Image Wrong Focus For Sustainability Staff Position


An unquestioned buzz has permeated the green community at Whitman over ASWC’s recent initiative for a staff position to bottom-line environmental campaigns, internships and long-term “green goals” on campus.

The idea of having a staff position dedicated to sustainability has been in the works for many years. For the past three years, the Sustainability Advisory Committee (SAC), a group of student leaders, staff and faculty members all working towards improving Whitman’s green standing, has recommended that the presidential council look at creating this position.

However, “SAC has recommended creating this position for several years in a row but [until now] there hasn’t been any action” said Rachna Sinnott, chair of the SAC.

“All students in environmental groups recognize that the institution of Whitman needs to match the students’ energy, motivation and direction of sustainability issues in order to actually make progress on those student issues,” said Sustainability Coordinator Natalie Jamerson.

The students pushing for the position have used the tactic of  “image” to sell this to the administration. Whitman’s lack of a staff sustainability position left the school unable to participate in several surveys which assess the college’s level of sustainability. Being left out of such assessments sets us behind our 14 comparison colleges, prohibits the opportunity for certain rankings, and thus affects Whitman’s image and admissions.

“Students advocating for the position believe that the administration would pass the proposal given the reasons that it helps Whitman’s image,” said ASWC Vice President Marcial Díaz Mejía. Díaz Mejía said it would “give more visibility to our school in terms of being a ‘green school’ and show we have more rankings [which] can help us get more applications from all over the nation.”

This tactic is useful, but takes space away from the importance of this position for its own sake. Moving forward, it is critical that we keep image in mind not as an ends but solely as a means for a more sustainable campus. Emphasizing image and new student recruitment has taken away from the necessary conversations about why we need this position and what a sustainable campus would truly entail.

If the passing of this proposal relies on the administration’s desire to capitalize on the current trendiness of being green, true environmental concern will still lack priority on campus. With image as a driving factor, perhaps the next trend that sweeps the nation with the potential to attract future Whitties will override the current sustainability push. Therefore, image cannot continue to be students’ selling point if what is actually desired is a more cohesive, organized, long-term sustainable college environment.

What matters is for Whitman to begin taking steps towards a more sustainable campus community. Other schools around the nation are carbon neutral or have goals of becoming carbon neutral, use biodiesel buses, provide first-year students with reusable shopping bags and are engaging in green action for the environment’s sake. Students at Whitman have the knowledge, excitement, energy and passion to employ even greater endeavors, but our limited time on campus makes it nearly impossible to achieve long-term sustainability goals. Therefore, it is time for the administration to begin to match the avidly passionate student interest in sustainability.

Sustainability is not about image, admissions or rankings but rather about working towards solutions to our global environmental crisis. It’s time for Whitman to stop standing back and watching as students work endlessly to create a greener campus. Four years is not enough time for a student with a full-time curriculum to establish a profound sustainable goal. Therefore, a staff position—argued for in terms of the need for increased campus sustainability—is vital to ensuring that sustainability is a priority to the administration, to the students and to the future of Whitman’s footprint.




Filed under: Opinion Opinion Highlight

Responses


Ari Frink Nov 24, 2012 9:03 AM

Well-written article, Danielle, and thank you for bringing this debate to the internet. Having served as sustainability coordinator at Whitman in ’11 and having spent this past year at the Claremont Colleges, of which Pomona (and I believe now Pitzer) now have a full-time staff position for sustainability, I think there are some critical arguments for and against having a full-time staff position on campus.

Though I supported the idea in the past, I’m no longer in favor of a staff position for sustainability. The strength of sustainability on campus has always come from students, and that is how it should be. At Pomona College, the sustainability coordinator saw her position as “giving students the skills and opportunities to succeed in areas like permaculture and bike-sharing”. I think that’s great, but success isn’t the only thing students should get out of college. I’d like to contrast that with Pitzer College, where gardening and bike-sharing are student-run initiatives.

At Pitzer, sustainable programs may not be as well-run, but they are immensely popular and well-known. The annual repaired bike giveaway felt like one of the first parties of the year, and introduced everyone to the friendly and laidback bike mechanics who run the shop, all of which are students. The failures that students had in running these initiatives did not set back the programs typically, but rather served as learning experiences.

I think Whitman needs and deserves more formalized and institutionalized sustainability. But I think the energy should always come first and foremost from the students. At Pomona, they had wonderfully-run sustainability programs, but the programs felt more like Phone-a-thon and less like the Organic Garden; a well-integrated, successful part of the system, but lacking the vitality and vigor that characterize student-led programs.

A staff position for sustainability would certainly contribute to our “image”, but in what way? I hope this is something that students still want to debate and discuss.


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