At a stargazing event on the roof of Pupin earlier this semester, I asked an astronomy graduate student if it's true that the Northwest Corner Building obstructs the sight lines from Pupin's telescopes. I vaguely recalled reading about the problem in Spectator.
The building does block the telescopes' view of one-ninth of the night sky. But the bigger concern, the student told me, is that the glass-walled building's lights stay on all night, creating a glare that further impedes astronomers' observations. Why couldn't someone turn the lights off?
“That's why I couldn't take it seriously when Columbia sent out that sustainability survey,” he said, referring to a survey that the Office of Environmental Stewardship sent to students in February.
Perceptions aside, Columbia has taken big strides to reduce its environmental footprint, usually without much fanfare. Since 2006, it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by almost 17 percent, and since 2011, it has cut spending on office paper by 18 percent. Last year, the University announced a “Green Fund” to support on-campus sustainability projects, and its Manhattanville expansion will be the first LEED Platinum-certified campus in the country.
But despite these and other successes, many of the University's environmental initiatives pale in comparison to those in place at peer institutions. In areas ranging from energy efficiency, to green purchasing, to waste reduction, Columbia is behind schools like Penn, Yale, NYU, Stanford, Harvard, and Oberlin.
Part of the problem is that while several Columbia offices have prioritized sustainability, they've received little direction—and relatively little funding—from the central administration. Columbia does not have a University-wide sustainability plan, and its environmental stewardship office is smaller and more limited in scope than similar offices at other schools.
And while top administrators emphasize the importance of sustainability, they tend to avoid specific mandates or directives. Unlike many schools working to decrease their environmental footprints, Columbia does not have a set of specific, measurable environmental goals.
Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin, who oversees the University's business operations, says that sustainability “can't be undertaken by edict.” He believes that at a large, decentralized institution like Columbia, the only way to effect serious change is for everyone—from students, to faculty, to staff—to adopt sustainability as a mindset.
“Sustainability is not simply a cause,” Kasdin says. “It's a way of life, if we're going to be truly effective.”
One of the few areas where Columbia has a concrete sustainability goal is greenhouse gas reduction. In 2007, the University joined the Mayor's Carbon Challenge, agreeing to reduce its carbon emissions 30 percent below 2006 levels by 2017. That would be equivalent to taking more than 16,500 cars off the roads, according to an Environmental Protection Agency calculator.
In 2013, the University achieved a 16.8 percent reduction per square foot, according to Frank Martino, vice president of operations within Facilities. Martino says Columbia is on track to meet its 30 percent goal by 2017.
“A lot of the things you need to do for greenhouse gas reduction take a lot of time and planning, not to mention money,” Martino says. “And it's taken a while for us to sort of ramp up with that, and I think we're getting there now.”
Most of the reductions have come from efficiency upgrades to Columbia's energy infrastructure, including an overhaul of the central cooling plant and the installation of a monitoring and control program that allows the University to optimize for cost and carbon. Administrators are also working on plans for a cogeneration facility, which would increase efficiency by producing both heat and power.
These infrastructure projects require significant up-front spending, but they also pay the biggest environmental—and financial—dividends.
“That's where the biggest bang for the buck on energy can come from, from my perspective,” Martino says. “I can save the most energy by being more efficient in generating utilities for the University.”
Facilities administrators require all major building renovations and new construction to achieve at least a “silver” rating from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program. Four Columbia buildings, including the Northwest Corner Building, have been certified as LEED Gold, and the University's energy-efficiency plans for Manhattanville helped the expansion campus earn a platinum certification.
Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, praises Facilities for integrating sustainability into its operations. But when it comes to Manhattanville, he says that most high-end construction projects in Manhattan have adopted similar energy and water efficiency measures, including greater use of natural light and air circulation.
“People don't want the space if it doesn't have those features,” he says. “Part of what's happening is it's just considered an aspect of good design.”
For Martino, the importance of combating climate change is one more reason to cut back on energy use. He says that saving energy has long been ingrained in him as a financial imperative.
“We're not loud about it, there's not a public outcry. But it's not like my boss, Mr. Ienuso, or his boss, Mr. Kasdin, don't look at me and say, Sustainability, energy saving, saving money—all of these things are important, and you need to concentrate on them,'” he says. “That's what I expect from my people, and that's the message that I give to my department.”
The Vision Was Never There'
But while top administrators emphasize the importance of sustainability, they've provided little direction for Columbia's environmental efforts.
Unlike many peer institutions, Columbia doesn't have a University-wide sustainability plan, or a sustainability steering committee in a position to devise such a plan. It has few concrete environmental goals, and it doesn't publish regular reports on its environmental progress.
“Top down, the vision was never there,” says Todd Nelson, who led EcoReps before graduating from Columbia College in 2012.
The opposite is true at Yale, which in 2010 published its first three-year Sustainability Strategic Plan. A university-wide steering committee helped craft the plan, which outlined challenges, metrics, and specific goals in areas like waste, dining, water, land management, and procurement.
Yale released progress reports each of the next three years. It fell short of some goals but still cut waste by 24 percent and increased recycling by 28 percent. And despite a 12 percent increase in campus size, it reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent below 2005 levels, toward an ambitious emissions goal of 43 percent reduction by 2020.
Columbia doesn't have University-wide goals or metrics in any of those areas, except for emissions. And in line with the Mayor's Carbon Challenge, it's working to reduce emissions by 30 percent per square foot, not 30 percent in the aggregate.
The University of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, released a 139-page Climate Action Plan in 2009. Two years later, it published a progress report detailing a 9.5 percent decrease in energy consumption, a 20 percent increase in recycling, and the purchasing of enough wind energy credits to offset 29 percent of its carbon emissions. The university failed to cut its carbon emissions but continued to work toward a goal of carbon neutrality by 2042.
Penn's sustainability office is now working on a second climate action plan, in collaboration with a committee of faculty, staff, and students. According to Dan Garofalo, the office's director, small committees are developing goals in areas like transportation, waste minimization, and education, and these goals will be vetted by the council of deans, the faculty senate, and student government—before being submitted to top administrators for approval.
“We have a pretty robust structure to get the information and set goals,” Garofalo says.
Columbia doesn't have that kind of structure. Administrators did start a sustainability advisory committee in September, but it's relatively limited in scope, with a membership of two students and eight administrators (three of whom are part of the Office of Environmental Stewardship).
A Campus Services spokesperson says the committee is working with the environmental stewardship team on a sustainability action plan, but that it's too early to comment on how comprehensive the plan might be, what kinds of goals it might contain, and when it might be complete.
University President Lee Bollinger says he's open to the idea of developing specific goals in areas like water conservation and waste reduction. But he's pleased by what the University has done so far to reduce its environmental footprint, and he doesn't think a comprehensive sustainability plan would have much impact.
“I feel very, very proud of what Columbia has accomplished,” he says. “And I just haven't thought that insisting that there be an annual report would add to it.”
Other university presidents have reached a different conclusion. In addition to Penn and Yale, schools like Cornell, Harvard, the University of Chicago, Stanford, Princeton, and UC Berkeley have released university-wide sustainability plans in the last five years. Columbia is the outlier.
The Paper Trail
In many ways, paper purchasing epitomizes sustainability at Columbia. The University as a whole is purchasing more recycled-content paper and buying less paper overall, but while many offices are making more sustainable choices, there's no requirement for them to do so.
Across Columbia, 34 percent of office paper spending in 2013 went to “virgin” paper with no recycled content—a big drop from 49 percent in 2011. Over those two years, overall office paper spending also declined by 18 percent.
Joe Harney, vice president for procurement services, attributes this shift to a growing awareness of sustainability. He also notes that his office has negotiated with Staples, Columbia's paper vendor, to keep recycled paper and non-recycled paper at the same price for Columbia buyers.
“We're making it available, and we're trying to make sure people understand the benefits of it,” Harney says.
Other universities have taken a more stringent approach, issuing firm guidelines for green purchasing. NYU mandates that offices purchase only recycled paper, requiring this paper to have at least 30 percent recycled content but recommending 100 percent recycled content. (The vast majority of recycled paper purchased at Columbia has 30 percent recycled content.)
Stanford takes a less specific but more comprehensive approach to green purchasing, requiring that environmentally friendly products be purchased “whenever they perform satisfactorily and can be acquired at similar total value,” taking into account life-cycle costs.
Columbia tries to provide as many green options as possible, but it has no green purchasing standards. Harney says that mandates are difficult to enforce, noting that when it comes to paper purchasing, some offices are hesitant to switch to recycled paper.
“There are people who make the case that they need virgin paper, so we don't want to make that unavailable,” Harney says.
“For me, these things are best managed through relationships,” he adds. “I'm worried if someone feels we're centrally promulgating, there's push-back against that.”
Harney makes an important point: Mandating green purchasing, or other behavior changes, might be counterproductive. Decision-making at Columbia is decentralized and disaggregated, and Columbians are known for their contrarian streak. It's easy to imagine mandates issued by the central administration being met with some backlash.
Jessica Prata, who heads the Office of Environmental Stewardship, says that “every school has to create their program around the culture of that particular place.” It's something she learned at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where she worked before coming to Columbia last year.
“It would have been impossible to just lift that structure [from NewYork-Presbyterian] and plop it down on the way we were going to approach here, because there are different stakeholders, there are different needs, there are different commitments,” she says. “There are differences.”
Making the Grade
While universities have different needs, there have been efforts to standardize how we judge their sustainability initiatives. Before shutting down in 2012, the College Sustainability Report Card published letter grades for hundreds of schools each year, giving Columbia a B, B+, A-, B, and B+ between 2007 and 2011.
Cohen says it's important not to take sustainability rating systems too seriously, both because they tend to be self-serving and because researchers are still in the “very, very early stages of developing common” metrics.
“In all these sustainability metrics, there's no arbitrator, there's no umpire,” he says. “So everybody's doing it differently.”
Columbia's rating system of choice is the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System. After submitting data to STARS in November 2012, Columbia received a “gold” rating.
It's important to take a grade based on self-reported data with a grain of salt. But Columbia's ratings in particular categories shed light on the University's strengths and weaknesses.
Columbia received a near-perfect score in public engagement, and high scores in transportation and purchasing. It also got high marks in curriculum and research—largely thanks to the Earth Institute, a sprawling interdisciplinary research institute that runs the sustainable development major and several graduate-level programs.
One of Columbia's only perfect scores was in dining services. More than half the food served on campus is purchased locally, and the dining halls went tray-free in 2009, saving 3,000 gallons of water per day. The Housing office—which, like Dining, is overseen by Vice President for Campus Services Scott Wright—has also prioritized sustainability, purchasing Energy Star appliances whenever possible and donating 92 tons of dormitory furniture last year.
“Those old metal bed frames are not thrown away. They are sent to people who don't have bed frames,” Wright says.
Sustainability, Wright says, is an expectation of all projects within Campus Services. That's why the department has used only recycled paper since 2006, and why it's installed high-efficiency washing machines and low-flow toilets in residence halls.
Students and alumni praise Wright, Executive Director of Housing Joyce Jackson, and Executive Director of Dining Vicki Dunn for their sustainability work. Nelson calls Wright “a hero of the environmental movement at Columbia,” saying EcoReps never would have installed a composter in Ruggles Hall without his help.
“Everyone I've worked with is really receptive and really wants to work on environmental issues,” says Emma Tuzinkiewicz, a Columbia College junior and EcoReps co-president. “Joyce and Vicki and all of them are awesome.”
Looking for the Green
But while the STARS report reflects Columbia's successes, it also highlights the University's weaknesses. Columbia received extremely low scores in the building, climate, and energy categories, and middling scores in water and waste. It received zero points in building energy consumption.
One reason for those low scores is money. Columbia has made some big investments in sustainability—the chiller plant upgrade cost $2.25 million, and efficiency measures in Manhattanville have no doubt been expensive—but other universities have taken the lead, finding creative ways to fund ambitious sustainability initiatives.
Take Oberlin College, whose $714 million endowment is dwarfed by Columbia's $8.2 billion. In part through a $2 million renewable energy tax credit, Oberlin installed a $7 million array of solar panels last year, according to sustainability coordinator Bridget Flynn.
The solar array currently meets 12 percent of the college's electricity needs—a key piece of its efforts to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
“Oberlin has taken a moral stance on a lot of issues,” Flynn says. “And it hasn't always been easy, but it's part of what Oberlin is. And I think sustainability fits in nicely.”
Penn, too, has taken ambitious steps to finance carbon reduction. In 2012, the university issued a $350 million bond, with the intention of putting $250 million of the proceeds toward “deep retrofit projects” for aging buildings, Garofalo says.
Penn expects to pay the bonds back with energy cost savings made possible by the retrofits. And since the bonds won't mature for 100 years, the university hopes to recycle the money two or three times, leading to even greater energy savings.
It's a bold plan, but Garofalo says that Penn's top administrators didn't blink.
“They vetted it at the senior level, and just made a call—let's do it,” he says.
Zak Accuardi, who graduated from the School of Engineering and Applied Science in 2011, met regularly with the environmental stewardship office as a coordinator of Green Umbrella. He also interned in the office the summer after he graduated.
“It wasn't easy for them to get money for the projects that they wanted to do,” Accuardi says. “But your guess is as good as mine why that would be, given that Robert Kasdin obviously had the discretion to put money wherever he wants.”
Fighting for Funds
As a student, Accuardi lobbied Columbia to create a dedicated fund for on-campus sustainability projects organized by students. That didn't happen before he graduated, but last semester Columbia launched the Green Fund, with $25,000 provided by Housing, Dining, and University Event Management for the fund's first year.
“We came up with what we looked at as a reasonable amount that each of those departments would want to spend, if in fact it helped generate ideas or programs or projects that might later benefit them,” Wright says.
A committee of students, faculty, and staff is reviewing the six funding applications that were received, and Prata expects all $25,000 to be allocated. Accuardi is glad that the Green Fund was created, but disappointed by the total dollar figure.
“This is maybe overambitious, but we wanted to get a fund that was upwards of $100,000,” Accuardi says. “We certainly would have made arguments for more than that.”
Other universities have larger green funds, although most of them support projects proposed by faculty and staff as well. Penn's Green Fund provides students, faculty, and staff with grants as high as $50,000.
“There is no pot of money which we're going to exhaust,” Garofalo says. “The VP has said, This is something we want to do, and if you get 10 projects that get a good return on investment, and they're all $50,000, we're going to do this.'”
NYU provides individual sustainability grants of as much as $20,000, and the University of Arizona allocates $400,000 to its Green Fund each year. At Oberlin and Brandeis University, students voted overwhelmingly to establish sustainability funds out of their own pockets, with Brandeis students approving a $15 annual fee and Oberlin students approving a $20-per-semester charge that they can opt out of.
Harvard, with its $32 billion endowment, isn't exactly a fair comparison. But its Green Revolving Fund is the best in business, with $12 million in loan funding available.
Wright says he hopes to increase the Green Fund next year. Kasdin emphasizes that the fund is “a small part of the amount of money we're committing every year to sustainability.”
“If we find the $25,000 is really being quite effective, I think you'll see more money coming,” Kasdin says.
But even if administrators were to commit more money to environmental stewardship and develop University-wide goals, it's unclear Columbia would have the infrastructure to coordinate and implement a more ambitious sustainability agenda. Compared to other schools, Columbia's Office of Environmental Stewardship is relatively small, and its mission is relatively limited.
Kasdin hired former Clinton administration official Nilda Mesa as Columbia's first director of environmental stewardship in 2006. He envisioned the director as “someone who could provoke progress, who could keep track of initiatives and encourage the spawning of new initiatives.”
The office grew to four staff members, and last year Prata was hired to replace Mesa, who took a job at the Journalism School.
Prata has re-energized the office, which had been criticized for its lack of student engagement. It now runs active Twitter and Facebook accounts, and it launched a new website Wednesday. Prata expects to receive formal results from its student survey—which had a 6.5 percent response rate—this week.
Prata says the office's “first charge” is student engagement, and that it also serves as “a hub for information” for offices and departments across campus. She emphasizes that “the work can't happen alone, within our office.”
“We have to find ways to send information out, so that everyone can understand, in their small corner of this campus, what they can individually be doing,” she says.
But while administrators say that a four-person team can accomplish these objectives, similar offices at some peer institutions have larger staffs. Yale's sustainability office has seven employees, NYU's and Cornell's have six, and Stanford's has five. Harvard, again, is hardly a fair comparison, but its sustainability office has a whopping 17 employees.
These offices engage with students, but they're also charged with developing sustainability goals, pushing other departments to meet those goals, and reviewing university-wide progress. That's a lot of work, and many of them employ undergraduate and graduate student interns—10 at Yale, 15 at Princeton, seven at Oberlin.
Asked about the size of Columbia's environmental stewardship office, Kasdin says that “the goal was never to grow this organization into a very large one, because the changes in behavior have to be ingrained in the way people act, and in the way operations are conducted.”
“I think that whether it's four or five or three really depends upon staffing and the needs of the time, but that strikes me as the right long-term size for the office,” he says.
Wright could see the office growing slightly—perhaps when the Manhattanville campus opens—but he believes it is currently the right size. Asked about hiring student interns, which Columbia hasn't, he says he isn't sure there would be enough substantive work for them to do.
“One of the things Jessica and I have talked about is, don't bring on interns to say that we brought on interns,” he says. “So let's make sure we have really good work for them to do—and I just don't know that we're quite there yet.”
Structures of Power
The environmental stewardship office has also undergone a structural transformation. Originally, its director reported directly to Kasdin, but after Prata was hired last year, the office was moved into Facilities. Prata now reports to Wright, who reports to Executive Vice President for Facilities and Operations Joe Ienuso, who in turn reports to Kasdin.
Kasdin says he decided that the environmental stewardship director “should really report to me initially, because I wanted that role to have visibility and be perceived as important.” Over time, though, “the symbolic significance of having it report to me began to be outweighed by the need to more and more integrate that position into the operations of the University,” he says.
Cohen, the executive director of the Earth Institute, believes that the office is now in a better position to impact campus operations.
“Most of what we're talking about has to do with the physical environment of the buildings, and of the campus,” he says.
Not everyone feels that way. A group of students and alumni from Columbia's environmental community, including Accuardi, drafted recommendations two summers ago on how to make the environmental stewardship office more effective. They argued against restructuring it to fall under Facilities.
“As with an Ombudsman or any corporate/social responsibility office, a sustainability office has the potential to affect much greater change when it exists outside of the central university structure,” the students wrote in an email to Kasdin.
Garofalo says that many university sustainability director positions have started out within facilities departments, before moving to more prominent places in the organizational hierarchy—the opposite of what happened at Columbia.
“If you're in a facilities department, it makes it more difficult to have a larger impact on travel and transportation, dining and housing, athletics, libraries,” Garofalo says.
But while the environmental stewardship office might not have the prominence it did when it reported directly to Kasdin, it's now in a position to engage with most student-facing offices—especially since Housing and Dining were recently moved into Facilities. Wright believes that with the office now focusing on student engagement, bringing it into Campus Services was the right move.
“My intent in asking that this become a part of my organization was that we could really prioritize and emphasize—among everybody in the department, as part of their job—that we expect them to be engaging,” Wright says.
From the Bottom Up
For administrators working on sustainability, engaging with students usually means working with environmental groups. The most active group is EcoReps, which organizes the Give and Go Green recycling and reuse program, the composting and bike-share initiatives, and environmental education during the New Student Orientation Program, among other initiatives. It's also working on programming for Earth Week, which will take place this month.
Tuzinkiewicz, the EcoReps co-president, says the group is focused on “how we can help Columbia students, give them the resources to become more sustainable and live more happy, healthy lives.” The group has grown over the last few years and now has more than 40 members, Tuzinkiewicz says.
Many of EcoReps' most successful initiatives got their start between 2009 and 2012, when a group of students including Nelson, Brenden Cline, Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti, Aida Conroy, and Adam Formica served in leadership positions. Those years saw the launch of the composting initiative, the handover of Give and Go Green from Dining to EcoReps, and the establishment of Green NSOP.
Several groups that played key roles during that time have quietly gone inactive, including Green Umbrella, Students for Environmental and Economic Justice, 4local, and CoreFoods. But new groups have cropped up in their place, including Barnard Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, which advocates for divesting Barnard's and Columbia's endowments from fossil fuels, and EcoLions, which is based in Athletics.
Barnard EcoReps has traditionally held potlucks for discussion of environmental issues, but it recently shifted its focus to campus policy. And since 2009, the special interest community GreenBorough on 114th Street has been a hub of environmental consciousness.
Student government has also gotten involved. The Engineering Student Council's sustainability liaison, Malini Nambiar, is working on a green certification pilot program for campus labs.
Other schools “have green lab certification programs, green office certification programs, green student groups—all of these certification programs,” Nambiar, a junior, says. “And I think Columbia will eventually get there.”
Columbia College Student Council has an unofficial sustainability representative, and Barnard's Student Government Association has a Sustainability Initiatives Consulting Board. The board is working on water-conservation initiatives, and it's drafting a proposal for Barnard to stop selling plastic water bottles.
Nelson says that he “never found a more amazing and committed group of people” than Columbia's environmental community, despite what he saw as the University's lack of top-down environmental vision.
“There's a big difference between bottom up and top down,” Nelson says. “Bottom up, I never found a group of people at another school more committed than we were.”
It's hard to draw conclusions about the environmental consciousness of the student body as a whole from the work of environmental groups. But Columbia's participation in a nationwide energy-reduction competition should provide a few clues.
Between March 27 and April 10, EcoReps is asking students to “power down” as part of the Campus Conservation Nationals. The residence hall that reduces its energy consumption the most will get a party, with one resident winning an iPad.
So far, the results are not encouraging. As of early Thursday morning, seven of the 14 participating dorms had increased their energy consumption, with overall consumption increasing slightly. In last year's competition, Columbia students reduced their consumption just 0.5 percent, with energy use increasing in seven of 14 dorms.
There's no question Columbia students are environmentally conscious, but there's a difference between recognizing the importance of sustainability and making an effort to live sustainably. Ashley Wagner, a Barnard senior and co-chair of SGA's sustainability board, says that while students “are pretty aware of how to be environmentally friendly,” many aren't “willing to make the sacrifice it takes, or to think about it all the time.”
Some university presidents have taken it upon themselves to promote sustainable living. Among them are Penn's Amy Gutmann, who spent her 2007 commencement address discussing environmental stewardship, and Yale's Richard Levin, who launched Yale's sustainability plan and frequently discussed environmental stewardship before retiring last year.
Bollinger has made sustainability a key tenet of Columbia's construction projects, and he signed the University on to the Mayor's Carbon Challenge. But he's made few public statements about Columbia's environmental footprint, focusing instead on issues where he believes his words can have a greater impact—including globalization and affirmative action.
“Sustainability is something I know we can accomplish, and I want it accomplished, and I've got people I want to get the credit for seeing it's accomplished,” Bollinger says. “But my speaking about it is not going to be as effective in getting it accomplished as these other things I want to undertake.”
Columbia has promoted sustainable lifestyles in other ways, running education campaigns encouraging students to take the stairs, eat locally sourced foods, and use energy-efficient light bulbs. But it hasn't done anything as creative as Penn, which in 2010-11 gave its academic theme year an environmental twist.
Penn's “Year of Water” featured water conservation-themed events, efforts to reduce bottled water use, and a water-themed play staged by the drama department. Incoming first-years read The Big Necessity, a book about global sanitation challenges.
“It felt like the Phillies won the World Series or something,” Garofalo says, “where everyone's talking about it every day.”
Another Type of Sustainability'
Asked about lights being left on all night in the Northwest Corner Building, Martino notes that the researchers who populate the building tend to work odd hours. The building is equipped with sensors that turn off lights when no movement is detected, technology that Martino would like to install in more campus buildings.
But people leaving lights on across campus, Martino says, “drives me crazy.” He notes that Kasdin recently asked Facilities administrators to reinforce to custodians working the night shift that they should shut the lights when they leave a room.
“Environmental sustainability is something that takes an entire community's joint commitment,” Kasdin says.
He's right. To be clear, there's a lot more Columbia could do to reduce its environmental footprint, from developing concrete goals, to crafting a sustainability plan, to devoting more resources to environmental stewardship. But these efforts will make the biggest impact if they're embraced by students, professors, administrators, and staff who have made sustainability an integral part of their daily lives.
“It's great to reduce your footprint, and it's great to save money. But it's also great for people to become mindful of that,” Harney says. “Because that's another type of sustainability.”
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