An unusually large number of students trickle into the University of Michigan Union for the November 2015 Regents Board Meeting, causing those in attendance to peer up in surprise. The Regents and President Mark Schlissel sit quietly around a large conference table, in stark contrast with the buzzing student section, filled with excited whispers and vibrant garb. Patches emblematic of social justice movements adorn one student’s corduroy jacket, including the badge of U-M’s fossil fuel divestment campaign, Divest and Invest. The meeting concludes with an appeal for divestment from campaigners. As the final speaker, sophomore Ellen Loubert, returns to her seat, the students leap to their feet and drown the silence in thunderous applause.
Loubert and her peers hope to push the administration to embrace sustainability in every form, a request extending far beyond their call for divestment. They attribute administrations’ resistance to fully commit to sustainability to the increasingly corporatized model guiding institutions of higher education across America.
Joel Westheimer, a professor at the University of Ottawa, explains “corporatization” as the growing of the endowment, the hiring of evermore administrators, and constant campus expansion. Says Westheimer, with this new system colleges and universities have “lost their moral compass.”
Loubert echoes his sentiments, noting the “discord” around sustainability given the lack of “administrators willing to listen to what students think. They’re only really interested in what looks the best.”
Yet, others such as Mark Bernstein, a member of the U-M Board of Regents, the legal governing board of the university, push back on this view of “corporatization,” and even the term itself. Says Bernstein, “I don’t use corporatization, I don’t say that. I have my well-placed, well-earned concerns about corporate America, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently problematic about borrowing some of the best practices from any organization… That’s an overly simplistic critique.”
Regardless of whether corporate models are good or bad, they undoubtedly influence sustainability, especially in regards to reputation, carbon footprint, and fossil fuel divestment.
U-M, among other schools, uses the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) to gauge sustainability. STARS comes with a $900 price tag and a myriad of conflicting views over its merit.
Wynn Calder, an expert in campus sustainability improvement programs like STARS, calls the program “positive in just about every way,” emphasizing that even though schools self-report data, they do so truthfully because their “honor is at stake.”
Others think differently. Mike Shriberg, the former educational director of the Graham Sustainability Scholars Program at U-M sees STARS as a tool to better U-M’s image without truly effecting change. Says Shriberg, “I do think [STARS] was run through a very strong PR filter at U-M.” For instance, U-M took full points for trayless dining, even though at the time every dining hall used trays except for East Quad during its weekly “Trayless Tuesdays.”
For this reason, Ken Keeler, Senior Sustainability Rep at the Office of Campus Sustainability says that U-M’s Gold rating “might not represent everything that we are doing,” but STARS is still a “great tool to identify parts that we need to work harder in.”
One such part is greenhouse gas emissions, where U-M remains “at the bottom of the pack,” says Shriberg. In part, this lack of drive is due to a “culture of conservatism on the operations side of things. I’m talking about aversion to change, aversion to new ways of thinking, and aversion to not simply continuing exactly what we’ve done before,” he says.
Calder meanwhile, sees the “race to be better looking” with constant campus growth as the main hurdle to cutting emissions.
The Ross Business School, for instance, is a scene of ongoing renovation at U-M. All year, crews of construction workers in hard hats and yellow vests hammer, meld, and toil to expand the towering, red-paneled building.
Even administrators, like U-M Director of Public Affairs Rick Fitzgerald, agree that campus expansion “is one of our greatest challenges as it relates to meeting the university’s long-term sustainability goals.” Still, he and Regent Bernstein argue that this growth fulfills the school’s mission of providing educational opportunity. Says Bernstein, U-M should address complex world problems, “and if that means [building] facilities that enable teaching and research that is more advanced and impactful, then we need to build it. Period.”
Yet, other schools seem to strike more of a balance between sustainability and education. Middlebury College, a private liberal-arts school, stands out as “an all around green school,” says Calder. Because their campus is so small, the entire student body inherently takes part in every sustainability initiative.
Ohio State University, meanwhile, rivals U-M in size, but its zero-waste football stadium outshines The Big House’s environmental commitment. After adopting the program in 2011, OSU now diverts 90% of waste from landfills. U-M, meanwhile, diverted 25% of waste on average in 2011. This initiative costs OSU more, but Tony Gillund, the sustainability coordinator at Ohio State, says that sustainability-focused administrators welcomed the change. The move betters OSU’s image as well. Says Gillund, “every university wants to be shed in good light, so that’s part of it. But there are other reasons.”
The argument between supporting sustainability and funding education arises acutely in the case of divestment. While Fitzgerald says, “the university believes the endowment should not be used to further other causes, however noble,” re-iterating President Schlissel’s stance on the matter, Shriberg says that the choice between moral investments and educational funding is “a false dichotomy.”
Students like Loubert agree, saying that the campaign has exhausted the democratic process set forth to argue for divestment. She says that Divest and Invest has fully met the historic three-prong precedent that warrants consideration by the Regents, but Bernstein disagrees.
One pillar in particular – proof of campus consensus – stands out to him as unfulfilled. “We’re the largest employer in the state of Michigan. There are 20,000 employees in our health system. What do they think? We have half a million alumni. What do they think? We have faculty. We have students. It goes on and on. It’s dangerous, and imprecise, to assume that’s there universal agreement with all of the stakeholders the university is considering,” he says.
With divestment, as with every component of campus corporatization and sustainability, right and wrong cannot easily be dissected. Yet, one thing remains certain. In this new model, students are the customers, and therefore “have market power in a different way,” says Shriberg.
Students hold the power to shape their school’s reputation and influence administrators. Though this task seems daunting, given ongoing movements like Occupy Wall Street and general anger at economic inequality, “It’s a pretty opportune moment to fight back” with direct action on the ground, says Westheimer.
“Accusations of being naïve or idealistic are of course going to be leveled at you, but younger people are responsible for social change”Administrators, Regents, and students alike gather to hear sophomore Ellen Loubert (center) speak on behalf of the U-M Divest and Invest fossil fuel divestment campaign.