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 Profile: Michael Engh, S.J.

Posted on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010

Michael Engh, S.J., unplugs his phone charger in the morning so it doesn’t waste energy during the day. He tries to drive a Prius whenever he travels in the area, and his office on campus uses recycled paper whenever possible. It is all part of the daily routine for Santa Clara University’s Jesuit president.

It was almost two years ago, as Santa Clara's new leader, that he communicated his desire to institutionalize a commitment to sustainability and justice.

“Santa Clara University is uniquely positioned to make a significant contribution to achieving a more just and sustainable future,” said Engh in his April 2009 inauguration address. “I propose that we become a major center for discussions of justice and sustainability, and for examining the ethical dimensions of how we treat the physical world.”

The President, now known for his lunchtime conversations with undergraduates and his visibility around Santa Clara’s campus, took some time to reflect on that vision for the University and the progress that has been made so far.

Sitting in his second-floor office in the Walsh Administration building, Engh referred to personal experiences that shaped his spiritual and ethical foundations for sustainability.

“I am much more interested in the environment as a matter of justice. Sustainability lies underneath that,” he said.

Engh came to Santa Clara from Loyola Marymount University in his native Los Angeles. While there, the former dean and historian by profession witnessed the effects that urban planning decisions had on traditionally poor communities. Freeways cutting through neighborhoods, in particular, brought noise, waste, and toxic dust.

“It was amazing to me because I thought ‘ok, it’s on the house, it’s on the flowers, it’s on the lawn; it’s also what we’re breathing,’” said Engh referring to the gritty pollution. “That got me thinking how the poor are the least able to have a voice in the decisions that affect them greatly.”

Engh also has made several trips to Casa de la Solidaridad, a learning community in El Salvador operated by Santa Clara. There he saw exploitative farming habits practiced by local workers struggling to make a living. The experience reinforced for him the connection between the environment and justice.

The President’s bold vision for the University, unveiled in his inaugural address and advanced by his hands-on approach, set out to build on accomplishments Santa Clara has already made in the field of sustainability.

It was Engh’s predecessor, Paul Locatelli, S.J., who first proposed that the University take a closer look at the environment through a social justice lens. Locatelli convened a task force in summer 2003 to consider possible courses of action regarding sustainability. The group agreed that Santa Clara held plenty of potential to integrate the idea. One year later, the University adopted a comprehensive policy on sustainability, emphasizing environmental stewardship, education and service.

Locatelli signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2007, declaring Santa Clara’s intent to become climate neutral. Part of the pact meant that the University had to submit a climate neutrality action plan, which a group of academic and operations stakeholders drew up last year. A draft of the plan was formally approved by the President’s Staff last January.

The climate neutrality plan also lays out tangible actions to achieving a zero-net impact on the environment. Specifically, it proposes waste-conscious construction, a greater reliance on renewable energy sources, and minimizing waste. Engh likes to emphasize the plan’s dual challenge and practicality.

“To move from principles or commitments like justice and sustainability has to come down to practical applications,” said Engh. “What the climate neutrality plan excels in are practical applications.”

The President’s focus now is integrating sustainability into the University’s revised Strategic Plan.

The Strategic Plan highlights sustainability goals in broad terms to accommodate a university in transition. The Board of Trustees is set to review Santa Clara’s Strategic Plan in October. A campus master plan, which sets construction and expansion goals for the next two decades, also is scheduled to be unveiled in the coming year.

“There were a number of things we were revising in the Strategic Plan, but I wanted to make sure sustainability and education towards that goal were more closely interwoven with the Plan,” said Engh.

“I don’t think it is great to have a set of goals you can’t reach – that is frustrating. I do think it is good to have goals that make you stretch – that is very valuable,” he said. “We want a set of goals that would make us stretch and that we reasonably could expect to accomplish.”

By Christopher Woodhouse, '10, Sustainability Intern

Tags: Climate Neutrality, Commitments and Policies, Environmental Justice, Profiles