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Brandeis welcomes new sustainability manager

With a priority of reducing Brandeis’ carbon footprint, Mary Fischer has become the new manager of sustainability programs.

Fischer, who started on July 6, sought out the position because the university’s “desire for building a strong sustainability program was very clear,” she said.

Brandeis’ first step in becoming more sustainable is decreasing its carbon footprint, according to Fischer. There is much that the students and staff can do toward this end, one of which the university launched in July. The summer’s Turn It Off days marked a turning point in the effort. Vice President for Campus Operations Jim Gray sent out campuswide emails on several “peak-demand days” that urged everyone on campus to curb their energy usage. Gray’s suggestions included closing shades and blinds to reduce building heat, unplugging all devices from wall outlets, and refraining from charging all portable devices. Interim President Lisa Lynch later reported the results from the inaugural Turn It Off day, July 20, by email, praising the campus’ 13 percent reduction in energy use, which was well beyond the administration’s expectations, though did not meet its goal of 20 percent.

While Turn It Off was not Fischer’s brainchild, she has been involved in the program and is especially knowledgeable about the technical reasons behind it. She explained that on high-heat days, the energy that is generated is more carbon intensive. Because there is a higher demand for energy, especially as more people crank up their air conditioning, older and dirtier power plants, known as marginal units, must be fired up to meet the demand.

Despite making strides, Brandeis still faces challenges with sustainability. “Changing behavior is the hardest thing to do,” Fischer said. But she will not let that stop her. She plans to engage the campus in education and rely on students to be the force of change.

Fischer has long wanted to work with students. She had been an English tutor intermittently, but this will be her first opportunity to work with students long term. Already, she has met with students from Brandeis Climate Justice and is interested in working with them further. In the coming months, Fischer will be involved in establishing a formal sustainability committee, which will be composed of both students and faculty.

She also envisions collaborating with students more interested in the arts than the hard science of environmentalism. As the founder of the Yale Environmental Film Festival, now in its seventh year, Fischer has experience in broadening the sustainability conversation to include communities who might otherwise see little connection between themselves and sustainability.

Part of the sustainability conversation on campus, divestment is not formally part of Fischer’s job description, despite being a central feature of the sustainability field. The senior administration and the Board of Trustees, not Fischer, are the ones who can divest the university from fossil fuel companies if they choose to do so. However, she was clear that the rest of the Brandeis community can take action in protest. “The fastest way to send fossil fuel companies a message is to use less energy and show that we do not support the unbridled usage of their product,” Fischer explained.

Another possible solution to the university’s carbon output is solar panel installation. Panels on on Gosman Sports and Convocation Center and the Charles River Apartment roofs have begun to supply power to campus. But Fischer noted that rushing to put up panels across campus is not feasible. A solar installation’s typical lifespan is 20 years, so the administration must take it into consideration which buildings will remain standing and for the most part unchanged for the next two decades, according to Fischer. The university is in the process of investigating roofs whose future do not conflict with the campus’ master plan and will label those priority locations for potential solar panels. However, even if solar panels covered every roof, they could not produce enough energy to power all of Brandeis, said Fischer.

Fischer has a long history in sustainability. Before arriving at Brandeis, she worked for the yogurt companies Stonyfield and Dannon, managing their greenhouse gas accountability system. The system generated an individual carbon footprint for every product that the companies create, so she tracked all of the impacts a product had on greenhouse gases. “I knew everything about the product, from what the cows ate on the farm, to where to the fruit is grown, to how the farm ingredients travel to the factory, to where the products end up,” Fischer said. She was a sort of internal consultant who kept track of the companies’ environmental impact and played an activist role by making recommendations so that product decreased their carbon footprint.

Brandeis has not had a permanent sustainability coordinator since 2012, but Fischer’s hiring is indicative of the university’s commitment to make sustainability a bigger priority.

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