What’s killing student activism?
Story by Dina Spector :: Illustration by Cristina Posilovic
Hundreds of Syracuse University students armed with picket signs, petitions, and a local press crew storm the SU Quad demanding more sustainable practices on campus. The activist crowd stations themselves in front of Hendricks’ Chapel and chants “Save the Earth!” while they splatter the sidewalks with green paint and hand out reusable grocery bags to passers-by …
Yeah, right. Not a chance.
It’s been 40 years since college campuses nationwide helped to mobilize the largest grassroots demonstration in U.S. history, which succeeded in launching the modern-day environmental movement. On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was held, uniting 20 million Americans across the country on a common issue: the declining state of the environment. Today, ecological threats such as industrialization, urbanization, and by extension, global climate change, are just as menacing to the future health and safety of students. But, save for roaring lawn tractors and occasional maintenance trucks, the SU campus is quiet. And Steve Lloyd, Chief Sustainability Officer of Syracuse University’s Sustainability Division, wants to know why.
Despite its struggle to affect the student body, the division has had its own share of successes over the past few years. In just a short time, the newly planted department has blossomed into a full-functioning green machine that continues to work toward reducing the university’s environmental impact. Some recent accomplishments include the passage of the a plan to eliminate the university’s net emissions of greenhouse gases by the end of 2040, legislation to adopt sustainable building practices, and most recently, the construction of a rain garden to catch water run-off. There’s only one missing part: (and it’s a big one): students.
“Students make up this campus and without their involvement it’s difficult to facilitate change,” says Lloyd. “But it’s tough to reach them.”
Case in point: In October 2008, Lloyd advertised an opportunity for SU students to analyze ways specific buildings on campus could be more environmentally friendly. The “Adopt-a-Building” program included checking space temperatures to find areas that may be too hot or cold, taking inventory of waste and recycling containers, looking at water fixtures for possible savings, and talking with the building occupants about sustainability. One month later the program was officially dead—not a single student volunteered for Lloyd’s pilot project.
A policy studies class in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs undertook the project, and while the students identified several opportunities for sustainability improvement, then-junior Rebecca Leonard, one of the 10 students who volunteered to partake in the building evaluation, admitted that “enthusiasm died down and some students did not return as it continued.”
Even Tom Perreault, associate professor of geography at SU, believes students are tinkering around the edges when it comes to caring about environmental issues.
“There’s less environmental activism today,” he said. “And SU students are not all that engaged in sustainable initiatives.”
But are these observations unique to SU or is environmental apathy a disease — infecting other college campuses across the nation as well?
According to the College Sustainability Report Card, published by the Sustainable Endowments Institute in 2010, SU earned a letter grade “C” in the Student Involvement category whereas our neighbors at Cornell University and Ithaca College earned a letter grade “B” and “A” in the same category, respectively.
In 2009, the Sierra Club gave SU an overall D+, placing us in 103rd out of 135 schools in rankings that included efficiency, energy, and waste among other categories.
The criteria for grading student involvement was based on level of student participation in sustainability initiatives and support for these activities from the college administration.
Of note is that SU did not submit a “student survey” as a portion of the larger campus survey to Green Report Card (Cornell and Ithaca did). Students in campus environmental and sustainability organizations would have been responsible for completing this form
“There is a clear divide between the ESF and SU campuses,” says David Katz, a wildlife sciences major at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “Take for instance the recent conference on The Right to Water — very few students showed up, which demonstrates a lack of interest.”
In 2006, Dr. Rachel May, SU’s coordinator of sustainability education joined former ESF graduate student Eric Ripley to form the University Sustainability Action Coalition in an effort to increase communications between different sustainability programs across the SU and ESF campuses. In the beginning, the joint task force of students, faculty, and staff met regularly to discuss issues concerning energy use, recycling and other aspects of sustainability. But over time, interest from the student end fizzled out.
“Fifty people came to the first meeting,” says May. “The following year, we didn’t get a lot of repeats.”
May believes that the disappointing turnout was partly the failure of SU staff figuring out how to make environmental issues and reforms relevant to students.
“Upper-level administration is very committed to the environment,” she says. “But a lot is being done behind the scenes that is not evident to students… students need some concrete ways to be involved where they can see the change.”
“You can see me picking litter off the ground,” joked sophomore Caitlin Clark. “If I knew how to get more involved on campus, I would.”
May also points out that USAC has difficulty getting students involved because university operations, such as passing large energy polices, don’t run on a semester schedule.
Administration often deals with long, complicated, and drawn-out processes that yield intangible results. Students who see themselves as transitory have a hard time investing themselves in environmental goals that have delayed environmental and economic implications. Most of us are, after all, usually only here for four years.
Lloyd also believes that the reason many students rank the environment low on their priority list is because they are simply unaware of environmental developments and issues on campus.
“I really believe one of the reasons students may not be active is because sustainability is not in the curriculum yet,” says Lloyd. “How can students get inspired about something they never hear about?”
One way is to design courses that will integrate more of the environment into the regular school curriculum. As of fall 2009, SU now offers a course on climate change as well as one on sustainability and development and sustainable energy systems in buildings.
Still, Lloyd does not deny the fact that finding ways to make students more alert of what’s happening on campus remains one of the Sustainability Division’s and USAC’s biggest challenges.
“A lot of people don’t realize how progressive the university is being,” says May, “and if students were more aware of that, they might be more engaged.”