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Shi honored with AASHE Lifetime Achievement Award

white man in light shirt, David Shi
David E. Shi '73

When President David E. Shi ’73 began elevating sustainability as an essential strategic pillar for Furman University some 25 years ago, the idea drew support – and some skepticism. Several trustees, professors, alumni and students questioned the relevance of environmental conservation and renewable energy to Furman’s mission.

Yet Shi and others across campus persevered, their efforts garnering national recognition and numerous awards – the latest one from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

And while Shi didn’t need an award to confirm his approach was the right one, he likely drew a modicum of satisfaction upon learning he had received AASHE’s 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award.

The AASHE Sustainability Awards recognize the institutions and individuals that help lead higher education to a sustainable future. This year, AASHE received more than 360 entries that resulted in 12 winners announced across five categories.

The Lifetime Achievement Award is bestowed to individuals with at least 10 years of documented accomplishments in the field of higher education sustainability who have had a significant impact on a large number of individuals and organizations.

Now retired and living in a solar-powered home in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, Shi, who served 16 years as president, is the fourth honoree since 2018. He received the award on December 9 and offered acceptance remarks during a virtual ceremony.

building with stone foundation and porch, Shi Institute
Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities

“The award is obviously a great honor,” said Shi, who was unaware of the four-page nomination letter that Weston Dripps, executive director of the Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities, had submitted on his behalf.

“I immediately felt a profound sense of humility and gratitude because the award actually represents the work of hundreds of people at Furman – faculty, staff and students – and so many others who supported our efforts with grants or with research projects,” Shi added.

But Dripps, who routinely leans on Shi for advice in leading the institute, gives the environmental historian the credit.

“David is truly deserving of the AASHE Lifetime Achievement Award. He has been and continues to be an inspirational leader of the sustainability movement in higher education,” Dripps said. “He was a pioneer who set us on a sustainability pathway that has made Furman one of the top-rated colleges advancing sustainability.”

What’s more, said Dripps, “Pursuing sustainability takes a village and an entire campus community to get us there, but if it weren’t for David’s leadership, we wouldn’t be positioned where we are now.”

In the letter, he described the many initiatives, accomplishments and other elements that Shi either influenced directly or set in motion to make sustainability an integral part of Furman’s national identity.

  • Shi was a charter signatory of the Association of College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, now known as the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments. Furman aims to be carbon neutral by 2026.
  • Initially named by the Board of Trustees as the Shi Center for Sustainability and now known as the Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities, the institute serves as a hub for exploring complex sustainability issues on campus and beyond.
  • A general education requirement in sustainability was established for all students in 2007 – Humans and the Natural Environment.
  • 2010 saw the creation of a Bachelor of Science degree in sustainability science – the first at a private liberal arts and sciences university in the U.S.
  • In 2006, Furman built South Carolina’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified building. Furman now boasts eight LEED buildings.
  • Furman’s Community Conservation Corps was established in 2009 – a program conceived by President Shi and funded by Piedmont Natural Gas that mobilizes students, faculty and staff to weatherize homes for low-income residents in Greenville.
  • fall greens with building in background, Shi Institute
    The Furman Farm is located behind the Shi Institute.

    Furman developed an organic practice farm that is tended by students and supplies weekly produce to the university’s dining hall.

  • The Greenbelt Engaged Living Community fosters sustainable living and lifestyle choices among 16 student residents who live in the cabins along Furman Lake.
  • The first of its kind, a faculty affiliate program comprising 65 faculty members incorporates sustainability themes and research projects in curricula across multiple disciplines.
  • pedestrian bridge in park, Liberty Bridge, Falls Park
    The Swamp Rabbit Trail meanders through downtown Greenville at Falls Park.

    Shi led a community task force that collaborated with municipalities and the county to build the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail, a nationally recognized, 22-mile rail-to-trail, a portion of which runs through campus.

But for everything he catalyzed, Shi is most proud of the unintended consequences of planting a flag in the sustainability turf – from attracting prospective students intrigued by sustainability to creating outdoor learning labs to nurturing a fresh crop of graduates at Furman and elsewhere to pursue careers in the burgeoning sustainability field.

“I’ll never forget meeting a Furman student from Maine who told me it was Furman’s commitment to sustainability that led her to apply and enroll at the university,” Shi said.

The irony is that 25 years ago, Shi made several trips to the New England area to identify and learn from schools that had sustainability programs well underway. Now institutions regularly look to Furman, sending delegations to campus to see how the university has embedded the concept of sustainability in its curricula, campus operations and community outreach.

“In many respects, what excited me about sustainability and Furman were the ways in which it was going to enhance the educational experience and reinforce our longstanding commitment to experiential learning – helping students apply what they were studying in the classroom directly on campus through various projects,” Shi said.

lake with overhanging trees, swans and bell tower
Furman Lake with some of its residents.

He points to research conducted by the biology and earth, environmental, and sustainability science departments that used Furman Lake as a learning laboratory to study its biochemistry. Those studies eventually inspired an ambitious lake restoration project to improve water quality through the use of organic barriers along the shoreline to help prevent runoff-borne pollutants from entering the lake.

More broadly, Shi is gratified by AASHE’s recognition that he has contributed to “promoting sustainability as an essential aspect of higher education, not just at Furman, but overall.”

Having served on several boards of organizations that advocate for sustainability, Shi has witnessed sustainability blossom from “being just an ideal and an aspiration to being in the very forefront of academic innovation and campus transformation,” he said.

“I often would tell students before I retired 11 years ago that some of the best new jobs on campuses were those related to sustainability. Now, virtually every campus has a sustainability director and additional staff members. That wasn’t true 30 years ago.”

Even in retirement, Shi continues to fuel environmental stewardship. Already one of the most generous benefactors of his namesake institute, he is involved in leveraging his influence toward fully endowing the institute.

“For the institute itself to be sustainable, it must be fully endowed,” Shi said. “Such an endowment will bring more opportunities for student research fellowships and interactions with various community organizations.

“Furman is one of Greenville’s greatest assets – and vice versa – and the city and campus will continue to better themselves by working hand-in-hand on shared issues related to environmental quality.”

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