The Future of Sustainability at Universities

Here at ESI, we’ve long amplified the point that universities and hospitals have huge economic footprints, and that the employment hubs, procurement opportunities, and tax revenue generation they represent emerge from and are driven by the fulfillment of their deepest institutional missions. It is also true that these large-scale institutions have huge environmental footprints, and with ecological sustainability and energy justice ascending as community-wide social challenges, it is incumbent on universities and hospitals to have comprehensive, decisive forethought about their operations. With this in mind, ESI President and Principal, and Universities & Hospitals practice leader, Lee Huang, recently sat down with Senior Advisor Dan Garofalo, former Sustainability Director at University of Pennsylvania and current adjunct faculty member at Penn and Temple, to discuss the state of the industry. This interview has been edited for brevity.


Lee Huang: Dan, what’s the bottom line case for sustainability?

Dan Garofalo: For most universities, energy is second only to payroll on the operating budget. That can be tens of millions of dollars a year for an institution as large and complex as Penn. And if you are largely or exclusively exposed in fossil fuels, you’ll be subject to price shocks such as what you’re seeing now due to bad actors and global conflict (although recent price increases have been somewhat mitigated by the growth of the renewable sector and increased domestic fossil fuel production). Conversely, locking into long-term sources of renewable energy means lower and, equally importantly, more predictable costs.


Lee Huang: How do you operationalize sustainability at such a scale?

Dan Garofalo: Besides energy sources, sustainability professionals consider all the intersection points between environmental footprint, annual operations, and consumer preference:

  • Upgrading systems and winterizing buildings makes them more comfortable for users.
  • Prudent stormwater management mitigates against local flooding – a much more costly reactive burden.
  • Tree cover provides cleaner air, cooler summer temperatures, and a more aesthetically pleasing campus.
  • Transit subsidies lower your parking needs, reduce local congestion, and cut emissions from single-occupancy car commuting. Using local transit can also help faculty, staff, and students participate more fully in the urban experience, which is part of a great institution’s mission.


Lee Huang: Penn has long been a leader in its procurement practices. What if anything does that have to do with sustainability?

Dan Garofalo: Penn Purchasing has worked hard to cultivate relationships with local suppliers, which in addition to mitigating the carbon footprint of transporting goods long distances also strengthens the area economy and yields closer working partnerships with vendors. R1 institutions have enormous footprints, and by setting rigorous sustainability purchasing standards, they can have significant impact up the supply chain. I’m heartened to see so many schools in the region move intentionally in this direction and glad they are seeing the many benefits from this approach.


Lee Huang: What do you make of national university sustainability rankings, some of which score Philadelphia schools high and others which don’t?

Dan Garofalo: Institutions and campus settings are so varied that it can be difficult to impose a uniform rating system that tells you that one school is doing better than another. Throughout my career, I’ve had the pleasure of working on sustainability at different institutions and at being in touch with my peers nationally and internationally. The similarities and differences abound; we shared a lot of common objectives and tactics, but there are many other things that were necessarily institution-specific. Looking ahead, I imagine more of the same: comparing notes and creating collaboratives, but also finding site-authentic strategies that will resonate at the community level.



Dan GarofaloDan Garofalo | [email protected]

Dan Garofalo is a creative problem-solver and strategic thinker with more than 30 years of experience in a variety of consulting, institutional, and government roles. As an accredited LEED architect, he has overseen and planned sustainability projects for public sector, higher education, and non-profit organizations to improve lives and promote equity.



Lee Huang | [email protected]

Lee Huang is  President & Principal at ESI. Lee brings over 20 years of experience in economic development to his public, private, institutional, and not-for-profit clients. His economic inclusion work has included analyses of the utilization of minority- and women-owned businesses in municipal contracts in Philadelphia, as well as examinations of home lending, business lending, and branch location patterns in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and New York City.


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