Scout and has internalized scouting's "sense of stewardship to the environment," as he puts it. "But, I would say, more importantly, I'm ambitious to a point of irrationality sometimes, and this project really fits that trait of mine very well. When I first heard about it, I liked the idea. I was, like, 'Environmental issues are great.' But then once Justin and I started sitting down and laying the groundwork, I saw this really having wings."

Their original idea was a green building initiative in Durham. But they soon came to the conclusion that, in Segall's words, "there was much more receptiveness, and it would actually be much easier to get something in full swing on campus."

" Here you have a lot more resources, both financial and otherwise, to implement something like this," he explains. "We have a school of the environment. We have architects. We have a facilities department."

DUGI's drivers: from left, graduate students Mandy Schmitt, Edward May, Kristin Grenfell, Lena Hansen, Ben Prater, and Dylan Fuge

 DUGI's drivers: from left, graduate students Mandy Schmitt, Edward May, Kristin Grenfell, Lena Hansen, Ben Prater, and Dylan Fuge. Photo: Les Todd

 

As they were soon to discover, Duke also has an administration that is open to working with students, in sharp contrast to the experiences reported by some graduate-student members of DUGI who received their undergraduate degrees at other universities and, according to Vitarelli, encountered "huge administrative problems when they tried to get something like this off the ground."

The pair's first major goal was to gain administrative support for going after what is known as LEED certification. The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System was created by the U.S. Green Building Council, a coalition of professionals from the building industry, in an attempt to define what makes a building "green." Like the "organic" designation in the produce aisle, LEED certification sets certain minimum standards. Points are awarded for elements such as materials, indoor air quality, energy efficiency, and waste reduction. To become LEED certified, a building must earn a minimum of twenty-six points. With additional points, buildings may also earn silver, gold, and--at the dizzying level of fifty-two points--platinum certifications. "Before LEED existed, a lot of people would say, 'My building is green,' but nobody could really necessarily tell," says Segall. "It's a way to differentiate between people who are really doing a green building and those just saying they are."

For Segall and Vitarelli, the first stop was Jerry Black's office, in the facilities management department's headquarters, a converted tobacco warehouse near the intersection of Buchanan and Main streets. One of the first things they learned was that a lot was already being done on the campus in the areas of energy conservation and waste reduction, and that Black's efforts were arguably the most comprehensive. If Duke had a designated energy czar, Black would be it. "You can't exaggerate how much of a positive force Jerry Black has been," Vitarelli says.

Black is a former Marine with white hair and a no-nonsense manner. He says he became interested in conservation while running a landfill for the Marines out of Quantico, Virginia, seeing all the stuff people throw away. He came to Duke in 1994 and quickly saw a lot of what he calls "low-hanging fruit," energy-saving projects ripe for the picking--relatively easy, effective, and inexpensive. In the nine years he's been here, his department has instituted a plethora of energy- and cost-saving measures, including installing sink faucet aerators that reduce water flow more than a gallon a minute, wattage-saving light bulbs, motion sensors in classrooms that turn off lights after everyone leaves, and vending machines in the Bryan University Center that go into "sleep" mode when no one is using them.

Over the last five years, the square footage of buildings owned and operated by Duke has increased 11 percent; the total energy used on campus has decreased 9 percent over the same period, saving an average of $900,000 a year. "To me, it's just the right thing to do," says Black. "And we don't do enough of it." Largely through his efforts, in 1999 Duke became the first university to receive the Energy Champion Award from the U.S. Department of Energy for innovative programs in energy conservation. Duke won the award again last year. As a result, when Segall and Vitarelli arrived, they "landed on a soft mat," as Black puts it. "It wasn't like they walked in and said, 'Hey, we want to talk about green building,' and someone said, 'What's green building?'" Indeed, the new Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine, and Applied Sciences (CIEMAS), going up now on West Campus, was already under consideration for LEED certification.

Black's accomplishments had a dampening effect on Segall and Vitarelli at first. "We were going to give him all these brilliant ideas," recalls Segall. "And he goes through and says, 'I've done that. I'm doing that. I've done that. I'm doing that. I've done that. I'm thinking of doing that.' "

Then, they recall, Black said something else to them: "You guys can do so much more than this." It was like a fat pitch to a cleanup hitter. "Justin and I went back and said, 'All right, we've got to redo our goals. We need to look at the whole university. We need to create macro-goals. We need to have a holistic outlook in terms of making a sustainable university rather than just a sustainable building. Clearly, doing one building is good. Doing all buildings is great. But doing sustainability across the whole campus is the ideal. We realized we needed to drop the word 'building' from our name."

The students found the right advisers--Rich, who is chair of the Nicholas School's board of visitors, a founding director of the North Carolina Nature Conservancy, and the former CEO of Louis Dreyfus Natural Gas; Truman T. Semans Jr. '90, M.B.A. '01, a Nicholas School board member and a management consultant and senior fellow at GLOBE USA, an association that serves members of Congress active on issues of the environment and energy; and Norman L. Christensen Jr., founding dean of the Nicholas School and professor of ecology there. They touched the right bases, meeting with top administrators and obtaining the blessing of Tallman Trask III, executive vice president, and President Nannerl O. Keohane.

" For class, we'd have to turn in goals--you know, like this week's goals, month-long goals, goals for the end of the semester. Well, within like a week, we finished our goals for the semester," says Vitarelli. "Which was, essentially, just Get Administrative Support for Green Building. We had no delusions of getting, you know, All Green Buildings in the Future or anything like that...."

Segall interrupts, "That's something that we actually put as something to try and get by the time we left Duke."

" Yeah," nods Vitarelli, "by the time we left Duke, we wanted to make it so that all future buildings would be LEED certified."

In May, Segall and Vitarelli made a presentation on the LEED program to the board of trustees' buildings and grounds committee that they are confident will smooth the way for a formal commitment to green building.

The administration was "already headed on this course before we met Anthony and Justin," says Trask, who, as executive vice president, oversees buildings and grounds. "It was nice to have them join up and expand the conversation." He became one of the duo's early supporters. "Trask is very serious about this," says Nicholas School dean William H. Schlesinger. "We met with Trask and Nan in the fall and affirmed a strong level of university commitment to this--so strong, I thought, My gosh, Justin and Anthony had the wind taken out of their sails." In fact, as happened after their meeting with Black, the duo simply set off on a different tack.

Jerry Black, Director, Facilities Management Department

 "To me, it's just the right thing 
to do. And we don't do enough of it." JERRY BLACK, Director, Facilities Management Department. Photo: Chris Hildreth

 
 

By then, with Rich's help, they had signed on a group of graduate students from the Nicholas School--primarily joint-degree candidates in law and the environment. The group "really got excited and really brought a lot of what I would call organizational skills and technical skills, just a lot more depth to the whole thing," Rich says. In late February, this core group launched DUGI with a lecture by William McDonough, an architect who is considered one of the country's leading experts on green buildings.

After the lecture--held at the Fuqua School of Business in an auditorium that was packed, in spite of a heavy downpour--Segall and Vitarelli spoke. Dressed in nearly identical charcoal-gray suits and looking solemn, they announced that the initiative would focus on three main areas: greening the university's physical plant--not just buildings, but things like installing landscaping with drought- and pest-resistant species and making the campus increasingly accessible to bicycle and pedestrian traffic; integrating the idea of environmental responsibility into the undergraduate curriculum and the university's research agenda by establishing a Center for Sustainability Studies; and, most ambitious, changing the culture of Duke, so that, in Vitarelli's words, "whenever key decisions are made, the stakeholders consider their choices' potential environmental impact."

Dogwood trees in riotous bloom are visible outside the conference room in the Nicholas School, where DUGI's executive committee is meeting. Inside, Kristin Grenfell, a graduate student in law and environmental management, gives a practice run of a presentation on water-conservation efforts at Duke that she and Charlotte Mitchell, another DUGI member, will present the following week at a National Wildlife Federation conference. The conservation efforts, coordinated by Black and his team at facilities management, are impressive, saving, on average, eight million cubic feet of water a year, or about 15 percent.

CIEMAS building: Duke's first certified green building

 CIEMAS building: Duke's first certified green building. Photo: Les Todd

 
 

Outside Nicholas, a yellow construction crane rises high above the dogwoods, high above even the concrete skeleton of the new CIEMAS building, visible just across the way. CIEMAS, which will be Duke's first certified green building, is emblematic of the opportunities DUGI will encounter over the next several years. Schlesinger, the dean, says he wonders, "Will the next building be gold or platinum? I hope so. And Anthony and Justin's efforts might insure that significant thought goes to that. I think keeping the level of commitment up, ratcheting it up, is important. There's commitment among the administration, but you can put the screws to them."

At present, Duke has eleven buildings and major additions under construction or in the planning stages. An addition to the divinity school, scheduled for completion in early 2005, will be the second LEED-certified building--possibly silver. In February, at the invitation of Ellen Davis, an associate professor who teaches a class on ecology and theology, Segall and Vitarelli met with divinity school students to talk about DUGI. Two of the students, Alex A. Shanks M.Div. '03 and James D. McSpadden M.Div. '03, volunteered to meet with Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones M.Div. '85, Ph.D. '88 and try to persuade him to have the plans for the building modified so that it could be certified silver.

They used arguments based in theology, citing passages in Genesis, Exodus, and Prophets. "The Scriptures are clear that our relationship with the Earth is important for our relationship with God," Shanks says. "The way we relate to non-human creation is reflective of how we feel about God." Dean Jones gave them the go-ahead. "I didn't need a lot of convincing. I was already receptive." Changes that will go toward silver certification include using materials from local sources--possibly even wood from Duke Forest--and having windows that can be opened, so as to improve the quality of inside air. McSpadden says he and other divinity-school students are discussing plans to present a lecture or series of lectures to new students at orientation in the fall "in which we address issues of theology and the environment."

" To see undergraduate and graduate students working together in this way--it's thrilling," says Davis. DUGI "has created this amazing collaboration synergy, so people all over the university are saying, 'Yes, we can do something.'"

A university is, in many respects, a perfect place to make this kind of commitment. Whereas developers assume about a twenty-year lifespan for their buildings, a university like Duke builds for fifty years or longer, says University Architect John Pearce. Investments in green buildings promise a long-term payback not only for the environment but also in terms of cost savings and improved health for students and employees, DUGI members say. And there's arguably more to it than tangible return. "Universities are supposed to be centerpieces for innovation and experimentation," says May, the joint M.B.A. and M.E.M. candidate. "We can bring together all of the expertise in schools like engineering and business and, obviously, the school of the environment, to let people start communicating about ways to think outside the box."

DUGI's early victories create the temptation to run off "in 100 different directions," as one member puts it. The two greatest challenges facing DUGI now are staying focused and institutionalizing itself, while retaining the agility of a grassroots organization. The focus will be provided by a strategic plan that the group has been honing with the help of Semans, the Nicholas School board member, and that will, among other things, help them in their quest for grants.

The institutionalization will come more slowly, says Rich. Right now, he says, the students "really own" DUGI, and that's one reason it's been so successful. But student ownership is probably also DUGI's greatest vulnerability. In two years, when its organizers graduate, the greening initiative will experience a 100 percent turnover in leadership. The students and their advisers say they believe that the organization will have to take on the stability and continuity provided by a paid staff, even if that means risking the loss of the nimbleness that makes DUGI so effective. It's the kind of smart move that reflects the strategic maturity that distinguishes DUGI from most other student organizations.

" It's like the entrepreneur moving toward serious management practices as opposed to just being opportunistic," says Rich. "And somehow DUGI is going to have to be both, because to sustain itself, it's got to be well-organized, and have a continual presence. Yet it's got to continue to have that energy that the students bring to it."

For Vitarelli and Segall, for now, 2005 and graduation seem a long way off. "We're in it for the long haul, and you might as well get used to it," Vitarelli says. "We're going to be bugging you for the next two years." Indeed, on their way out of a meeting recently, they can't stop talking about their aspirations for the level of LEED certification for a proposed addition to the Sanford Institute of Public Policy.

" It should be platinum," Vitarelli says to Segall as they walk out.

" We can do this platinum!" echoes Segall.

Mickey and Judy. A team on a mission. One heck of a show.