Whither the Sustainability Institute?
Leaders at the PSU Sustainability Institute (formed late last year with the merger of the Campus Sustainability Office and the Center for Sustainability) have adopted a mission and posted it at their website:
“The mission of the Sustainability Institute is to facilitate the integration of sustainability into all functions of the University.”
It’s vague, a difficulty that has bedeviled the institute during its rocky first few months, which coincided with the community-wide natural gas pipeline debate.
For starters, the management team is unfocused. Led on an interim basis by Denice Wardrop, leaders include Erik Foley, Nancy Franklin, David Riley and Alex Novak. Staff include Rob Andrejewski, Susannah Barsom, Jeremy Bean, Lisa Riley Brown, Christie Clancy, Patty Craig, Mary Easterling, Kelly Harris, Cole Hons, Sharon Hoover, Sarah Klinetob, Whitney Lloyd, Paul Ruskin, Lydia Vanderbergh and Jude Simpson.
But none of them have job titles, which makes it unlikely they have clear job descriptions. Their general project areas include managing the solar home (built in 2007), food sourcing, the sustainability minor, communications (website and video), grantwriting, Green Teams, Green PAWs and Eco-Reps. Student interns have done the best work so far, largely by taking initiative on their own, for example, putting together the Local Foods Dinner in Redifer Commons last spring.
One key problem, I think, is that the institute serves too many masters. Staff report to five vice presidents within the university: Student Affairs, Research, Undergraduate Education, Finance & Business and the Provost, all of whose departments help fund the institute.
They also report to an internal advisory board, comprised of members of different Penn State academic programs, all providing input about what they each want the institute to do.
And they report to an external advisory board – comprised of executives from corporations including General Electric, General Motors, Shell Oil, Dow Chemical, Bank of NY Mellon, and Siemens; foundations like ELECTRI International (The Foundation for Electrical Construction); academic sustainability and civil engineering programs such as the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, the PSU Rock Ethics Institute, Stanford University, Lakehead University, University of Connecticut and the University of Minnesota; along with philanthropic, media and consulting organizations.
It looks a lot like greenwashing, even though there are passionate people inside the university walls who desperately want to see Penn State actually lead the way for institutional sustainability with deeds rather than words.
I recently heard that one of the results of our vigorous community effort to stop the gas transmission line from running through Borough neighborhoods is that, directed by upper level administrators, the Sustainability Institute staffers are planning a student project for Spring 2014 around the topic of “How can Penn State and State College Borough get to zero-carbon?” Details unknown, but when I know more, I’ll publish more.
That’s in addition to a forum on the university’s energy future to be held September 4 (6:30 p.m. in the HUB Auditorium) and billed as “an informational meeting…to refresh the community on the University’s existing efficiency efforts and successes as well as its long-term energy planning.”
And that’s in addition to Geography 493, a Fall 2013 service learning course led by Dr. Brent Yarnal. Greening our Leases has been in the works since well before the pipeline controversy; graduate students designed a four-part series of undergraduate classes last year and the first one starts this fall.
[Update 8.19.13 – Geography 493 has been cancelled due to low enrollment.]
The course description for Greening Our Leases notes:
Eighty-one percent of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted from the Borough of State College result from electricity use and space heating. Seventy percent of all the Borough’s residents are renters. To reduce the Borough’s GHG emissions, it is therefore necessary to improve the energy efficiency of rental units. However, renters don’t want to spend money to improve property they don’t own, while landlords don’t want to invest in energy improvements and decrease their profits when renters are paying the energy costs.
GEOG 493 will tackle this conundrum through its seminar and service-learning components. In the seminar, students will gain academic knowledge of energy and environmental issues, while in the service-learning component they will gain hands-on experience working with these issues. Students will interact with local business, residents, and local government as they gather and analyze data. They will prepare a scientifically grounded, professional report for the Borough. Finally, they will gain public speaking skills by making presentations to landlords, renters, and the Borough.
Those are all interesting developments – although more discussion around the topic isn’t the same as more action. There’s very little debate anymore over what needs to be done to mitigate climate change and fossil fuel dependence: the gut-kicking fact is that we need to use a lot less energy and, unfortunately, stop doing most activities that are energy-intensive without contributing to basic public health and safety, through food and shelter primarily.
If Penn State and the Sustainability Institute ever really start to lead the way, the institute’s mission will probably be revised to something measurable, such as “cutting total university energy consumption by 50% by 2023 and 75% by 2033, while replacing the remaining 25% with renewable energy systems.”
Note to readers: I’m burned out, due in part to adding the pipeline work to an already full plate of homesteading programming and family work this past spring and early summer. So after a couple more posts, I’m going to rest for a while, try some different things and hopefully reclaim the joy and playfulness that nurtures sustainable sustainability work.