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Councilwoman Sharon Tucker has been selected by the Allen County Democratic Party to replace late Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry

Students, faculty feel 'walled off' from Indiana University climate plan, sustainability projects

Will Gardiner bends down to pick up a littered beer can on Bloomington's campus. He wears a brown jacket and jeans with a brown cap and sunglasses.
Rebecca Thiele
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IPB News
Indiana University sophomore Will Gardiner studies environmental science at IU Bloomington. He said getting more hands-on experience would help him find a job and narrow down what he wants to do.

Indiana University said it’s reorganizing its sustainability offices to better implement the university’s climate action plan. But some students and faculty at IU Bloomington said they’ve been cut out of the process to make the university a cleaner, greener place.

How IU chooses to move forward could determine whether students, faculty and staff have a role in helping the university reach its climate goals.

Hands-on learning opportunities on campus take a hit

Sophomore Will Gardiner grew up playing in a nearby creek in Fort Wayne. Now he’s studying environmental science at IU Bloomington. He points out a sinking stream in Dunn Meadow on campus.

“It’s almost as if all the water goes right underneath and then right where that bridge is where the other side of the stream is. A little bit further up it shows right back up, it comes right out," Gardiner said.

Gardiner said getting more hands-on experience would help him find a job and narrow down what he wants to do. But there aren’t enough good internships to go around for the more than 2,000 students in the IU Bloomington O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Since Gardiner is spending at least two summers working or taking classes — the pressure is on for the summer before his senior year.

“I pretty much have one real opportunity to get a good, solid internship in before I'm out of school. So you want to make it count," he said.

Students used to get more of that hands-on experience right on campus. Professor Kelly Eskew is the director of education for the Kelley Institute for Environmental and Social Sustainability in IU’s business school.

She was also president of a now defunct advisory board which used to tackle sustainability projects on campus through seven working groups — only two of which are now active. Eskew herself chaired one where a company trained students to do waste audits.

“The goal was that we would repeat that work year over year, using students to take a look at what our trash looks like here at Indiana University. And that has completely fallen away. It's really a terrible waste of a wonderful — no pun intended — but it's a missed opportunity," she said.

Students and faculty 'walled off from the process'

Losing the board means faculty also lost a way to share their expertise as IU tackles possibly the most ambitious sustainability project ever — its climate action plan. Though the university held at least one public forum at each campus, the planning committee meetings weren’t open to the public. And at least for now, implementation committee meetings aren’t either.

"I think it's kind of a tragic loss," said Michael Hamburger, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at IU.

"There is so much expertise and so much energy and enthusiasm about engaging with these issues. And more and more of many faculty and students feel walled off from this process, with many of the operations being handled in in secrecy and kind of behind closed doors," he said.

That includes the new chief sustainability officer position — which oversees the climate plan for all of IU’s campuses.

Hamburger said faculty wanted an independent role hired through a national search — able to hold the campus accountable to its climate commitments and maybe more ambitious ones. Instead it reports to Capital Planning and Facilities and was posted internally. IU refused to explain why.

Reorganization makes the future of IU's sustainability offices uncertain

Jessica Davis wears a red blazer and sits next to a brick fireplace with a "Sustain IU" banner draped in front of it. Rebecca Thiele faces her, away from the camera, wearing a blue mask and white blouse.
Ethan Sandweiss
/
WTIU
IU Chief Sustainability Officer Jessica Davis (left) talks about changes to the IU Bloomington Office of Sustainability with reporter Rebecca Thiele (right) at the E-House, a model sustainable home on campus.

While some faculty worry about all of these changes, Jessica Davis, the new chief sustainability officer, said she’s excited to get to work.

“We got a lot to do but it's all very good, very exciting and really personally rewarding to be able to work on and serve the institution this way," Davis said.

The climate plan implementation committee on IU Bloomington's campus held its first meeting in January.

Davis admits her team has been more insular lately — that’s because the university was busy reorganizing all of its sustainability offices under the climate action plan.

“And ultimately it's our job to implement and manage the climate action plan, as well as try to standardize the sustainability experience across IU to the best of our ability. So because that triggered a significant reorganization for us, now the provost’s office is working on what a new model might look like," she said.

While things may be in flux right now, Davis said the implementation committee is working on a list of projects that students and faculty can get involved with. She said anyone on campus can always talk to their representative on the committee or request an audience with the committee.

Expert: IU isn't an anomaly, but shouldn't ignore opportunities for students

Like it or not — the way IU has organized its sustainability initiatives is not unusual, said Bridget Flynn. She works for Second Nature, a company that helps universities track their greenhouse gas emissions and find climate solutions.

They said having the chief sustainability officer position tied to facilities is very common — though today more of those roles are getting pushed up the hierarchy.

“More of those positions are reporting directly to the president or to a VP or like a CFO. Or a creation of a cabinet level position," Flynn said.

Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 765-275-1120. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on climate solutions and climate change at ipbs.org/climatequestions.

Flynn said no matter how they choose to reach their climate goals, universities should try to involve students as much as possible. Even if IU decides to, say, hire a contractor to make their buildings more energy efficient, students could write requests for proposals or evaluate bids.

Flynn said change will take time — there are a lot of stakeholders involved and that involvement is important.

“In order to have people feel like they were really part of the process and see themselves in the plan and implementation. And that it really represents the desires of the campus," she said.

Rebecca is our energy and environment reporter. Contact her at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

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Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.