Sense and Sustainability: Episode VI

An interview with Geoff Swift, Bates College Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer, on his views on sustainability. 

O: So, first of all, I just wanted to ask how you came to be the Bates CFO, or it’s actually the Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer. And what made you interested in that career path?

G: My father was from New Hampshire, and moved west to follow his passion – geology. I was born in Salt Lake City, so I was skiing at Snowbird when I was three years old. I moved to California as a four-year-old and my father’s work moved him to Colorado for a few years, too. Across all these moves, I mostly grew up in Berkeley, California, with a father that instilled a love of the mountains in the family, and would bring me and my family hiking around the Sierras and the American West.

I came east for college and was an economics major. My first job after college was at a little firm in Washington, DC (which still hires Bates grads!), that does economic consulting for international tax issues. I spent five years rowing on the Potomac in those years, too, trying to make the Olympics out of Potomac boat club. I worked, I rowed and I met my wife. I followed her to Austin, Texas for a year while she finished graduate school. In 2000 I moved to Boston for business school. After earning my MBA I went to work at a small merchant bank for a little less than two years before shifting into higher education, where I worked as the budget director at the Harvard Business School, where I worked for five years. I then moved to Harvard Law School to be the “Financial Dean” – the CFO – and I was there for five years, too. It was then, in 2014, that I received a call about the Bates opportunity. It was the right job at the right time to move my family to Maine. So, I’ve been here for six years, and my official title is the Vice President for Finance and Administration, and Treasurer. I oversee facilities, dining, HR, accounting, and finance. Among the day to day joys is working with people like Tom Twist, who are so good and there’s so many things they do that gives me these windows and insights into these projects that are really cool. That’s the fun part of the job.


O: Awesome. So, my next question has a few parts.  First of all, what does sustainability mean to you? And then, how does it apply to your everyday life or to wh at you do at Bates?

Sustainability to me is the appreciation for the outdoors, is for appreciating the planet and your role in it.

G: Sustainability to me is the appreciation for the outdoors, is appreciating the planet and your role in it. I’m not a particularly religious person, but Yosemite is just one of those places where it all comes together – it’s this insane Valley, and when you stand there and look around you just realize that you’re a pretty small piece of the overall universe. And so to me sustainability is making sure you are able to appreciate nature and the outdoors. That’s part of what’s wonderful about Maine – there’s so many wonderful places here where you can appreciate fresh air and the people of Maine are so active. It’s been a wonderful place to live.

Sustainability is understanding – without being too trite or too hackneyed – your footprint; being aware of what you can do and what you can’t do and understanding how complicated all of this stuff is. If you put together my financial lens and the earthy lens, the good news is much of this is pretty well aligned. Just use less. We, as Americans, consume too much stuff – I probably consume way too much stuff – we need to be thoughtful about where we can use less.

In my personal life I’ve put solar panels on two houses. We put a nice array on our Cambridge house when we lived there, and then a few years later, we moved here, and I put one on my roof in Maine. I understand that sometimes sustainability investments make a difference, but it’s not always easy economically. There may be financial benefits with risks where the payoff disappears in certain circumstances. This can make some investments difficult. If every student isn’t driving an electric car, then should I be using tuition dollars to drive that agenda? If the purpose or the mission of the college is to educate students, where does one put sustainability in our priorities? How can we be thoughtful about where we want to be sustainable everywhere while also being thoughtful about how parents and students are prioritizing their overall single fee dollars. So that’s why when we’ve looked at putting small arrays on some of our existing roofs we have held off. On the other hand, when Tom comes to me and says, let’s look at a net energy agreement, off site, at a scale where we can benefit from scale and state incentives, then we really want to make the most of those opportunities – those economics make sense.  Similarly when Tom and the team in facilities come to us to think about a different kind of fuel to run our steam plant, we scrub the proposal very carefully; let’s find ways to mitigate the college’s risk while we use a fuel that isn’t pulled out of natural gas or oil. That’s a different complicated story for another time – it has a few stories in the Campus Constructions Update, but it’s been a fascinating project.

Coming back to the question, I like to think about the tangible, substantive, things that people can do. I think about this on a daily basis. For example, I drive a 2012 Honda, and it gets 23 miles a gallon, and love the car, I can probably get five more years out of it, no problem, before I think about another car, but should I buy an electric car? So, if I wanted to buy a Hyundai Kona, which I’ve looked at pretty closely, is that the right thing to do? Should I dispose of my Honda? Because it’s almost a 10-year-old car, but it runs fine. What’s the right sustainability play there? From an economics perspective, I can continue to amortize that Honda for several more years, why am I in a rush to buy a new pile of leather and plastic and metal? But I can use less gas, and take advantage of state and federal incentives and make an economic argument. It’s hard to know. So, trying to combine the economics and the sustainability is something I find interesting and compelling.

O: Yeah, it really is. The last two interviews I did were both with environmental economists, Lynne Lewis and then TJ Rakitan. So, we’ve been hearing a little bit about that as well. But what are the biggest economic barriers to making Bates more sustainable? And what are those limitations?

G: We could make this place unbelievably carbon neutral if we just charged everybody X amount more. And we either bought more offsets, offsets are actually surprisingly inexpensive right now, which is maybe a different conversation about the difference between substantive and optical improvements. And we should get there before we’re done here. You know, we could have we could give everybody an electric car and show how sustainable we are per that prior conversation. Is that the right thing? So, there the financial element where we could spend our way to a better footprint.

One of the biggest challenges with sustainability is just behavioral change. A lot of it is small motion, small actions that everyone needs to take. Right? I imagine as you walk around campus, you’ll see lights on, you’ll see windows open, you’ll see a lot of stuff where people simply haven’t prioritized that in their life. Right? When we heat the campus, if we have our administrative and academic buildings at 65 degrees, which should be perfectly temperate for someone who lives in Maine and has a sweater like Tom has on. Is that reasonable? Or am I going to get people saying, I had to wear long sleeves today. Well, it’s November in Maine and maybe that’s okay. That’s not exactly how I’m going to succeed in my role, and that’s colder than standard workplaces are kept. So, you need to be careful not to be too aggressive. But in terms of what the challenges are, behavioral change is hard and that’ll take time as people start to prioritize things differently.

One of the biggest challenges with sustainability is just behavioral change. A lot of it is small motion, small actions that everyone needs to take. Right? I imagine as you walk around campus, you’ll see lights on, you’ll see windows open, you’ll see a lot of stuff where people simply haven’t prioritized that in their life.

So, first is a cost which is a little bit of a cop out, but I think that’s real. Second is behavioral change, which is hard and our EcoReps see this right up close and personal, I’m sure. Third piece maybe is just our ability to implement at pace.

There are also other hurdles as we navigate the national regulatory and incentive landscape. We go to this great effort to use this wood-based fuel, I’ll let you pick whether it’s carbon neutral or not. It’s a wood-based fuel. So, it’s not gas, it’s not oil. But the hurdles to simply buy the product are higher than you want them to be. You’ve got political hurdles. You’ve got economic hurdles. Can the vendor navigate these waters to make it work for them? So, we’ve done all the super hard work, and right now our partner has been held up by a definition on what constitutes a biofuel, and we need to support them in any way we can.

So, it can be expensive, pace of change, behavioral change, external influences, like politics and what not.

As discussed earlier, solar can look really good, and people can point to solar, it’s tangible, it’s easy, it certainly feels a lot better than saying those lights are LEDs or even more than saying, just turn off the lights. So, it looks good, but it’s not quite as substantive as some of our other efforts, starting with just using less energy. And if you think about the campus’ environmental footprint, let’s say 45% is the steam plant, 45% is the kilowatt hours that come off the grid and the other 10% is miscellaneous. The two biggest blocks are heating the steam plant and using kilowatt hours from the grid. So, we are carbon neutral on the grid, because we’ve paid a premium for power that the power company had made sure that somewhere down the electrons, down the range, they were supporting hydro or wind or solar somewhere else. And that was the most efficient way to do it. The steam plant was harder, but we made the move to RFO, which improved the profile on the second large block of our footprint.

You don’t get credit necessarily for being substantively good if you don’t have the banner to wave. So, the argument that was made, and that we decided to go with was two years ago, when we came so close to closing the gap for carbon neutrality, to buy the gap with offsets. And so that’s where I think I had been stubborn on the substantive piece, missing the importance of the signaling piece of buying the offsets. So, we bought the offsets, we’re carbon neutral. We’ve done that by buying our way to success on that last mile, but we’re buying fewer offsets than anybody else who’s proclaimed carbon neutral if I have it right.

The sustainability piece and what flag you carry and what you’re actually doing is a really complicated space. So ultimately, I think one of the most important things you can do, whether you’re at college or a student, or whomever you are, is you need to have confidence that you’re doing the things that you can do, to advance those little pieces in the world that make you more sustainable. If it’s trying to be thoughtful about the car you drive, or the power you use, or those little behavioral changes, or the way my wife thinks I’m crazy for saving our pasta jars (because somebody out there can reuse our pasta jars, rather than even recycling – I mean, those glass jars have another life!). So, there’s a yankee-ness to sustainability that has a role where one can try to find another life for the things we have before we just throw them in a landfill. But I think I’ve gone off track here!

So ultimately, I think one of the most important things you can do, whether you’re at college or a student, or whomever you are, is you need to have confidence that you’re doing the things that you can do, to advance those little pieces in the world that make you more sustainable.

O: Do you have any long-term goals for sustainability at Bates going on now?

G: The first one would be to stay carbon neutral – that’s the messaging piece. And that’s an attainable goal – we can solve that by purchasing the amount of credits we determine with need. The more substantive goal then would be to minimize the number of offsets that we buy, and to have the most substantive possible approach to sustainability on campus. Continue to be thoughtful with our energy sources and be thoughtful on how much energy we use.

O: Yeah. And then my last question is kind of similar. But if you were given a grant, right now, unlimited, and you can do anything with it regarding sustainability at Bates, what would you do? 

G: How would you do an employee benefit that does more for facilitating rideshares? Maine is awful in public transportation, it’s just such a spread-out state. Currently, given what’s going on in the world and current economics, gas is actually pretty cheap, which makes it easy for everyone to drive everywhere. There’s so little carpooling in Maine, it blows my mind. What kind of employee programs could you do to think about facilitating electric cars? This is an employee centric, not a student centric answer. If you think about how many employees we have, how many miles they drive in Maine on average? You know, how many car miles are there per year? And I think that would have a pretty big difference. So how do you think differently about transportation in Maine? So that’s one grant.

How would you develop a grant to help to get students to take the purple bus more often? Have you been on the purple bus ever? So how do we get the local transportation infrastructure to figure out there’s 2000 students that, by partnering with Bates, we can get them to places and stop doing the Bobcat Express everywhere because we got a bus that drives by our college 10 times a day.

Grant number three would be something that would help facilitate even faster adaptation to LEDs. I think that comment does a disservice to the good work that John Rasmussen is doing on campus. He’s the one that’s spearheading and advocating for all these projects that are decidedly unsexy, like swapping out lights. It’s adding insulation in roofs that no one ever sees. So, one unlimited grant maybe would be something that even further accelerates that work and lets us hire another Tom and another John. Although no such people exist, they’re unique! Tom and John are amazing!

An awesome grant would be a massive heat pump investment in all our wood frame houses. Tom has done some great work. I don’t know if you’ve been up to the Bates Morse mountain in the short range facility. But that’s a little spot. It’s a residential house that’s used as a launching point for work in Phippsburg and it’s of a size and scale that we can do some of these things, where we can explore the cost-benefit equation on a modest scale. We can learn and develop and enhance important partnerships with firms in Maine that do great work in sustainability – like Revision, who helped us with the solar array there, and other projects we’ll talk about in the future!

This is important stuff. And I really appreciate everything the EcoReps do. College students have other things on their minds and it’s hard to shape behavior and you’re on the frontlines of that decidedly unsexy behavior change we all want. That’s the hard work that EcoReps do, which I deeply appreciate. Thanks to you and Tom for all you do on campus!