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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Students hope for more univ. action on environment

Published: October 23, 2014
Section: Front Page, News

An Environmental and Service Reflection lunch was held in room 313 of the SCC on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 22 to commemorate past service and impact, as well as to discuss new ideas for environmental service and changes on the Brandeis campus.

The lunch started off with a short talk given by Professor of Practice and Associate Director of the Environmental Studies Program Laura Goldman on the background and history of sustainability at Brandeis. When she first arrived 15 years ago, there was no environmental program at all, but environmental awareness has been spreading around campus in recent years.

When a person first learns about climate change, Goldman says, they can do one of two things.

“You can try and tackle these issues, or you can go and climb underneath a rock,” she said, and commended the assembled students and faculty for choosing the first choice, or at least coming to learn more about it. Climate change is a daunting issue, but Goldman informed the audience that there is still a part for everyone to play.

The environmental trend hadn’t picked up at Brandeis until recently. A major breakthrough for Brandeis, at least on paper, was a petition in 2007, with 1,500 signatures that convinced former University President Jehuda Reinharz to sign the National President’s Climate Commitment in that same year. The commitment declared that Brandeis would reach climate neutrality by 2050, and although it was a well-received public declaration of good intentions, it was no more binding than that. In 2008, Janna Cohen-Rosenthal ’03 was hired as Brandeis’ first Sustainability Coordinator. She helped grow a number of useful programs, including a plan that would reduce the university’s carbon emissions by 15 percent by 2015.

However, it is unlikely that this goal will be met, and Goldman blames this on a number of different factors. Brandeis has increased its student population by about 100 students each year for the past four years, and this has translated into increased carbon emissions as more facilities are used to accommodate them. Additionally, an increase in the square footage of buildings and the operations and maintenance that go into that space further increased carbon emissions. Finally, and rather ironically, the weather has not been cooperative. Harsh winters of late have burdened carbon emissions, as buildings generate more heat to keep occupants warm.

Brandeis has had some positives in its sustainability battle. There have been large infrastructure investments in heating and water fixtures, making them more efficient in reducing operational waste. The Brandeis Sustainability Fund provides grants, support and advice for any green projects undergraduates want to pursue. Last year, they provided funding for hydration stations, which helped reduce the waste from plastic water bottles. The fund also provided bike racks to incentivize greener transportation.

Elizabeth Villano ’16 pointed out that an indicator of how far sustainability needs to go at Brandeis was in front of every student at the reflection lunch.

“It’s frustrating that we’re sitting here talking about the environment, but we’re eating off paper plates,” she said.

As one of the planners of the lunch, Villano had tried to organize an arrangement with Sodexo to borrow plates and silverware from the dining halls. However, facing what Sodexo viewed as a bizarre request, a solution was not able to be found in time. The bid was an attempt to make the lunch, which revolved around environmental conservation and service, as waste-free as possible. A vegan meal was even served as the most environmentally, food-friendly option. But as demonstrated by the plates and utensils, being sustainable is just not that easy.

Goldman stressed the importance of student involvement in Brandeis’ history of sustainability. As the Climate Commitment petition testifies, each of Brandeis’ new sustainability initiatives have been student driven, a testament to the passion and positive attitude of Brandeisians. Conversely, she points out that this paints a rather poor picture of the administration. Students have had to be behind sustainability on campus, and without clear top-down leadership, Brandeis has suffered for it.

Universities, companies and governments who have strong leaders that push for sustainable solutions are more successful than those without. Brandeis is taking steps to reconcile this: Goldman is very excited about the appointment of Jim Gray, the new vice president for operations, as he has repeatedly stressed how important Brandeis’ environmental impact is to him.

Other topics that attendees felt were both interesting and feasible were touched upon. These included roof gardens to help regulate buildings’ heating and cooling, parking lot solar panels to alter the sunlight from heating cars to help power campus and larger scale behavioral change.

Max Parish ’16 believes that administrative leadership will eventually have to step in and solve the bigger problems, but that in the meantime student activism can still make a big difference.

“Initiatives get passed most effectively when communicated from the top down, but because businesses like Sodexo need to respond to demand, there is room for activity from the bottom up to make change,” said Parish. “If enough people express their feelings on the environment that can engender effective change.”

Ian Christie ’16, who helped organize the event, ended the meeting by thanking everyone for coming and sharing ideas because, as he emphasized, the spread of ideas is an important step for change.