Sample Case Study

Duke University 

Based on an interview with Tavey Capps, Environmental Sustainability Director, conducted on February 11, 2011.

Institution Profile:

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Enrollment: 14,350
  • Campus Locale: Mid-size City
  • Private
  • Commitments: ACUPCC and AASHE
  • Accountable Person(s) for Climate Response: Committee – Campus Sustainability Committee


For decades, Duke University has been promoting environmental conservation in the classroom. In 1938, Duke founded the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Duke University Marine Lab (located in Beaufort, NC), which later merged, along with the Department of Geology, to form the Nicholas School of the Environment.[i] Today, the Nicholas School of the Environment serves as a hub for environmental education, and its faculty members often have dual appointments with other professional schools on campus, such as the Law School and the Public Policy School. In addition to its long-time academic interests, Duke’s geographical location, network of facilities, and the Duke Forest have also affected the university’s approach to mitigating climate change.

Being in Durham, North Carolina presents Duke with many challenges and opportunities.  To start with, the vast majority of Duke’s electricity is derived from utility-owned, coal-powered plants. On the plus side, there is potential for offsets through the Duke Forest–7,060 acres of forest that the university owns, and as North Carolina is a major hog producer, there are potential agricultural offsets and partnership opportunities in the region as well.[ii]

Duke also has significant research facilities, athletic facilities, residence halls, and a large medical care system (the Duke University Medical Center and Duke University Health System).  Duke University has almost 33,000 employees, of which more than two-thirds are affiliated with the Duke Medical system.[iii]  For comparison, Duke has about 7,500 graduate students and 6,500 undergraduates.[iv]

Duke’s recently approved Climate Action Plan (CAP) particularly reflects how a customized approach to emissions reductions is important. The CAP calls for climate neutrality by 2024, of which 45% of reductions are achieved through on-campus initiatives and the other 55% from local or regional ones. Interestingly, the CAP includes plans to only use offsets that have a tangible connection to Duke and the Southeast region.

History of Climate Governance Structure:

Duke University President Richard Brodhead signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment and created the Campus Sustainability Committee (CSC) in 2007, which is the governing body that oversees the university’s response to climate change.  Since its creation, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask and Dean Bill Chameides (Nicholas School of the Environment) have served as co-chairs, and the committee involves 25-30 students, faculty, and staff.

Even though Duke had been conducting annual greenhouse gas inventories since 1990 and implementing some carbon reduction measures, long-term, strategic planning for climate neutrality had not occurred yet.  Therefore, when the CSC was founded, it was originally charged with conducting a carbon inventory that aligned with the ACUPCC’s requirements and developing a climate action plan.  As the three major greenhouse gas sources were from the campus steam plant, purchased electricity, and transportation, three subcommittees were created for each focus area, in addition to a communications subcommittee and an education subcommittee. It is worth noting that Duke’s GHG inventories do not include “leased space or satellite health system buildings and hospitals,” as a result of the central administration having a limited ability to control the actions of those facilities.[v]

According to Ms. Tavey Capps, Duke’s Environmental Sustainability Director, one of the strengths of the CSC is that those who would be most impacted by the climate and sustainability plans were brought to the same table at the very beginning, including those who would might not be directly involved in the implementation of climate strategies but were at high levels in the university and had significant influence.  Having the leaders from different departments, as well as a presidentially-appointed committee, enabled the CSC to cross boundaries and have authority to make some of its recommendations.

Having a large and diverse committee also meant that the different campus departments and interests were represented at the start of the CSC’s planning process, including setting the boundaries for the GHG inventory, determining targets, and developing future programs.  In addition, those who had tremendous influence over a topic and who would also be involved with overseeing the implementation of CAP activities were asked to lead specific subcommittees.  For instance, the Vice President for Facilities now chairs the Energy Subcommittee and the Assistant Vice President of Internal Communications chairs the Communications Subcommittee. Capps felt that by assigning responsibilities in this way, the chairs were more likely to feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for keeping their respective staff members involved with the entire process.  In fact, she believes that if outside consultants are used without the leadership and involvement of internal Duke staff, recommendations would be much less likely to be implemented in many cases.

Whereas the CSC sets the overarching goals, for the day-to-day implementation of the CAP, Duke’s Sustainability Office plays a key role in either coordinating or directly overseeing activities.  In many cases though, other departments such as Parking and Transportation Services are responsible for specific initiatives and not the Sustainability Office.  There have been some new hires recently, including two new staff members in the Sustainability Office to work on local offsets and a Transportation Demand Coordinator has been hired by the Parking and Transit Department.

Engaging Stakeholders throughout the Campus:

At the time when Duke’s carbon inventory and CAP were being developed, most colleges with health system components did not include those parts of their campuses in their climate strategies. Therefore, in order to be able to better compare Duke to other institutions, the CSC decided to exclude Duke’s medical groups. As a result, only staff members from Duke’s hospital and medical system were present in the initial climate discussions, but not the leadership from those divisions.

Looking back at the organizational changes and the involvement of key stakeholders over the last several years, Capps did express misgivings about the initial decision to essentially exclude the hospital and medical system from the carbon inventory and CAP (even though it was known at the time that this decision would lead to problems in the future). Now, in the implementation phase, it has become evident that it is very difficult to separate those systems from the main Duke University campus; as a result, a greater level of engagement may be needed from the medical groups.  This may become a challenge, and in hindsight, Capps believes that it would have been better to have had more authority figures from the hospital and medical system present in the early discussion.

Among other upcoming projects, Capps said that the CSC has begun to look beyond the CAP and into developing a comprehensive sustainability plan that incorporates other environmental topics, such as water and green purchasing.  In addition, the Education Subcommittee has been discussing numerous ideas for incorporating climate issues and sustainability into curriculum and making these types of courses more transparent, such as having an official “sustainability label” for courses.  Furthermore, the Communications Subcommittee is continuing to encourage the use of a Duke-specific carbon calculator that has been created to help the campus community understand their impact on Duke’s GHG footprint.

[i] “History — Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.” Duke Environment at the Nicholas School. Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. Web. <>.

[ii] “About – Introduction.” Duke Forest at Duke University. Duke University. <>.

[iii] “Medical Center and Health System Facts.” Duke Medicine – Facts and Statistics. Duke Medicine, 2011. <>.

[iv] “Diversity at Duke: Demographic Statistics.” Diversity at Duke University. Duke University. <>.

[v] “GHG Report for Duke University.” GHG Report for Duke University. ACCUPC, 19 Nov. 2010. <>