Thursday, November 30, 2023

Sustainability office sends mixed messages about the university’s priorities

NewsCampus NewsSustainability office sends mixed messages about the university’s priorities

Associate News Editor

As climate change remains an issue plaguing the world, the university has set goals to become a model of sustainability and environmental response. Through the efforts of the university’s 3-year-old Sustainability Council and the ongoing creation of the Office of Sustainability, the university has appeared to push a sustainable agenda and create an environmentally-friendly campus. Between the university’s investment records and the perspectives of sustainability-involved students, there may be more to what has been publicized than meets the eye.

On Dec. 12, the Office of the Provost hosted a public town hall meeting to address the selection of the associate provost and academic director for the new Office of Sustainability, Chris Williams. Given recent student frustration regarding slow progress towards “going green” at the university, the meeting gave Wiliams a chance to talk about his vision for the new office, as well as address students’ questions regarding the timeline.

In his remarks, Williams pointed out that the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) ranked the university in last place for sustainability success when compared to a number of peer institutions. 

“Being last is a good place to be,” Williams said. “You have nowhere to go but up.”

While Williams’s statement was somewhat met with chuckles, he moved on to explain a large part of his mission moving forward: cross-office collaboration. 

Outlined in the 2022 Sustainability Plan, promoting collaboration and operational efficiency is expected to be made possible by a centralized sustainability office. One of the departments the Office of Sustainability hopes to work alongside is the budget office, but recent financial statements and investment records imply that parts of the plan have not yet been implemented.

Fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, are known to produce harmful emissions that worsen climate change. Last year, in the university’s Consolidated Financial Statements, it reported investing $27,564,000 into oil and gas funds. This year, the university is investing $37,559,000 into the same funds — an almost $10,000,000 increase.

As for the university’s monetary spending towards natural resources, which were categorized separately from fossil fuels in the university’s financial statements, records reflect a decrease from $33,484,000 in 2021 to $32,840,000 in 2022. In the budget’s funding allocations between those two years, spending on fossil fuels surpassed spending on natural resources.

“In the past and currently, if you want to find something you have to do a deep-dive internet search,” Claudia Schreier, a senior marine science major and president of the Lattice Project, a social justice focused registered student organization, said. “It’s like they’re saying one thing, and then in the background, they’re doing another. So I hope that the Office [of Sustainability] will help everything align more with the framework of sustainability.”

Katie Fisher, a senior environmental studies major, explained that relevant data is not the only information that is difficult to find regarding university sustainability. In her experience, communication about the advancements and timeline of the Office of Sustainability has been by word of mouth more so than anything else.

“Everything is very secretive,” Fisher said. “And the only reason why I’m finding out is through other people, who found out through other people, who found out through other people. As a student, that’s really frustrating. If I wanted to write something or do research about this, it’s not out there.”

Madi Drew, sitting president of the Student Sustainability Alliance (SSA), reiterated the frustration over the lack of transparency about progress thus far.

“[The progress] is a very hard thing for students to keep track of because hardly any of the data has been publicized,” Drew said. “And so we have no way of knowing the progress that they’ve made.”

If the university becomes publicly viewed as “committed to the environment,” data shows that enrollment could increase. The Princeton Review conducted a survey which found that 74% of high school students said they would take colleges’ dedication to environmental pursuits into account when making their enrollment decision.  

Despite some uncertainty surrounding the university’s actual sustainability goals, progress and timeline, Williams reminded the audience that part of the Office of Sustainability’s mission is to increase communication and student connection, which is a goal that SSA shares.

Bailey Probert, SSA president-elect, mentioned that there is only so much authority and funding provided to registered student organizations in order to make a difference. Instead, SSA mainly focuses on connecting student ideas to those with the power to implement them. For example, the Student Government Association recently passed a resolution for the Office of Sustainability to institute a sustainability curriculum by 2027.

“Sometimes folks say, ‘Boy, we’re just moving so slowly. The house is burning, the clock is ticking and we just can’t wait any longer,’” Williams said. “And I always say, ‘Yeah, but you have no idea how amazingly fast this has really gone.’”

Despite concerns over a lack of transparency as far as student knowledge, Williams appeared positive while discussing plans of introducing sustainability into the classroom as a required breadth course, making voices heard by engaging with students all across campus and moving up in the AASHE sustainability rankings.

“We better be in the top 10 in the next 10 years,” Williams said, seeming confident about the timeline. “I don’t see why we can’t do this.”




  1. I believe the article needs to be corrected. The amounts for the financial statements are “in thousands” so the university invested more than $37 million into oil and gas in 2022, a $10 million increase from the prior year.


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