Sustainability office needs more strength to lead UI

Imagine an elephant walking down a path. The elephant follows this path unless pushed off but will eventually move back to the path given enough time.

If we want to move the elephant to a place we want it to go, do we use all of our energy and time trying to persuade the elephant to move off its path? Of course, the answer is no: It is far easier to move the path itself than it is to move the elephant.

Moving an elephant is much like moving a campus toward sustainability. Unless the campus has a strong office of sustainability, the elephant will wander back to its unsustainable path. And despite how fervently students try to persuade the University to become more sustainable, they cannot push the elephant forever. The University of Illinois administration must empower our Office of Sustainability by giving it the responsibility, the leadership and especially the authority of creating a path toward a sustainable University of Illinois.

The campus already has an office of sustainability. We have the students to thank for it. In Fall 2007, student leaders drafted a proposal, met with countless administrators, organized a public forum to gain public support and brought the proposal to every college to get feedback.

The students knew what a difference a strong office of sustainability would make to their campus and to its environment. Not only would the campus have a central hub for all sustainability initiatives, but it would also enhance the public image of Illinois, bringing in research dollars and distinguished faculty and students. It would take the lead on following through on our commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050, organizing and implementing projects that reduce our footprint and creating a culture of sustainability through enhancing sustainability education.

But the Office of Sustainability is not strong. It has been disengaged and largely ineffective in its ability to take leadership of sustainable initiatives and curriculum development. But the problem is not with the office itself — instead it is with the mission it was given and the structure in which it was placed.

When the office was created, it unfortunately was placed in the Office of Public Engagement, despite consensus that it needed to answer directly to the chancellor. By answering directly to the chancellor, the Office of Sustainability would have the authority to oversee all sustainability aspects of the campus. It would be led by a vice chancellor, associate chancellor or assistant chancellor of sustainability.

This year, and after much urging from the students, the Office of Sustainability was finally moved to the Office of the Chancellor. However, the office has not been able to provide leadership of the sustainability initiatives on campus, largely because it has had interim directors for over a year that have had many jobs besides heading the office.

The administration is beginning the process of selecting a permanent head of the office, but it wants the leader to also be a part-time professor. But how can a professor be expected to oversee all of the sustainability initiatives on this campus of over 40,000 students while also teaching courses and doing research? The answer is that the individual could not do so effectively. The University must hire a full-time administrator whose sole responsibility is to manage this office, answering directly to the chancellor and having power to facilitate all sustainability proposals, actions and education.

Now imagine the University of Illinois with a strong office of sustainability. This is an office that engages with students instead of relying on students. This is an office that is responsible for reducing the University’s environmental impact by facilitating all sustainable initiatives on campus. This is an office that takes the University from lagging to leading universities across the United States in efforts to become more sustainable.

This is an office that moves the path where the elephant should go.

The University administration needs to show its students and the academic world that it is a leader in sustainability by giving the office real responsibilities and authority.

Until we see this level of leadership from our administrators, we students are going to be left pushing the elephant.

_Emily is a junior in LAS._