Aurora, N.Y. — The bicycles, classic-looking ivy-covered buildings, students' excited shouts , and the hilly tree-dotted campus all seem appropriate for this small liberal arts college.
But the gas well? It's disconcerting.
Wells College has traditional buildings and untraditional students like many other colleges, but it probably is unique in one way -- this 500-student upstate New York women's college has its own gas well.
Facing a 1,400 percent increase in the price of heating oil in the last eight years, Wells felt that it was time for an experiment. The gas well was a $100, 000 gamble, and the college president, Patti McGill Peterson, admitted that she felt "like a wildcatter" as drilling began in September.
There were no guarantees that the well would produce enough gas or gas of a useful quality. On one memorable November day the drilling company reported that the well, nicknamed "Little Mary", would pay off. The tower bells pealed to mark the occasion for the excited students and staff.
According to president Peterson, the gas will replace 30,000 gallons of fuel oil out of the 200,000 gallons used for heating each year. "It will not supply all of our needs by any means, but it can be described as our hedge against inflation."
The gas well is important because it signifies a change in attack on the energy crisis. Wells has gone beyond ordinary conservation measures to explore and discover a new source of energy.
"It is interesting to me that Wells College, which has existed since 1868, and which I think gives women a very fine education, should be plunged into notoriety by a gas well," president Peterson commented with exasperation and laughter.
The gas well is also important to Wells in ways beyond energy. It is helping to build a new image of the college for the rest of the world. "Wells women always knew that they were unique," one student stated determinedly. "The gas well is just proving it to everyone else."
A gas well on the campus of a small, liberal arts college also forecasts an expanding role for other colleges in the 1980s and 1990s, Peterson believes. The well at Wells demonstrates that colleges "are alive and well" and are trying to see themselves in new ways. Their role is expanding beyond education to innovation.
"Little Mary" is a harbinger of a new independent role for colleges as well as for their students and faculty. It has added to the Wells image both inside and outside of "the ivory tower." It represents an investment that, according to president Peterson, "will keep appreciating while everything else seems to be depreciating," as well as being a strikingly innovative step toward solving an energy problem.
Our gas well is seen by the college community as important for many reasons: as a measure of energy independence, for giving the college a new vision of itself, and as a herald of a new role for colleges in the future.
As Wells students like to remark: "All's well that ends Wells" -- especially gas wells!