When a first-year student came to him with an idea to bring composting to campus in 2007, professor Art Kney was skeptical. The College didn’t recycle at the time, much less mulch with cafeteria scraps. But still he listened and encouraged Michael Adelman ’10 to do research and come back with a plan.
A week later he returned, and with Kney’s support Adelman set in motion an initiative that has ultimately led to more than $200,000 in grants and donations, including one from the Ludwick Foundation, for a project involving the purchase of two giant Earth Tubs to compost food waste from campus dining halls. The material is then used to fertilize the College’s organic garden at Metzgar Fields where some of the produce grown there is served in the dining halls. Adelman is now at Cornell pursuing a master’s in environmental engineering.
“To me, that’s the story of a lifetime,” says Kney, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-adviser of two student environmental groups, Society for Environmental Engineers and Scientists (SEES) and Lafayette Environmental Awareness and Protection (LEAP). “Taking an idea for a project and running with it. We’ve now institutionalized composting.”
For Kney, who came to academia late in life after years of working in the restaurant business, it’s all about providing students with hands-on experiences so they can take ownership of what they’ve learned.
“I’ve always learned by doing so I teach from that perspective,” says Kney, who often makes himself available outside class and on weekends to help students.
Other SEES projects Kney has worked on with students include the removal of arsenic from water, restoration of wetlands, nutrient loading within the Bushkill Watershed, and education and community outreach. Most recently, the group submitted a grant to bring bike sharing to campus.
Although he serves as co-adviser to the group, Kney stresses that students are in charge of their research and he is their mentor, providing feedback, encouragement, and constructive criticism. It’s a role he knows the value of firsthand.
After graduating in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and business from St. Francis College in Maine, Kney was hired as a manager, quickly working his way to district manager for Deering Ice Cream, where he oversaw 12 restaurants throughout New England.
Like celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay on the reality TV show “Kitchen Nightmares,” Kney resuscitated failing restaurants. Tears and tantrums were often par for the course.
“I could go into a restaurant, turn it around, and have it making money,” he says. “But what I didn’t have was maturity and finesse. I was a snotty-nosed kid telling 30- and 40-year-old managers how to do their jobs.”
Lucky for him, he had a nurturing boss who saw potential in Kney. “We would sit down and talk and he would try and build my self-confidence in the job that I was doing,” he says. He also instilled in Kney the importance of learning from one’s mistakes.
It’s an approach Kney now uses with students. “I like to communicate on a personal level and understand who they are,” he says. “We have lots of stellar students here, but I’d rather take a student who could use some help to get where they need to go.”
After working several years for Deering and then as a manager at a Friendly’s, Kney knew that if he was ever going to make real money – his goal was to make $1 million by age 30 — it would have to be on his terms. In 1983, he and a partner opened a restaurant in Newtown, Pa., and auspiciously called it “The Academy” as a nod to a nearby shuttered boys’ school. The work was hard and the hours long, and Kney grew tired of the grind.
“I finally realized there was more to life than money and I wasn’t going to hit the millionaire mark, so I decided to change course,” he says.
Eventually, Kney decided to go back to school for a degree in engineering and at age 35, he once again found himself a freshman, only this time at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He soon learned a hard lesson in humility. After failing a statics test, Kney marched into the professor’s office and asked in a clipped tone if he could take it again.
“Get out of my office,” was the professor’s reply.
“I thought, ‘Boy, I’m really going to have to work hard,’ ” he recalls. “I was still pretty cocky.”
Knew drew on the advice of his mentor/boss at Deering, and vowed to use this failure as fuel to succeed, completing the course with the highest grade in the class and graduating magna cum laude in three years. When he couldn’t find a job, despite applying for about 100, he focused on graduate school and was accepted at three, including one that offered him a full ride. But Kney chose Lehigh University instead after his aunt told him his grandfather had gone there. “She didn’t think he graduated because he was a party boy,” he says. “Nonetheless, I went to Lehigh because of that.”
He wasn’t completely convinced he had made the right move until he casually mentioned his grandfather’s name one day to another student.
“He stopped and said, ‘Give me a moment.’ He ran to his frat house and came back with a pewter mug bearing my grandfather’s name. That’s when I knew I was on the right path. I was determined not only to graduate but do the best I could at Lehigh.” He jokes that he had to save the family name.
Graduating with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering in 1999, Kney applied for just one job, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Lafayette. He still marvels at his good fortune and the circuitous, yet purposeful route that brought him to this point.
“I don’t think I would be as effective as a teacher without that background,” says Kney. “That’s who I am and that’s what I bring to the table, those life experiences.”