Rowan University fights environmental crises using more than the usual higher education toolbox

Rowan University in Glassboro has long been committed to sustainability, but, with mounting evidence of catastrophic climate change and biodiversity crises, the institution is redoubling environmental initiatives, including hiring faculty, implementing curricula and reshaping infrastructure.

“The threat to humanity by the climate and biodiversity crises cannot be overstated,” said Rowan President Ali A. Houshmand. “In response, we have committed to do all we can to fight it.”

The university’s plan to hire 10 new sustainability-focused faculty members across the university — many in non-STEM fields — may be unique in the nation. Dubbed Catalysts for Sustainability, the initiative is attracting experts and innovators for all of its main campus schools and colleges.

“We have plenty of data on climate change, but data doesn’t speak to everyone,” said Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, dean of Rowan’s School of Earth & Environment. “To reach everyone, we must include the arts, business, communication, engineering, the health sciences — all of our disciplines.”

Major sustainability initiatives

Discovery Hall, Rowan’s new academic building, serves the School of Earth & Environment and anchors the west end of the main campus with environmentally friendly design. (KSS©HalkinMasonPhotography)

Lacovara, who is also director of the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park of Rowan University, said the Catalysts for Sustainability program is one of four key environmental initiatives underway at the southern New Jersey institution.

In addition to the Catalysts for Sustainability initiative and the 2015 founding of the School of Earth & Environment, Rowan is creating a new bachelor’s degree in sustainable food systems, a program designed to help feed a hungry planet and building the state’s largest public net-zero building.

Lacovara noted that Rowan is one of the few universities in America to have built a school specifically to address the needs of the warming planet, and to help reverse the effects of warming before it’s too late.

He noted that vast swaths of the Amazon rainforest, where carbon dioxide is captured and oxygen is released, are disappearing to logging and overdevelopment, while rising sea temperatures are turning oceans acidic, killing vital marine features. These include coral reefs; clams, mussels and snails that filter ocean water; and phytoplankton, photosynthesizers that produce much of the planet’s oxygen.

Further, he said, fisheries are collapsing from overharvesting and vast numbers of birds, mammals, plants and insects are simply disappearing.

“This is not an esoteric issue,” he said. “Life on Earth is crashing. Ecosystems are dying.”

Research and infrastructure

Edelman Fossil Park of Rowan University includes a 65-acre tract with a former marl quarry, now a research site that many consider the best window east of the Mississippi into the Late Cretaceous Period—the heyday of the dinosaurs. The fossil park provides children and youth vital environmental education with hands-on experiences.

Rowan’s fossil park, a unique site in Mantua Township just miles from Rowan’s main campus, and a new museum and research center under construction there, are more examples of the university’s commitment to sustainability.

Research at the site, much of which is conducted some 70 feet below ground level, is exploring the world’s fifth mass extinction, the calamitous die-off in which most dinosaurs and 75% of other plants and animals went extinct.

Set to open in 2023, the $73 million museum and research facility will be New Jersey’s largest public net-zero building, meaning 100% of the energy used there will come from renewable on-site sources and/or green energy through New Jersey’s power grid.

Eco-friendly features will include geo-thermal pumps to heat and cool the building, a photovoltaic field to generate electricity, reduced-carbon concrete for its walls and avian-friendly glass designed to make the windows visible to birds but clear to the human eye.

Features of the new sustainable food program will include courses in no-till agriculture, organic and hydroponic farming and the exploration of nontraditional food sources like crickets and cicadas.

“Universities like ours have to provide leadership,” Lacovara said. “We have to educate every single student who comes through this institution about these existential crises.”

A sustainability mindset and campus culture

Though some of Rowan’s efforts are developing, the university has long fostered a commitment to sustainability across disciplines.

The School of Earth & Environment offers a variety of degree programs in environmental science; geography, planning and sustainability; and geology, all of which prepare students for careers that support a healthy climate.

Schools and colleges that would not traditionally focus on environmental issues now are collaborating to create curricula, programming and hands-on experience in sustainability and related priorities.

“Sustainability cannot be any one thing,” Houshmand said. “It must be incorporated in everything we do. Our home, our Earth, is under attack and, unless we do everything we can to protect our planet, including the ways in which we learn and live, the life we know may be lost.”

Learn more, including details on Rowan’s Catalysts for Sustainability initiative.