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NEWARK, NJ — The New Jersey Institute of Technology this year earned the distinction of being named a top sustainable institution in the world, a recognition that came off the efforts of implementing various initiatives aimed at reducing the university’s carbon footprint while championing green solutions.

NJIT earned recognition from the Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings, ranking in the top 100 in the world for “Affordable and Clean Energy.” The recognition highlights institutions that have made efforts to increase access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy, meeting the targets outlined by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

A young woman with a bucket and trash-grabbing tool walks alongside a railing separating a path from wetlands plants alongside a body of water.

NJIT students clear debris from Branch Brook Park in Newark. Photo credit: New Jersey Institute of Technology

The recent recognition of NJIT’s work to become a sustainability institution is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to highlighting the university’s efforts toward becoming a greener campus. At NJIT, officials said sustainability is embedded in the university’s culture and academics.

“Sustainability is one of the core values expressed in NJIT’s strategic plan, and it is infused throughout all four prongs of our university mission – education, research, community service and economic development,” NJIT President Joel Bloom said. “Whether creating innovative technologies to reduce environmental impact and drive economic growth or educating students to incorporate sustainability as a foundation for their professional activities or collaborating with government and industry partners to address challenges or making our own operations more efficient and environmentally positive, sustainability is a priority for NJIT. And those efforts begin with a focus on our home community of Newark as well as our state.”

Eight or so people crouch next to a large plot of dirt, where small shrubs await planting.

NJIT undergraduates plant inkberry in front of a campus dormitory. Photo credit: New Jersey Institute of Technology

In order for universities like NJIT to take the lead in implementing sustainable initiatives and best practices, it’s important to note that keeping campus facilities up and running comes at a cost. In fact, higher education institutions are heavy energy consumers and greenhouse gas emitters.

With NJIT located in a city that has been burdened with pollution for years due to its proximity to major transportation hubs and industrialization facilities, university officials are determined to achieve a more sustainable campus.

“NJIT cannot thrive if the communities and world in which it resides do not thrive as well, so it is our responsibility to help address challenges and apply our talents and resources to producing solutions where possible,” Bloom said.

One way NJIT officials are working to become a green campus is through the university’s microgrid resiliency initiative, which educates and informs communities on the value and feasibility of microgrid development.

Microgrids, which are localized power grids that serve a small network of electricity users within a particular area, have been seen as potential drivers of promoting sustainability in communities. In a microgrid, power is generated from distributed energy resources (DER) as opposed to coal and gas-burning conventional power stations. DER systems are located on-site and close to the users they serve.

The potential benefits of a microgrid, officials said, are to help keep connected networks operating during times of power disruptions from conventional power delivery systems; reduce greenhouse gas emissions through environmentally responsible on-site power generation; and offer cost reduction opportunities.

NJIT wants to promote sustainability inside the classroom as well.

The university offers degree programs in environmental engineering and environmental science, with research labs such as the Global Change and Urban Ecology Lab, where students can investigate urban biodiversity and technology for nature. The university also offers opportunities for internships and jobs in emerging energy sectors like wind power.

The university’s commitment to promoting sustainability in its academics is reflected in students’ interest in a greener campus and community. University officials said there has been greater appeal among prospective students who embrace sustainability. Between 2012 and 2021, officials said enrollment grew 20% overall and 50% among first-year students. The fall 2021 class was the largest ever with 1,411 students, and the most diverse, according to university officials.

Promoting sustainability outside the classroom has been just as important as well for NJIT officials and students.

With social responsibility being one of the university’s core values, the university has led a prototype housing initiative for the city’s homeless population, which can impact a community’s sustainability goals. Fifteen undergraduate students in NJIT’s architecture program designed and built a prototype living unit, dubbed a “tiny home,” in order to provide a shelter solution for homeless Newark residents. The prototype unit, which measures approximately 8 feet by 12 feet, is designed to be deployed and easily moved from one site to another.

According to the United Nations, when a homeless person is highly at risk of suffering from poverty, hunger or poor health, it can contribute to rising inequalities in communities and prevent the growth of sustainable and inclusive cities. In Newark, a city that accounts for about 85% of Essex County’s total homeless population, having NJIT provide housing options for underserved residents can potentially help move the community’s sustainability goals in the right direction.

“Homelessness is a real and pressing challenge for the world we live in, and our community in Newark has the potential to create meaningful change for people that live here in our city,” said Charlie Firestone, an adjunct professor who worked on the project.

Whether it’s leading greener initiatives inside or beyond the classroom, NJIT officials are committed to ensuring the university can become a leader in sustainability.

That commitment was sealed earlier this year when NJIT President Bloom signed a pledge to become a carbon-neutral campus and reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions. The pledge falls in line with the university’s strategic plan to prioritize sustainability and ensure that every action in support of the university’s vision takes into account the impacts on the environment. The pledge also joins NJIT with universities across the nation in taking direct action on climate change and preparing students through research and education.

“NJIT’s leadership in sustainability is seen through its actions, academically and operationally,” Bloom said. “Our commitment to sustainability is reflected in our teaching, research and actions.”

As NJIT strives to become a more sustainable campus, other higher education institutions can look to the university as a model or template to implement their own green initiatives. Universities and colleges across the world already have various resources on hand to research, raise awareness, and promote sustainability.

NJIT officials want to ensure they do their part in progressing sustainability.

“Individually, universities wield influence but collectively, we can be a potent force for good, whether it’s pledging to become a carbon-neutral campus, as a national coalition of college and university presidents did this year, or calling out systemic inequities, as the New Jersey Presidents’ Council did in 2020,” Bloom said. “Together, we can collectively contribute toward bettering society.”

This story was co-produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the NJ Sustainability Reporting project


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