When it comes to sustainability, WU needs to put its money where its mouth is
“Washington University in St. Louis is a national leader in sustainability, a core priority that runs through all aspects of our campus community, our operations and our work as a leading research and teaching institution.”
These are the words that greet me when I click on “Energy, Environment & Sustainability,” one of the most prominent tabs on the wustl.edu home page. The tab takes me to links where I can learn about all kinds of initiatives and research happening at Wash. U., from cutting-edge biofuel research at I-CARES to the recycling and composting program at the Danforth University Center. The University has certainly been trying to raise its profile in the world of sustainability over the past few years, with various student- and administration-led efforts leading to a ban of plastic water bottles and bags, elimination of paper course listings, and the hosting of zero-landfill events such as this fall’s W.I.L.D. The image of a green campus community is used in everything, from admissions pitches to pitches given to potential donors.
I personally think it’s fantastic that we are becoming a leader in the St. Louis community in issues like recycling and waste reduction. However, there is one glaring contradiction in every administration sustainability campaign that I cannot ignore—the University’s deep, historic ties with the coal industry.
Every Wash. U. sustainability effort happens against the backdrop of coal. Steven Leer, former CEO of Arch Coal, and Gregory Boyce, CEO of Peabody Energy, sit on our board of trustees. (Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are the two largest coal corporations in the United States.) I-CARES, our alternative energy umbrella research organization, places “clean coal” research as one of its top priorities. For decades, Wash. U. has had an inseparable alliance with the coal industry in St. Louis. The effects of this alliance on University research and policy priorities are debatable; however, the fact that Peabody and Arch are two of our biggest donors is an indisputable fact.
One could even go so far as to say that most of the administration’s sustainability efforts are simply a form of greenwashing to cover up our ties with one of the most environmentally destructive industries in America. In the grander scheme of things, saving the trees that would have been used to print our course listings books is pretty irrelevant when compared to the almost 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide Peabody emits every year.
This contradiction—attending a university that promotes sustainability in all areas of student life (often by externalizing costs to students) while receiving millions of dollars from coal companies—is something I cannot ignore. I still remember a University dean speaking to my freshman seminar class two years ago about energy futures in St. Louis and concluding that coal was still our city’s best option for the future. A student in my class asked whether University money from coal companies had anything to do with him saying that, and he had no response. However, I’m also not sure what I—or the University as a whole—should do to resolve this contradiction. Across the nation and here at Wash. U., college students have responded to university ties to the polluting industry by demanding that their administrations divest their endowments from fossil fuel money. But it is still hard for me to legitimize asking the university I attend to refuse money that could be used to provide scholarships or improve research, academics or student life.
I think the first step needs to be administrative transparency about where the Peabody Energy and Arch Coal money is going. Realistically, Wash. U. can’t totally divest from fossil fuels overnight—we need the money if we want to stay competitive as a top institution and still maintain any remote semblance of affordability. But I think the administration could own up to the hypocrisy by disclosing what exactly Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are funding. Coal money going toward improving campus living standards is fantastic—but coal money going toward research about climate change is a little more questionable. With the national divestment movement gaining steam every day, Wash. U. is going to have to respond in some way. The administration should seize the opportunity and open up a constructive dialogue about the impact coal companies have on this university.