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University should consider how deep its commitment to environmentalism runs

Recently, Washington University scientists were able to isolate the cells that cause insulin-dependent diabetes in rats. Wash. U. faculty and students are working to make NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission successful. The University has the coordination and planning ability to tear down and build many new buildings almost entirely over the summer. So, why is it that the University cannot become carbon neutral? Why is it that only some of the new buildings are LEED certified to the gold standard? And why is it that Vice Chancellor of Sustainability Matt Malten has been virtually invisible to students while he spent a year collecting data?

If the University were truly committed to stopping climate change and teaching its students how to deal with this generation-defining problem, it would not work toward that mission by making token efforts like phasing out water bottles, increasing recycling and building a marquee energy-efficient building.

When Wash. U. undertook construction of the Danforth University Center (DUC), if it were truly committed to environmental change rather than the appearance of a gold-standard LEED building, the university would have constructed one of the most energy-efficient buildings possible, which cannot occur when huge open spaces have to be heated. And if Wash. U.’s goal was to act with environmental responsibility, the University would not have named the DUC parking garage as a separate building that did not matter in the energy count for LEED certification.

Constructing buildings to a certain LEED standard is a nice token, but what does it say when the goal is to receive a certain environmental ranking rather than when the ranking is received simply as a result of creating a building with as much environmental responsibility as possible? Is Wash. U. committed to an appearance or is it deeply committed to a cause?

There should be no question. We should know that the University is as concerned with leading a real effort to environmental responsibility as it is with raising its U.S. News & World Report rankings.

As a side note, some have argued that a commitment to the environment will leave the University with fewer resources to attract both the country’s and world’s brightest students, and that both its national ranking and value as a university might suffer as a result. But, in the face of climate change, the university with the most value is the university that forces its students to challenge world problems critically and that also acts as a moral role model, giving its students a sense of what commitment is required to challenge that world problem.

The University’s role is to give its students the best education possible, and if U.S. News rankings mean anything, then they will follow that education. Contrary to what many seem to believe, a better education does not come from a better ranking.

How has the University educated students about climate change? The Freshman Reading Program did force some students to consider the issue, and validated it as an important one. But what happened when those students left the discussions? Most of them went back to dorms that are using significant amounts of energy due to the University’s almost continual demolition and construction, or into University buildings, which waste a significant amount of energy because the University keeps them freezing in the summer and sweltering in the winter.

Students who participated in the reading program or heard the Chancellor speak at graduation learned that climate change is a buzzword academic problem that needs to be solved, but they did not learn that they must be part of that solution and that they must act now. If Washington University, with all of its resources, cannot make the sacrifices necessary to be carbon neutral, how are students supposed to know that they themselves can?

Furthermore, what does it say when the University hires Malten as vice chancellor of sustainability, and he spends a year gathering data? Either the University is not willing to give Malten the funds to hire a large enough staff or willing give him the resources he needs to gather whatever data is necessary to start tackling the problem of climate change.

A year of talk and no action teaches students to approach climate change the same way fossil fuel companies approach the issue—yes, they are concerned and willing to make an improvement here or there, but ultimately they do not have the resources.

More likely, they do not have the will.

If the University wants to be on the cutting edge of education, it needs to be on the cutting edge of solving the climate crisis. This means instead of phasing in their plans for sustainability, like stopping sales of all plastic water bottles and asking students to carry bottles and fill them up, implement these plans now. It means looking at what temperatures we set our buildings at and moving them up a degree or two in the summer and down a degree or two in the winter to save energy. It means building all our new buildings to the highest environmental standards.

And last but not least, a serious commitment to environmentalism means reaching out to all students and telling them what they can do to make a difference and to urge their society to make a difference. It means equipping the student body, through example and by transmitting information, to deal with the real problems their generation will face.

Wash. U. is such a great university that has accomplished so many incredible feats. In the face of one of the biggest issues of our generation, we should see the University work to do no less than it has on so many other occasions.

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