Ecoversity was founded to teach sustainability-but can it sustain itself?
On a recent Saturday morning, Adi Pieper is giving a tour of his solar energy handiwork at EcoVersity-a one-of-a-kind Santa Fe school with its own kind of short circuits.
Over here, the electrical contractor explains the new roof panels and the extra kilowatts of electricity they will generate. Over there, he points out a protruding solar panel on a wooden post that will soon power a string of exterior lights along the fence.
Sporting a bushy goatee and a black knit cap, the German-born Pieper shows off the "solar shed" where the battery bank lives. Like a proud papa, Pieper taps the battery bank with his hand and muses, "This is a huge battery pack with lots of capacity."
Pieper has worked in this field since 1991 and has even written a couple of books on solar energy. His work on the campus serves as hands-on demonstrations for students as well as a lesson for anyone on how to spin the utility meter backward.
EcoVersity's new power system will eventually be a moneymaker for the school, he says. Excess power will be sold back to PNM, potentially generating as much as a couple hundred dollars a month.
"We'll be reducing emissions from other power plants by feeding surplus power back onto the grid," Pieper explains as Sabbath, a jet-black cat with a stubby tail, slinks into the room.
Not bad when most people pay for their power. Pieper's project is just one example of what EcoVersity was intended to do. Its mission is to teach people how to cut their energy costs, conserve water and grow their own food and medicines.
But today the school stands at a crossroads.
Amid ongoing construction on the 11-acre campus on Santa Fe's west side, it might seem that the future is bright for the 6-year-old campus. But the hammering and drilling and accompanying soundtrack of norteño radio-Santa Fe's ubiquitous construction theme music-don't tell the whole story.
Late last year, the entire core faculty of the school resigned. Before that, the school's top two administrators both left; one resigned, the other was terminated. Many of the people who have left say the school's board and the foundation that manages the school's finances have caused its unraveling. As of now, with the exception of arguably the school's most popular class-beekeeping-no other classes are currently scheduled for the upcoming spring semester. The school's two residential programs have been canceled indefinitely.
In the words of Jeff "RP" Harbour, the school's most influential board member, EcoVersity is in the midst of a "divorce."
A little while later, Sabbath the cat sits preening, just a few feet away from an upright ladder, teasing a mix of superstitions.
Across from the Allsup's on Agua Fria Street, just past Osage Avenue, a new adobe marker proclaims EcoVersity's campus, dotted with buildings and several outdoor classrooms complete with dry erase boards.
The school's very facilities aim to be lessons. In addition to Pieper's new solar projects, the campus features working rain-catchment systems, solar-powered showers, even a geodesic "grow dome," where a variety of herbs and vegetables are grown year-round. There are circular yurts where residential students used to live, gardens and a coop where chickens and turkeys roam free, as well as a solar-powered outdoor kitchen.
The school is the living legacy of its late founder, Dr. Frances Harwood, affectionately known as "Fiz" by friends, colleagues and acquaintances.
A classically trained cultural anthropologist, Harwood was born into wealth. According to those who knew her, she was always looking for ways to help the causes she supported.
EcoVersity board member Harbour briefly met Harwood in the mid-1970s at the Naropa Institute, the first Buddhist university in the country, in Boulder, Colo. Harwood later founded Naropa's first environmental studies department.
But Harbour and Harwood didn't really get to know one another until the early 1990s, after Harwood had moved to New Mexico and turned her attention to environmental causes. "I worked as an accountant for some of the nonprofits that she supported," Harbour says.
But Harwood's dream was to start a school that would realize her beliefs about the importance of "cultural ecology."
According to EcoVersity's former executive director Arina Pittman, "Fiz always had this idea of starting her own school. She talked about it for years, to the point that you wondered if it was ever going to happen," she says.
The school moved into its Agua Fria campus in March 2001. That same year, Harwood told SFR: "We hope in a few years that we've had an impact on moving us all toward sustainable living. Our present way of living is not sustainable. We can't sit around in despair, we have to do something. We want to give practical skills for addressing these mammoth problems" [Cover story, Oct. 10, 2001: "Training Ground"].
In buying the property, the beginning of Harwood's dream had been realized. But sudden illness cut short Harwood's ability to guide EcoVersity out of its infancy.
On July 5, 2003, at the age of 61, Harwood died of cancer.
To carry on her dream, Harwood endowed the Prajna Foundation, which she had established to support EcoVersity and other nonprofits. She named Harbour the executor of her estate, and in the aftermath he quickly began overseeing Prajna's funding of the school and the school itself.
Many believe this is when the problems began, and that the decisions made about EcoVersity following Harwood's death began to steer the school away from its original vision.
EcoVersity's early goals were spelled out in its mission statement.
The school would incorporate the latest theory and practice, offer a variety of classes geared around the concept of sustainability and move toward providing certificate programs in skill-based learning that would eventually lead to accredited degree programs. The
certificate program in Earth-Based Vocations was specifically mentioned. (The Earth-Based Vocations program was envisioned as a first step toward a much more ambitious goal: the creation of an accredited bachelor's and master's program in sustainable living.)
What set EcoVersity apart was the fact that "the learning takes place on the land, in the garden, in conversation," Pittman says. "It wasn't nine-to-five learning."
The school also incorporated a broad mix of educational themes: from Gandhian nonviolence to the virtues of straw bale construction to rainwater harvesting and applicable state laws. Classes would offer ultrapractical ideas for homeowners, like how to safely and legally reuse the gray water that drains out of the typical washing machine.
Class titles ranged from "Backyard Medicine Chest" to "Kids' Compost Experience" to "Gorgeous Earth Plasters."
Harwood's vision appeared to have legs. By 2002, more than 200 people had enrolled in EcoVersity classes.
Christi Newhall was one of the satisfied students: "I took chickens, beekeeping, herbs and there was a class on solar building technologies," she says, adding that the latter "drew some of the best people in alternative energy."
Charlotte Cooke also took Les Crowder's six-month beekeeping course last year, building hives and checking in on honeycombs.
"You learn to have a huge respect for bees," she says. "I mean, it takes something like 8,000 flowers to make one drop of honey! And the amazing thing is that bees work together.
It's a model humans haven't seemed to follow-and bees have teensy brains."
About that one class, Cooke, a passionate gardener, gushes: "It's really one of the most interesting things I've ever done."
But Harwood's death left the execution of the school's mission up in the air. Prajna, after Harwood died, began leasing the land to the school under an unwritten lease that left many details unclear. Harbour, as a key board member of both Prajna and EcoVersity, had maximum decision-making ability about funder and fundee. Faculty and administrators say questions about how that relationship would play out hung over the school.
"People took classes and loved them," Fran Cole, the school's operations director until she resigned late last year, says. "But even in the early days, she says, "the future of the school was always foggy."
One of the first shock waves came in 2004, when Amy Pilling, the school's first administrator (Pilling was both student dean and curriculum development director), was forced out.
Pilling signed a gag order agreeing not to discuss the details of her departure.
Harbour says that Pilling lacked an academic background and had been given the title of dean by Harwood, for whom she worked as a personal assistant, even providing hospice care at the end of Harwood's life. (When told of Harbour's assessment of Pilling's role at the school, Pilling cited the mutual release of claims she signed upon leaving and noted, "He's not supposed to say that.")
While the school continued on after Pilling's departure, by last year, tension was rising between the staff and EcoVersity's three-member board.
Core faculty say they were frustrated with a lack of movement on numerous fronts. They believed the school needed a clear funding agreement with Prajna. They were concerned about the vagueness of the lease agreement. They wanted to ensure that EcoVersity's board had independence from Prajna.
"We had several meetings with the board to discuss what we felt was holding the school back," former instructor Mark Sardella says. "And it seemed like at the conclusion of every meeting there was going to be movement." But it never happened, he says.
Harbour's dual role for Prajna and EcoVersity was seen, by many, as the root of the problem.
"A particular board member didn't understand his role at EcoVersity," Sardella says matter-of-factly, referring to Harbour. "It's very disappointing to see one man bring down the whole organization."
Sybil Harwood, the founder's sister and an urban design professor at Boston Architectural College, says, "The school changed its direction after my sister died… in a negative way, I think."
Asked if she thinks her sister vested too much trust in one person, she responds, "She was very sick in the end, and I'm not sure she was fully conscious of the consequences of putting RP in the position he assumed."
Former director Pittman, who was terminated in December, argues that since EcoVersity had an unusually small board (three people), and because Prajna never set out a predictable, annual funding allocation in advance, "No one [apart from Prajna] wanted to fund the programs, no one wanted to fund the facilities."
And, Cole adds, "We knew we were going to get money [from Prajna], but not how much." Furthermore, Cole believes, Harbour exercises too much power. "RP's got every finger in every pie," she says.
Another core faculty member, natural builder and architect Alfred von Bachmayr, raises similar frustrations: "We were pretty much like a month-to-month tenant on that land. And every month we never knew what we'd be faced with in terms of operational expenses." That created major headaches related to improving campus infrastructure.
For every little thing, von Bachmayr says, "We always had to go back to Prajna and RP for permission."
On Jan. 7, most of the core faculty, other instructors and past EcoVersity administrators put these grievances into writing.
In a certified letter, the school's growing list of dissidents describes EcoVersity as being "on the verge of collapse." It notes the rash of resignations and repeats the laundry list of problems that its signatories believe are needed to salvage the school, including a long-term lease, a funding arrangement with Prajna and reform of the school's governance. Specifically, faculty had become convinced that Harbour's dual roles on the boards of EcoVersity and Prajna were hurting the school. On that last point, the letter reads: "What once was a strategic confluence of power is now a significant conflict of interest."
According to von Bachmayr and others, the board never responded to the letter.
By the time all was said and done, five of the seven members of the "EcoVersity Team" (i.e., staff) had left the school. In addition, the entire core faculty resigned. They are now gone, and so are two of the programs many say were at the core of what EcoVersity was founded for.
"EcoVersity is not EcoVersity without the faculty," Pilling says. "The school was really a forum for them."
EcoVersity's Earth-Based Vocations program, first offered in 2004, featured classes in permaculture, natural building, land and garden planning, community arts and activism and renewable energy techniques. The 10-week program was followed by a 10-week internship.
Alan Rosenblith took the first incarnation of the Earth-Based Vocations program. He currently lives in Oregon. "Hands down, that was the best educational experience I've ever had," Rosenblith says. "It was very integrated. It included any line of inquiry you wanted to follow." Rosenblith went on to make documentary films on straw bale construction and organic farming and, soon to be released, a new film on the nature of money.
Sardella, who also is the executive director of Santa Fe-based Local Energy, taught a renewable energy course as part of the Earth-Based Vocations program. Asked what was the highlight of the program, Sardella immediately recalls when Harwood took his class: "At the end of my first lecture, she got out of her seat with a big smile on her face and said, 'This is exactly what I want EcoVersity to do!'"
Chrissie Orr, a native of Scotland and a visual artist who taught "Land Arts and Activism," describes her class as being "about bringing aesthetics into ecology." Also a friend of the founder, she too vouches for the emphasis Harwood put on the program.
And today she just shakes her head at the program's discontinuation.
"I'm still in shock," Orr says, clutching a cup of coffee. "We all still believe that we had-have-a great core curriculum."
Harbour explains the board's decisions to cancel the Earth-Based Vocations program as the financially responsible
decision: There weren't enough students to justify offering it; the last time it was offered, only four students enrolled.
Harbour says the decision to end the school's residential programs also was due to low enrollment and lack of proper facilities to house students. And he accuses the school's core faculty of resisting any kind of oversight of the program by the board. "They said, 'You shouldn't be looking at this,' but we felt that we had a duty to look at it…a fiduciary responsibility." Harbour says the core faculty was "intractable" and issued "ultimatums." In the end, according to Harbour, "We just couldn't see eye to eye."
Even so, he continues to speak highly of the core faculty: "I still think they're all remarkable teachers."
Certainly, Harbour has his supporters. Chris Wells, an art and ecology instructor at EcoVersity for several years who is in charge of the All Species Project at the school on April 21, points out, "There are lots of ways to run organizations. You could say some people wear too many hats. But when [Harwood] died, she handed the school over to a person who, in my opinion, has done great stuff."
Harbour points to the financial support Prajna has given-and, he says, will continue to give-EcoVersity as a sign of the foundation's commitment (approximately $170,000 last year and the year before). He also adds that since Harwood died, the school has gone from only three part-time employees to a full-time staff.
Moreover, Harbour asserts, "Fiz' vision was that at some point the school would be self-sustaining. No question about it," he says.
As such, Harbour says the school is moving forward. But it's doing so without many of the people who were there in the beginning.
They, in turn, want to start their own school.
On Feb. 19, at the downtown public library, many of EcoVersity's former employees met to discuss the future of ecological education in Santa Fe. According to Pittman, "The new school is happening." Even if they are reinventing the wheel, organizers say they have already secured sites for the new school's first class (also beekeeping) to be offered in March.
Organizers say the new school aims to bring back the Earth-Based Vocations program, either at a school in Yepache, Mexico, in Carbondale, Colo., or at a private college in Santa Fe.
Harbour is aware of the movement to start a new school, and rather than criticize it, he uses the opportunity to buck up those who will remain at EcoVersity. "The people who stay are no less passionate than the people that are taking their vision and programs elsewhere. And we're proud to have propagated that," he adds. "That's not necessarily a bad thing at all."
Looking further into the future, Harbour sounds determined to persevere. "We're going to respond to the needs of environmentalism, but we also want to interface with other disciplines too." He adds that the school should concentrate on attracting "not only
more people, but a greater diversity of people. I'd like to see more students there with Spanish surnames," he says.
And even some of Harbour's critics agree EcoVersity will survive. "New people will come forward," Cole predicts, even
For now, the school seems adrift. For the upcoming spring semester, there's still no formal course schedule, and clicking on the Web site's "Faculty and Instructors" link brings up only a blank page.
Perhaps the only constant at EcoVersity these days is the presence of Sabbath, the black cat, who mills about as Mexican men in hard hats push wheelbarrows from one spot to the next.
On a recent trip to the campus, Sabbath sat on the ground only a few feet away from an upright ladder. She eyed the space underneath the ladder as if she might disregard all those silly superstitions. Eventually she got up, turned around and walked away.