Perspectives from UCOP: Students in Sustainability

S. Drew Story | November, 30, 2016

A despondent cloud hung over the Hay Barn at UC Santa Cruz on November 9. The University of California’s Global Climate Leadership Council (GCLC) had convened for their last meeting of 2016, with fewer than 12 hours having passed since Donald Trump had been announced President-elect of the United States.

Janika McFeely (left) and Hilary Bekmann (right)—support staff with the University of California Office of the President (UCOP).


Long tables, scattered with organic coffee, compostable silverware, and various breakfast accoutrements, held the nametags of UC big shots and other GCLC members; vice chancellors, deans, chief officers, vice presidents, professors. Two students had a seat at these tables, and the rest of the expansive barn was filled with UCOP support staff and half a dozen students from across the UC system, present to observe and chime in when the student voice needed magnifying.

Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for a GCLC member to break the silence, but the attempt at a joke fell flat on those of us, the students, who are currently preparing to break into careers that embody sustainability. We who have grand visions of being participants in shifting cultural attitudes for the next 40+ years were just thrown a curveball that most of us are still reeling from. In a matter of moments, we went from relatively conducive federal conditions to a predictably stark contrast of impediments and downright obstruction, the effects of which would remain unknown and perpetually immeasurable.

The students in attendance were either local UCSC students, or Carbon Neutrality Initiative Fellows who had been financially supported to participate in the meeting. Our familiar CNI support administrators were in attendance; Matt St Clair, Abigail Reyes, Janika McFeely, and Hilary Bekmann all made the trip. During the first coffee break, entire conversations were made between us students and these allies with eye contact alone. They understood our burgeoning uncertainty, our struggle to not abandon hope. And they acknowledged our uneasiness without trivializing it, yet required of us to acknowledge the position of influence we all still held as students.

After a few minutes, I finally asked Janika, Sustainability Specialist at UCOP, and Abby Reyes, Director of Sustainability at UC Irvine, “Now what?”

With resolve and empathy, they reminded us that not only do we all still have a role to play, the necessity of our involvement and success was newly emphasized. We still had a UC-wide goal of carbon neutrality by 2025. We still have a zero-waste campaign. Echoing a sentiment I had thought through earlier that morning, Abby said our position in California would shelter us from some of the backsliding that accompanied the shift in values held by the US President-elect. If nothing else, that made our role as student advocates more pronounced. All eyes would be trained on California for the next four years, to continue to be a world leader in sustainability. The birthplace of cultural movements, CA higher education campuses, would now be referenced even more.

Since the time had come for the rubber to meet the road for student involvement, I asked Janika and Hilary to sit down with me after the meeting concluded and let me interview them for their perspective on the role of students in institutional sustainability at the UC going forward. The role of student activists is often easier to understand: show up, unify, be loud, and demand action. But how students fit into the machine of systematic change is not so apparently clear. Ben Sommerkorn had previously shared with me what he thought the student role was, but I expected these UCOP administrators to have a different take on the matter.

“Our job is to serve the mission and you are the mission,” Hilary Bekmann, Associate Director of Sustainability at UCOP remarked in her down-to-business Australian accent. “You are supposed to be telling us what we are supposed to be doing, ‘These are our expectations of you,’ and then keep us accountable to doing that.”  

“So we can send an angry e-mail to Janet Napolitano and it will be read?”

According to Janika, all correspondence to the President gets filtered through the appropriate chains of communication and makes it to the corresponding staff, who then address the messages and respond themselves. “OP responds to consensus, and we are happy to do what the campuses want.” So if students want something, she said, they need to get their campus on board, and then use their allies at other campuses to spread the notion.

What gets in the way of that, Janika laments, is that system-wide decisions and actions almost always outlast a student’s tenure on campus. Efforts like CNI were many years in the making, and will last at least eight more years. She admits that administration struggles to know how to engage students for these types of long-term efforts.

Not only that, Hilary mentions, but it is inherently more difficult to inspire passion in students for a cause the university has already committed to. It is simpler for students to get riled up and demand carbon neutrality than it is to be involved in the nitty gritty of implementing that change. But that is what administration needs from students.

Chancellors accept instruction from UCOP fairly readily. It is the vice chancellors responsible for accommodating and enacting these new directives that are between a rock and a hard place. And without student input, they are left to their own devices to produce the deliverables.

Building on this notion, Janika emphasized that a significant step forward would be for students to remember that administrators are human, too. Most of them care about students, but their daily priorities are often out of sync with what students expect or want to see. So when students can talk with administration about what matters to them, and be prepared to work with them to meet their objectives in a way that satisfies the student desires, progress can be made at the campus-level, which in turn leads to change at the system level.

If administration never hears from students, except that they are dissatisfied, they cannot accomplish what matters to them or in the way they wish. One place to start on each campus is the offices of the Vice Chancellor for Business and Administration Services and Vice Chancellor for Planning and Budget, or their equivalents. These positions are the campus-level decision makers for most things related to sustainability.

In a time of uncertainty and apprehension for the future, students should take heart that we have a role to play in the sustainability of our campuses. It is the job of our administration to listen to us. Not only must we ask for what we want, we have to be willing to continually engage in the process of affecting change. We cannot expect our demands to be met without following through on the process to completion. This necessitates a culture of involvement, not a disparate group of individuals, and dissemination of knowledge and networks. When it is time for student leaders to move on, their legacy will sputter if they fail to equip and empower students to take up the mantle in their stead.

The role of students is large, and has perhaps never been more important than now.

Posted in _Featured, CSSC Blog, UC Campuses.