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Trusteeship Magazine

A Board's Role in Sustainable Farming and Organic Problem-Solving

By Jonathan Gibralter
March/April
2015

With responsibilities to serve as fiduciaries and visionaries for our institutions, boards are often tasked with finding creative solutions to issues affecting the populations we serve. Thinking outside of the box, while also remaining true to our missions and aligning with other institutional goals and priorities, can sometimes be a challenge. But it is often the approaches that seamlessly and resourcefully blend new ways of thinking and doing with old principles that make the biggest— and most unexpected—impact.

The history of sustainability efforts for the University System of Maryland has a similar story. In 2007, the system’s then-chancellor, William “Brit” Kirwan, announced a plan for sustainability standards. In 2008, the board of regents formally supported the concept, and together they tasked each president within the 12-institution system with creating a sustainability plan that aligned with their mission and met the needs of their campus and region.

As president of Frostburg State University (FSU), my goals were very different from those of my urban and flagship colleagues. For one key initiative, I focused on honoring our region’s mining roots and meeting Frostburg’s needs in new ways. The Western Maryland Resource Conservation and Development Council and our campus applied for and received federal grant dollars to build a series of high-tunnel greenhouses on one of the unusable strip-mining sites that abound in our region.

The greenhouse program, named Frostburg Grows, allows us to sustainably grow produce for our dining halls, campus facilities, and local restaurants. Also, native tree saplings are being grown and will be planted to restore eroding stream beds, protecting them from runoff.

Although envisioned as a project to grow our sustainability footprint, the benefits to the institution have been significant. Our community partnerships have helped FSU to grow our brand identity both regionally and locally; increased our interactions and formal affiliations with local businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies; advanced the portion of our strategic plan focused on sustainability; and allowed us to become a system leader in sustainability. We’ve also realized taxdeductible donations to our foundation to support this extraordinary project.

Boards must challenge their campuses to dream big and concurrently remember to:

Allow strategic initiatives to include elements of creativity by the campus and local community. The board members and Chancellor Kirwan prioritized sustainability for the system, while I asked my leadership team to think more creatively and include partners on and off campus. As a result, the Maryland State Highway Department donated used highway signs, which were then cut down and made into planting beds. The city’s trash collectors picked up yard waste and deposited it at Frostburg Grows to be used for mulch. Water was collected using gutters along the greenhouses, with the water running into collection containers, and gravity systems were used to water the crops, with the water heated by solar energy. Embracing the spirit of creative sustainability, our food service provider installed a composter to turn its food waste into nourishment for future crops, building a healthy, sustainable local food chain.

Recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Although we covered the traditional bases with our green efforts on campus, including LEED-certified buildings and recycling, we knew a bold project like Frostburg Grows would allow us to do something different and maximize impact.

Pair the board’s guidance with opportunities for updates and positive reinforcement for hard work. I’ve enjoyed sharing our successes with the board at its meetings and am proud to say my administrative team won the Climate Leadership award from Second Nature in 2011 and was a runner-up in 2014. Both honors were recognized by the system’s board and chancellor.

With the support of our system’s chancellor and board, Frostburg Grows is transforming our university, community, and collective sustainability efforts. I have no doubt that the large, overarching, and strategic priorities set by all boards can provide the direction other leaders need to build physical and metaphorical change.

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