Why are Politicians Blocking the Way to Campus Sustainability?

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Berkeley was buzzing with excitement the day Chancellor Robert Birgeneau introduced the university’s landmark Sustainability Assessment. I was a freshman, and the Assessment was the holy grail of what needed to happen to create a sustainable campus – from buildings to food purchasing to transportation, energy and water. The Assessment had everything to get Berkeley started on a comprehensive transformation.

And then – it sat on a shelf. No funding trickled out of the university coffers. No task forces were created to ensure its implementation.

After two years of waiting, the students decided to take matters into our own hands. If the university wasn’t going to act on a plan it had spent $80,000 creating, we would.

Our answer was a "green fee." We asked the student body to support a $5 increase in their activity fees to create a fund for campus sustainability and climate action projects. The Green Initiative Fund would last 10 years, raise $2 million and be overseen by a student-majority grant-making committee. Berkeley’s green fee fund – approved in 2007 with 69 percent of the campus in support – has already implemented a digital energy monitory program, and it is working on a campus victory garden, among numerous other projects that probably wouldn’t happen if students weren’t the driving force.

Green fees seem like an obvious and easy step. More than for 60 universities have them, and they expect to raise about $75 million. Students understand that if they don’t act now they will see serious problems in their lifetimes.

So why are politicians still getting in the way?

Despite overwhelming student approval and extensive campaigns by green fee organizers to get diverse campus stakeholders on board, some universities and even the Florida Legislature are blocking green fees from taking effect.

Here are some scenes from the frontlines of the green fee wars:

At the University of Florida campuses, students have been working for two years to coordinate a system-wide green fee. Surveys show 80% or more of the students support contributing 50 cents per credit-hour for sustainability projects.

The plan is ready, the student support is clearly there, but the green fee organizers have repeatedly had doors slammed in their faces when they tried to approach state legislators for permission. In Florida, the Legislature controls all fee increases for public universities, even fees initiated by student governments. To implement a green fee, a university must have state approval.

Florida’s Legislature is conservative and anti-tax, which may be part of the problem. Universities around the country have also been raising student tuition and fees for other uses, so they could see green fees as competition. Still, the lawmakers’ response is perplexing, says Zachary Keith, a University of Florida graduate working with the student-led Southern Energy Network and Florida Green Fee Coalition on the project.

The projects funded by the green fees will actually save the universities money in the long-run. It’s a win-win, Keith says.

His coalition is trying its luck in the statehouse again next month, and hoping the Legislature warms to the idea before the planet does.

At Portland State University in Oregon, students ran into another seemingly immovable obstacle: the campus administration.

They have been lobbying for two years to gain approval for a green fee that would launch a dedicated fund for energy conservation projects that pay back within five years. The $20 fee would provide $500,000 in start-up seed capitol for the revolving loan fund.

It should have been a simple decision, but the proposal has been stuck in administrative committees. It has gone through review periods for so long that many of the students who initially voted in favor of the fees have now graduated.

Portland organizers like Brendan Castricano see hope, though. PSU, which has an office of sustainability, also has a new president who has made creating a sustainable campus a priority and has promised to increase funding for sustainability projects.

University of Tennessee-Knoxville students had to fight hard to turn their university administration around.

Former UT-Knoxville Chancellor Loren Crabtree initially blocked a student government green fee plan from even reaching the Board of Trustees. The student body had already approved a ballot initiative to add an $8 per semester fee to pay for renewable energy on campus. Yet when the time came for the Board of Trustees to approve the fee 2004, Crabtree refused to let the initiative even go before the board.

Crabtree had explained his position this way: "We certainly do not oppose student initiatives [to improve] the environment. In fact, we encourage them, but we do not impose fees by means of a student referendum."

The UT-Knoxville students didn’t go away. They staged protests and sent packets of information about the Student Environmental Initiatives Fee proposal to each university trustee. The following year, they negotiated a victory for the campus green fee.

With Powershift just around the corner, youth climate activists will soon be sharing their success stories and struggles like these, and helping spread their organizing tools to other campuses across the nation. And as they knock down the doors of the most powerful leaders in the country, I hope the politicians are prepared. These students are stubborn, they’re smart, and they’re not going away any time soon.