John Commito Faculty Speaker
Members of the College community, friends and family members, and especially First-Year Students - welcome to Gettysburg.
This week you will hear a lot about the College's sustainability initiatives. It's funny to me what we consider "sustainable" today. Sure, I admit that I went to college back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. When my mother finally relented and let me buy some new clothes for college, I bought two pairs of Levi's at 4 bucks a pop, a yellow oxford cloth button down shirt, and a plaid shirt. Total wardrobe cost: $15.00. When I got home, my mother inspected my purchases and looked at me with disappointment in her eyes because I had gone on such a wild shopping spree. "John," she said. "TWO shirts?"
I left home for college with one suitcase and one cardboard box. Today, hair products ALONE take up more space. Did any of you see the new documentary "American Teen"? Fabulous movie. Megan leaves for college in a fully packed SUV. AND a fully packed van.
Against this backdrop of consumption, Gettysburg College is committed to environmental sustainability. We signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment in 2007. Twenty percent of our energy is from wind and biomass sources. You can use our new shuttle service for off-campus shopping. Anybody can ride our free orange bicycles around campus. We water the campus grounds from a new 50,000 gallon system that collects rain water from the roofs of our biggest buildings. We water our playing fields from the quarry on the north side of campus. We compost organic material from Dining Services every day in our student-run community garden. The list goes on and on.
In that spirit, the Orientation Committee has given each of you a BPA-free Nalgene bottle. The committee hopes you will use them to reduce our reliance on throw-away plastic water bottles. Yes, this is a very small first step. After all, the plastic in both types of bottle is made from petroleum. But it IS a step. A step forward to the day when we will all engage in the truly revolutionary act of walking to the nearest sink, filling a glass with water, and drinking it.
OK, so I just returned from six months in Tuscany, where I was a Visiting Research Scientist in the marine science department at the University of Pisa. I am struck by how different Gettysburg College is from the University of Pisa. I am convinced that Gettysburg College offers a superior education for students who take advantage of what we offer and become fully engaged in academic life. But that doesn't mean that there aren't lessons to be learned from other types of institutions, including lessons about sustainability.
It's hard to imagine two schools more different from each other than Gettysburg and Pisa.
Gettysburg College was founded in 1832. It is a liberal arts college. The emphasis is on you, the students. The University of Pisa was founded in 1343, with roots going back to 900, making it one of the oldest universities in the world. The emphasis is on research, and students take a decidedly second place. Galileo was a faculty member there. Enrico Fermi was a faculty member there. Half of you, in particular, might be interested to know that Gabriele Falopio was on the faculty there, too. Yes, that's right. The half of you with fallopian tubes.
One school has 2,600 students. The other has 50,000 students.
One school rejects two-thirds of its applicants. The other has open enrollment.
One has tuition of $38,000 a year for 4 years. The other has tuition of $3,000 a year for 3 years.
One has a self-contained campus where students can study and play in isolation, if they so choose, intentionally separated from the so-called real world.
The other has no campus. Its buildings are spread out over the entire city. There is no dining hall, no gymnasium, no swimming pool, no fitness center, no art gallery, no bookstore, no coffee shop, no performing arts center, no place of worship. There are no parking lots, no lawns, no playing fields, no athletic teams, no school colors, no school mascot. There are no fraternities, no sororities, no special interest houses, no residence halls. There is no Commencement Day. Blessedly, there is no Convocation. There is no foreign language requirement, no science requirement, no writing requirement, no graduation requirements at all. There are virtually no quizzes or exams or papers. Just one exam at the end of the semester. And four chances to pass it. There are no academic advisors. There is no help deciding on the major - students choose when they are still in high school. It's sink or swim. This is the University of Pisa. And I hope you can see why it's less expensive than Gettysburg College.
Students at the university live in their own apartments or at home with their parents in houses half the size of ours in the US. They walk and ride their bikes to get from place to place. They deal with street beggars and traffic and dog poop on the sidewalk and the nitty-gritty of everyday life. Students cook their own meals and eat in local trattorie. There is no minimum drinking age. There is no law against drinking in public. Students by the thousands go to the bars at night in the Piazza Garibaldi. The bars all serve good food, and Grandma and Grandpa are there with them, having a panino and a glass of wine. Little kids are everywhere, kicking around a soccer ball or having a gelato. Alcohol is associated with food and family, not binge drinking. Students don't get drunk and throw up on their girlfriends' shoes. Sure, I know what you're thinking: "But Dr. Commito, it's so COOL to do that! I do it myself!" Yes, it IS cool, but surprisingly, it's considered a grotesque breach of the cultural norm in Italy.
We can learn a lot from the Italian way of going to school. Students there are strongly integrated into the local community. Compared to US students, they are far more interested in local, national, and international politics. They speak several languages. They travel widely. They are mystified that we elected a President so lacking in curiosity about them and their world that he never once visited Europe or any other continent before entering the White House. They are ambivalent about John McCain. They are crazy for Barack Obama. They appreciate his American story, his American sense of optimism. Yet, they feel that our country's optimism is often misguided, selfish, and reeking of hubris.
Gasoline in Italy, la benzina, costs $10.00 a gallon. Italian students want to know why we think we have a right to gasoline that costs less than theirs, and why we think they should help us fight a war in the Middle East to procure it. One day, gasoline will cost $10.00 a gallon in the US, too. We can't drill our way out of it. Don't get me wrong - gasoline prices will bounce up and down, and we will continue to pump oil out of the ground for decades. But we have reached peak oil production. Now we are on the downhill side of the oil discovery and production curves. The data are crystal clear. Every geologist knows it. Every oil company knows it. Every car manufacturer knows it. Even a few politicians know it. The suburbs will shrink. Our cities and towns will experience a middle class influx that will bring their density and tax base back up to where they used to be. It's already happening. Many people fear this future. The idea of it takes some getting used to.
And here is where student life in Italy and the US intersect. They both provide a life-style model for sustainability, a less energy-intensive future, a less polluting future, a future where the impacts of global climate change can be ameliorated.
Think about how different your life will be here for the next four years compared to high school. You will exist in a compact world, a more European-style world that does not depend on the automobile. And you know what? It's pretty awesome! It's way more interesting than driving to the mall and stopping off at Ruby Tuesday for a burger. Yes, there will always be the student, certainly nobody in the Class of 2012, who will drive her Daddy's big, shiny SUV to Glatfelter, circle the Constitution Lot over and over again to find a space, give up, park in the fire lane, get to class 5 minutes late, and take a zero on the pop quiz. You know, it's just easier to walk!
At Gettysburg you will live in a multi-unit building with far lower energy costs per person than your house back home. You will walk down the hall or across the quad to be with your friends. You will walk to classes. You will walk into town to volunteer your time and expertise in community service. You will walk into town to shop and to socialize. You will be able to take the new shuttle bus, too. You will be able to grow food right here in the college's community garden. You will be able to take courses to learn about environmental issues. You will acquire the knowledge and power to change the way Gettysburg College treats the environment. You will acquire the knowledge and power to change the way America treats the environment.
As a student on this lovely campus, you will enjoy four years of walkable, high-density living, town living, community living, on a human scale.
Whether you are comfortable with this future or not, some variation on this theme of greater efficiency and more human contact is here to stay in America. You can retreat from it or you can embrace it. You can be a frightened by-stander or an engaged player. You can be pushed aside by it or you can ride the wave.
My hope is that four years at Gettysburg College, at this liberal arts college, will indeed liberate you from conventional thinking. My hope is that you will take from us the practical tools and the sense of vision to prosper in an uncertain world. Every faculty member, every dining hall worker, every dean, every housekeeper has the same wish for you. This is not a sink or swim place. It's Gettysburg College -- yes, that's right, the Tuscany of south-central Pennsylvania -- a community of scholars and activists, and we are here to help you make a difference!
Thank you and good afternoon.