The Way I See It: Rice is a responsible financial and environmental steward

Editor’s note: This commentary originally appeared as an op-ed in the Jan. 12 Houston Chronicle.

The Way I See It

Rice University is a responsible financial and environmental steward

By Ron Long and Richard Johnson

Rice University’s founder, William Marsh Rice, was a shrewd businessman who made the original investments that today make Rice one of the most highly respected higher education institutions in the country. Turning land devastated by fire into productive pastureland, as we’re doing with a patch in Waller County, is an environmentally and financially responsible decision.

Critics of the university’s land management contend that planting the land to serve as pasture was bad for environmental reasons and said it should instead be replanted with timber for eventual harvest many years from now. In fact, Rice University has a fiduciary responsibility to manage its property to support its endowment, which in turn supports its educational and research mission. The university also has a proven track record of research and investment in environmental stewardship.

Ron Long

We should point out that of the 4,000 acres of land that Rice owns in Waller County, only 450 acres of the burned trees have been replaced with pasture for cattle grazing. This land is just one of many resources that the university manages, and it will likely be many years before any final decisions are made about future plans for the property. In the meantime, Rice needs to manage it responsibly for both financial and environmental reasons, not to mention the improved view for people who live in the area.

Richard Johnson

Rice also owns timberland in Southwest Louisiana that is more than 12 times the size of the Waller County property. A portion of that timberland is harvested for logs for telephone and power poles, and the trees on those 50,000 acres are estimated to absorb more than 57,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, which offsets more than half of the university’s annual gross greenhouse gas emissions. The property is enrolled in the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ safe-harbor program for the Louisiana red-cockaded woodpecker, which helps protect the endangered bird that excavates its roost and nest cavities exclusively in live pine trees. Also noteworthy is use by Rice faculty members of residual forest biomass gathered from the Louisiana site for their research on biochar, which has the potential to accelerate biomass growth, improve water retention in soil and sequester carbon.

In fact, the Rice campus in Houston is officially designated as an arboretum. We worked tirelessly during the 2011 drought to keep the more than 4,670 trees on campus alive. Rice is designated by the Arbor Day Foundation as a Tree Campus USA, an honor given to universities that use sustainable practices and engage students in tree-planting and conservation initiatives.

Another example of environmental stewardship is in 10 of the buildings on campus that have been certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. LEED certification is awarded to projects that meet criteria for energy and water efficiency, material conservation, indoor environmental quality and stewardship of resources. The certification doesn’t happen by chance — it’s part of our planning process when Rice constructs or renovates buildings.

Six Rice buildings have green roofs, one of which serves as a research site for storm water research and another which is being used by a team of senior engineering students to design a smart irrigation control system that provides water only when the soil needs it or the forecast suggests a need. Across campus, we have installed thousands of low-flow water fixtures to help our students, faculty and staff conserve water, and Rice saves up to 14 million gallons per year by capturing condensate water from campus air-handling units and recycling it for use in the university’s cooling towers.

Sustainability is important to our students. The Rice chapter of Engineers Without Borders sends students all over the world to work on water treatment, wastewater management and other sustainability projects. In 2012, the Rice Solar Car team won second place in the prototype solar category in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition. And in 2009, a team of Rice students designed and built an 800-square-foot solar-powered house for the Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C. They won eighth place in the national competition, but even more important, they donated their entry to Project Row Houses for use in Houston’s Third Ward.

The list of Rice’s environmental contributions goes on much longer and beyond these few examples, but it should provide a sense of the university’s commitment. At the same time, Rice is responsible for stewardship of its endowment. Distributions from the endowment support 40 percent of the university’s operating revenues and, among other things, make possible Rice’s generous financial aid program that makes its quality education available to students from all walks of life. Turning some burned-out acres into green pastureland serves both causes.


Ron Long is associate vice president for investments at Rice. Richard Johnson is director of Rice’s Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management.

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