Academic Commitments

Mason boasts an impressive array of scholars and research centers addressing climate change and other environmental challenges, and sustainability-related courses and programs have become a hallmark of our curriculum.  Our work in these areas is guided by the Vision for Sustainability in Academic Endeavors at Mason, which Provost Emeritus Stearns endorsed in 2011.  In 2012, Mason committed to the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative launched at the UN Conference for Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.  In spring 2013, Mason advanced to the Finest Four of the national Environmental March Madness tournament.


Mason employs more than 120 faculty members who work in 29 research centers that focus on environmental subjects ranging from climate change and smart transportation to freshwater ecology and endangered species, to name but a few.  Mason’s environmental researchers regularly secure grants from major public and private funders and have won a number of prestigious awards.  In summer 2012, the Obama Administration appointed Environmental Science and Policy professor Allison Macfarlane to chair the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Members of Mason’s faculty are regularly sought by governments, nongovernmental organizations, and major media outlets as experts on a wide array of environmental topics.  Environmental scholarship is an area of genuine excellence at Mason.


Climate change is the greatest environmental challenge humans have ever faced.  Its impacts reach into virtually every facet of the planet’s ecology, and its current and potential effects on human society are therefore myriad.  A problem as complex as climate change must be approached from many perspectives, and Mason researchers are doing just that as they carry out groundbreaking scholarship that draws on expertise in natural science, social science, and the humanities.


Every university – with its human population, its mixture of built and natural environments, and its systems for energy and water, food, and transportation – is a kind of microcosm of society.  This makes universities excellent laboratories for learning how to live more lightly on the planet.  Mason, with its rich intellectual resources, its proximity to the nation’s capital, and its global scope, is well positioned to produce the next generation of sustainability leaders.  Mason has made rapid progress in the past few years toward realizing its vast potential as a sustainability educator.

Mason offers two environmental undergraduate degrees, the BA in environmental and sustainability studies and the BS in environmental science.  Five additional majors offer environmentally focused concentrations, and multiple minors enable students to add an environmental dimension to virtually any course of study.  At the graduate level, the PhD in Environmental Science and Public Policy and Climate Dynamics programs anchor our environmental offerings.  Student interest in these programs is growing robustly, reflecting our society’s increasing awareness of the environmental challenges that are shaping our future and underscoring Mason’s growing reputation in environmental and sustainability education.

The Sustainable Mason logo pictured here designates a “green leaf” course or academic program, one which focuses on learning about sustainability – meeting our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  Mason offers more than 100 green leaf courses and 20 green leaf academic programs.



October 2012 marked the ribbon-cutting for the new academic, residential, and dining facilities at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, a 3,000-acre conservation research and teaching center in Front Royal, Virginia.  This new facility is the site for the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, an immersive conservation learning experience unlike anything else in the world.  Like a study-abroad program, the school places undergraduates in residence for a semester studying endangered species and ecosystems.  Highly qualified world experts – including Smithsonian scientists, Mason faculty, and colleagues from other U.S. and international conservation organizations – provide students with direct connections to the most current teaching, research techniques, and work in the field.  The new residential complex is a LEED Gold-certified building.

Students in the Sustainability Living Learning Community (SLLC), a themed residence hall floor on the Fairfax Campus, are making sustainability a key component of their personal lives while doing environmental service in the community and taking the lead in Mason’s efforts to create the greenest university in Virginia.  Groups of SLLC residents have designed and installed Mason’s first rain garden, launched a new e-waste recycling program for the Mason community, and worked to reduce Mason’s carbon footprint by promoting drying racks as alternatives to electric dryers in the residence halls.  SLLC residents don’t just talk the talk; they walk the walk.


Mason’s Office of Sustainability (OoS) oversees many of the programs covered in the next section (Environment – Beyond Academic Commitments).  While the main mission of OoS is to improve Mason’s environmental performance in multiple areas and foster a culture of sustainability throughout the university, OoS personnel have made a strong commitment to ensuring that the transformations they are making – from infrastructure to culture – also create transformational learning opportunities for students to help them grow as individuals, scholars, and professionals.

Each year, undergraduate students log hundreds of hours of for-credit service learning on OoS projects focused on recycling, organic gardening, energy conservation, transportation alternatives, and more.  At any given time, OoS staff members mentor up to seven undergraduate and graduate interns who are applying what they learn in the classroom as they work on campus sustainability initiatives that relate to their academic studies.

The most innovative example of this commitment to academic integration is the Patriot Green Fund (PGF).  Managed by the OoS, the PGF is a $100,000 per year fund devoted to making Mason’s campuses more sustainable through facility upgrades or installations and student research projects.  A committee of students, faculty and staff members meets quarterly to review applications to determine which projects will ultimately be funded.  All the funded projects are visible to the students and involve groups of students in their installation, implementation and outreach.  In its first two years, the PGF has launched Mason’s bikeshare program, dramatically expanded recycling programs, and funded creation of a rain garden, two apiaries, and a Permaculture Food Forest, to name a few.

Beyond Academic Commitments

Mason’s commitment to environmental stewardship is backed by public pledges and demonstrated through purposeful action.  Mason was an original signatory of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment in 2007, which committed Mason to becoming climate neutral by 2050 through creation and enactment of a Climate Action Plan.  Since that pledge, Mason has made significant progress incorporating sustainability at the highest levels of the university.  The Executive Steering Committee for Sustainability includes representatives from the units responsible for Mason’s operations, academics, and student affairs.  The Office of Sustainability (OoS) has primary responsibility for coordinating pursuit of sustainability-related goals in Mason’s operations and campus culture, while supporting sustainability-related teaching and learning initiatives through its academic integration initiatives.

In its 2014 Strategic Plan, the university included goals and metrics to achieve climate neutrality and integrate sustainability into its academic and extracurricular programs.  In 2011, Mason was among the first universities to report on its sustainability progress using the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS).  Mason received a STARS Silver rating and has a goal of achieving STARS gold in 2014.  Mason’s 2011 Transportation Master Plan elaborated on how Mason will continue to be a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly campus.


Since 2005, Mason has initiated two Energy Performance Savings Contracts with Siemens Industry Inc., totaling $16.7 million dollars.  The improvements yield $2.5 million dollars in savings annually.  Mason estimates that 20,505 metric tons of CO2 equivalent is saved annually through its energy-saving initiatives.  This amount of CO2 is equivalent to annual greenhouse gas emissions from 5,379 passenger vehicles, the electricity use of 3,420 homes for one year, or greenhouse gas emissions avoided by recycling 9,557 tons of waste.

In addition the above performance contracts, the Mason Energy Office has also implemented an integrated and sophisticated facility energy management system that enables the Energy Office to monitor and adjust systems remotely to make them more efficient.  This program generated significant savings through improved monitoring and control capabilities for key systems, such as heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting.  Verification of proper temperature, set points, setback or shutdown of systems; monitoring of energy usage real-time; and detection of degraded energy efficiency all contribute to more efficient operations and cost savings.


Mason’s Transportation Master Plan, supported by the Climate Action Plan, elaborates a transportation goal to reduce single occupancy vehicles on campus from 2010 levels by 10 percent by 2020.  Mason hopes to achieve this through investment in transportation infrastructure, education, and incentive structures.  The Office of Parking and Transportation has launched numerous initiatives to promote health and achieve the above goals.

To promote increased bicycle use, we have improved bicycling routes on and off campus, improved bicycle amenities, and facilitated connections with surrounding bicycle facilities in the nearby communities.  We established Patriot Bikeshare, a program that allows Mason community members to borrow a bicycle when they can’t have their own on campus.  Cyclists can also sign up for a monthly Commuter Benefit Program for riding their bikes to work.  We also sponsor Bike to Mason events several times a year to encourage community-building around cycling.

Carpooling is another way to reduce single-occupancy vehicles.  To promote carpooling, we created Mason Zimride, an online ride-share portal that provides members of the Mason community with a safe and easy way to connect with others who have a similar travel destination, whether coming to campus for class or work, or traveling long distances.  Participants with a car are able to split gas and transportation costs by connecting with members who are without a vehicle.  Parking pass holders who carpool to Mason get special parking locations.

Mason promotes public transportation use by offering free shuttles to and around university campuses not only for the Mason community, but for local community members, as well.  The Commuter Choice program offers significant financial benefit for employees who use public transportation.  Three Zipcars are available on the Fairfax Campus for those who need a short-term car rental; other rental vehicles are available at nearby mass transit stops.


Mason strives to manage its economic and natural resources responsibly and sustainably.  In 2007, Mason’s Board of Visitors pledged that all new construction and major renovations be designed to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver standard or its equivalent.  As of 2012, Mason has three LEED Gold buildings, one LEED Silver building, and one LEED-certified building.

Because of Mason’s requirements under its authority as a municipal separate storm sewer system and because Mason is part of a sensitive watershed that drains into the Chesapeake Bay, the university’s focus for land development has been to minimize the impacts of runoff associated with land disturbances, such as flooding, erosion and water pollution.  Mason hopes to achieve this goal by using best management practices, implementing low-impact development, and finding cost-effective alternatives that provide water quantity and quality control while simultaneously complying with local, state, and federal laws and regulations.

Approaches include incorporation of on-site storm-water management tools, such as rain gardens, vegetated and grass swales, retention ponds, green roofs, and pervious pavement.  These serve the function of treating, conveying, and infiltrating storm-water runoff, with the goal of cleaning and slowing it down before it is discharged into local waterways.  Mason has one acre of pervious pavement on its Fairfax Campus and its largest on-site treatment facility (and a best management practice) is Mason Pond, which treats approximately 125 acres – more than a third of our main campus area.

For more information:

Mason Land Development Office


Despite rapid growth in building square footage requiring service and maintenance, Mason’s overall waste tonnage has decreased since 2009, and comingled (cans, glass, and plastics) recycling rose by 10 percent between 2011 and 2012.  These results came from a conscious push to improve the accuracy of waste data and allocating resources to improve recycling infrastructure and education.

The Office of Housing and Residence Life partnered with Recycling and Waste Management, Office of Sustainability (OoS), University Life, and Auxiliary Enterprises to implement in-room recycling, strengthen collections infrastructure, and provide recycling education in all residence halls.

Student centers have introduced recycling centers that provide detailed visual information about what is recyclable and what is not.  This has raised awareness in the highest traffic areas of campus.  These units provide students, faculty, staff, and visitors the necessary information to make informed recycling decisions about how to properly dispose of their recycling materials.  Currently, OoS is working to install standardized visual labels on all of its recycling units.  Mason is on track to reach its goal of a 25 percent diversion rate by the year 2014.

Finally, Mason implemented an e-waste recycling program through a contract written by the Commonwealth of Virgina.