The Jolly Green Giant: The University of Chicago takes some steps towards a sustainability program on campus

It’s hard enough for a person to be green. It requires a detailed awareness of how such trivial acts as leaving the light on or eating a burger can have environmental consequences, and enough commitment to change one’s lifestyle in the face of habit and convenience. Now think about the challenges confronting an entire university. How do you change the practices of a neighborhood-sized mass of buildings and organizations? How does an institution reduce its impact in a time when the link between human activity and environmental destruction becomes more evident every day, and everyone is to blame? So far, the University of Chicago has failed to meaningfully grapple with this crucial question. But that’s about to change.

Campus sustainability is concerned with a few key areas: recycling, purchasing, waste reduction, water consumption reduction, and reducing an institution’s carbon footprint, which itself involves transportation, energy efficiency, and alternative energy sources. With the exception of recycling and purchasing, the university currently has no concrete policies in any of these areas, never mind an integrated sustainability program. It consistently gets Cs on sustainability report cards. The university hasn’t been doing well, and this becomes all the more evident when compared to its peers: since 2000, Harvard has had an entire office with nineteen professional staff and forty part-time students that promotes eleven sustainability programs, campus-wide coordination, and continuous innovation. The University, on the other hand, has a single part-time sustainability coordinator, and is finally on the brink of hiring a full-time director of sustainability.

As Steve Wiesenthal, an expert on sustainable construction and the new Vice President for Facilities Services, puts it, “It really takes someone dedicated full-time to pull all the good ideas together into an integrated program, and to work with students, faculty, and staff in order to really make a difference.” It’s impossible to tackle a problem as complex and multifaceted as campus sustainability when there is no organizational apparatus to research, plan, and implement concrete measures, or to communicate and coordinate with all the relevant people in this huge and heavily decentralized institution–energy and utilities, transportation, day to day facilities operations, dinning, dorms, academic departments, architects, janitors, students and on and on–requires a much larger institutional presence than the University currently has. Wiesenthal’s assessment: “My sense is that there have been individual programs that people have taken under their wing and made happen… but in the aggregate we’ve not done as much as we could, and should, be doing. We have a long way to go.”

In addition to lacking dedicated manpower, the sustainability effort lacks numbers. We don’t know how much waste we create, how much water we consume, or how much energy we use and how, so we don’t know what our carbon footprint is. This makes it difficult to know just how badly we’re really doing. It also makes it impossible to move forward, since we can’t currently identify which areas to target and therefore what measures to implement. It also prevents us from measuring success. And while it is time-consuming to collect this data, there are consultants that specialize in doing just that. The energy department has been in the “planning stage” of hiring a firm to calculate our footprint for more than nine months and won’t have numbers until the end of the year.”

Why have we been doing so poorly? Why do we presently lack an organized effort to green the way our institution uses resources and produces wastes, including greenhouse gases? Three factors stand out. First, a historical lack of student awareness and involvement in environmentalism. Activism on this campus has been confined to a small but committed core of students without ever gaining mainstream support and participation. This has kept the sustainability issue in particular from getting the critical mass of attention that could have pressured the administration into action years ago. Second, a lack of faculty interest and engagement. This university is supposedly a faculty-led institution, meaning that professors could have nudged the administration in the right direction much sooner. Their inaction is due partly to our small environmental studies program, and partly to a lack of incentives and financial resources for professors to start environmental classes and projects. Lastly, and most critically, there has been a lack of commitment or even interest on behalf of the administration until this past year.

Things have improved dramatically in the past seven to eight months, however. The hiring of Wiesenthal, who will bring an emphasis on sustainability to his direction of facilities services, was the first substantive step in the right direction. The administration then created a new website to help publicize the University’s greening efforts, before announcing the creation of a full-time, full-fledged director of sustainability position. The University is at the end of its selection process to fill the spot and should announce its pick later this week.

These recent developments, which signal the University’s increased commitment, are largely the product of the Sustainability Council. A student group-turned-university entity that dates from 2006, the Council brings together students, faculty, and staff, and serves as the ad-hoc focal point of sustainability efforts on campus. It has several roles: it voices student concerns to the administration, plans and implements piecemeal projects, and writes assessment reports. Despite its good work and passionate membership, the Council is limited in what it can do and cannot substitute for a formal organization because it is only an advisory body and meets just twice a quarter.

To move forward we must hire someone to be in charge of the issue full-time, who will measure our baselines, develop a plan of action, and eventually craft concrete policies with specific measures. Constructive discussion and research has been taking place for a while now, thanks to the Council. The drag has been on the administration’s end, even if we take into account President Zimmer’s transition, the University’s resistance to jumping on the bandwagon, and the fact that organizational processes such as these involve a lot of people and complicated decisions and therefore simply take time. Despite these impediments, the University has enough resources and minds that it could’ve started acting in earnest much sooner. Let’s hope that it’ll move faster now that it’s finally putting in place the organizational backbone needed for some long-awaited reform.

1 comment for “The Jolly Green Giant: The University of Chicago takes some steps towards a sustainability program on campus

Comments are closed.