A Student-led Approach to Campus Sustainability: Environmental Sustainability Report

University of Delaware

Date Posted: May 19, 2022
Submitted by: Thomas Benson
Content Type: Case Studies

Project Overview

The Environmental Sustainability Report (Fall 2021) was established using a bottom-up approach led by students and involved collaboration between multiple stakeholders, on- and off-campus. This Report was driven by a need for updating the University of Delaware’s sustainability practices and roadmap, as well as to lay the foundation for further efforts to encourage buy-in from senior leadership at the University. This Report reflects an enormous undertaking by myself in the leadership position that I occupied as a graduate student. Over the period of 10 months, I collaborated with fellow graduate students, undergraduate students, University administrators, faculty, local non-profits, the City of Newark, and Delaware state. Ultimately, the Report had critical positive knock-on effects and was a catalyst for sustainable change, such as: the establishment of an Executive Sustainability Plan; the formation of initial efforts of a new Climate Action Plan, a Transportation Master Plan, and a Bikeshare Report; the development of Green Hen Awards and Green Grants; website updates; Capstone projects; the submission of a grant proposal to Delaware state; and increased collaboration with the City of Newark and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

Background

The University of Delaware published a Climate Action Plan in 2009, following a commitment in 2008 to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050. In Spring 2020, the University earned an AASHE STARS Bronze rating. In Fall 2020, the University lost its Sustainability Manager as a result of COVID-19 financial cuts. Since then, the University has had zero staff members or administrators paid to engage in sustainability and it lacks an Office of Sustainability.

Thus, the impetus for the Sustainability Report was the need for a bold Sustainability Report that drew attention to opportunities that the University could seize. In my new leadership role as Chair of the Graduate Student Government’s Sustainability Committee in Fall 2020, I sought to take on the task of creating a Report that would help not only help fill the gap of inaction since the Climate Action Plan was published in 2009, but also provide recommendations for how the University could become a leader in sustainable change among higher education institutions.

I arranged a meeting with Newark City Council’s Planning Commission Chair (Willard F. Hurd, AIA) in October 2020. This gave the Sustainability Committee an opportunity to better understand the Council’s sustainability plans and how these would possibly impact the recommendations that we could suggest to the University. Following this session, I delegated tasks to 8 Sustainability Committee graduate members to write ‘mini-reports’ on issues that they were passionate about. These mini-reports were intended to be legible to laypeople and clearly lay out a specific problem, identify how other higher education institutions were performing, how the University of Delaware scored in the latest AASHE STARS for associated credits, and then provide actionable items that the University could use. These mini-reports covered a broad range of issues which can be found in the attached weblink.

In my leadership role, I authored the Report as a whole, edited and proof-read each mini-report, and included the graphics. The document was produced in MS Word and converted to PDF. I collaborated with 3 Student Government Association (undergraduate) members who were interested in sustainability, and the previous and current Graduate Student Government Presidents. This collaboration was part of an effort to acquire further student buy-in, generate awareness, and encourage engagement. As part of this, I proactively contacted different student groups on campus, including the Green Liaisons, Student Sustainability Alliance, the Student Climate Reality Project, and local non-profits, such as Bike Newark and The Newark Partnership, among others.

Goals

The Sustainability Report has several goals. Each mini-report – which covers a separate topic, such as lighting efficiency, pesticide usage, and others – outlines recommendations to influence the University of Delaware’s sustainable practices. The goals for each mini-report can be found in the attached weblink but, overall, general goals included:

*To achieve net zero emissions by 2030.

*Improve building efficiency and decarbonization.

*Collaborate more closely with local non-profit organizations, DNREC, and the City of Newark, especially in applying for grants.

*Adopt a system of systems approach to climate solutions, recognizing the intertwined nature of climate change, and economic and social injustice and inequities.

These goals were formulated by assessing the performance of AASHE STARS Platinum institutions, as well as using academic research and scientific data to inform goals in the mini-reports.

Implementation

Over the project’s lifetime, a range of different stakeholders were engaged. Primarily, in my role as Chair of the Graduate Student Government Sustainability Committee, I consistently met with interested stakeholders and students to maintain momentum and ensure progress was being made on the mini-reports that would feature in the Sustainability Report.

In February 2021, a near-completed draft of the Sustainability Report was given to the head of the Sustainability Council for their review. The Sustainability Council at the University of Delaware is a voluntary group made up of representatives from faculty, grounds and facilities, and the Provost’s Office, among others. Shortly thereafter, the co-Chairs of the Sustainability Council (faculty) responded with praise, notifying me that this is something they were hoping to produce in the next few years, and that we – the Sustainability Committee – had saved them a lot of time and energy by creating this Report. In April and Summer, I continued to refine the Report to ensure it was at its best before providing the final copy to the Sustainability Council, which then used it to lay the foundation for the critical Executive Sustainability Plan that was developed in early Spring 2022. This Sustainability Plan is attached via weblink.

Timeline

I propositioned the Graduate Student Government Sustainability Committee with the idea of a Sustainability Report in October 2020, where I achieved general consensus that this was the direction for the committee to take. From start to finish, except Summer 2021, there were monthly meetings that I chaired with agendas and meeting minutes. The general timeline thereafter is as follows:

*October 2020 to April 2021: Diverse stakeholder engagement took place; mini-reports were produced, proof-read, and refined.

*February 2021: First working draft is provided to the Sustainability Council for review.

*March 2021: Sustainability Council praise given, with interest expressed in developing an Executive Sustainability Plan with my support.

*April 2021: Meeting with the University of Delaware Anti-Racism Initiative (UNDARI) group and the Chair of the City of Newark’s Conservation Advisory Commission and Green Building Council to further refine the Sustainability Report, generate awareness, and acquire community buy-in and credibility.

*Summer 2021: Final revisions made (e.g. graphics, troubleshooting).

*September 2021: Publication of the Sustainability Report.

Throughout this period, I also engaged with Delaware’s Environmental Program Manager, the Chair of the American Planning Association’s Sustainable Communities Division, the Green Building Council, and the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization. All of this was done in addition to being enrolled in classes full-time, completing my comprehensive exams (Spring 2021), and presenting my dissertation prospectus (Spring 2021) and defending the prospectus (September 2021). In October 2021, I presented on the Sustainability Report at the AASHE GCSHE and highlighted how students and student engagement should be perceived as assets in sustainability coordination and planning for higher education institutions.

Financing

There was no financing for any of this project. The entirety of the Sustainability Report is a reflection of the diligence and passion of those who were involved, especially the students and myself. This draws attention to the replicability of this Report. It demonstrates that students can be an asset to higher education institutions in improving their sustainability practices. Where these institutions struggle or fall short, students can seize an opportunity to build a movement or, at the very least, support administrators in their efforts to improve these institutions by filling in the gaps (e.g. lack of student, low budget, engagement and outreach, communications, research). Hopefully, this Report can serve as a template for other students and empower them.

Results

This innovative, student-led approach to sustainability coordination and planning for a higher education institution resulted in a multitude of results since its publication in Fall 2021. These results include:

• A new Bikeshare Subcommittee (Fall 2021). • The Establishment of an Executive Sustainability Plan (Spring 2022). • A new Climate Action Plan Subcommittee (March 2022). • A new Transportation Master Plan Subcommittee (March 2022). • Updates to the Sustainability Council website (Spring 2022). • Capstone Projects in cycling and AASHE STARS data collection (Spring 2022). • DNREC EV Grant Proposal submission, co-signed by the City of Newark (April 2022). • Increased collaboration with DNREC, the City of Newark, and other stakeholders (2021-present). • The Graduate Student Government passing 12 legislative items associated with the recommendations in the Sustainability Report (2021-2022). • AASHE STARS data collection (Spring 2022). • The creation of a Summer 2022 Fellowship to support AASHE STARS data collection (Spring 2022). • The recognition and celebration of faculty, staff, and student sustainability champions through the formation of the Green Hen Awards (Spring 2021). • Raised $1,405 for the University’s Green Grants program, which funds on-campus sustainability projects (April 2021).

Across all of these, I have played a leading role, such as Chair of the Bikeshare Subcommittee, participation across the other Subcommittees, contributing to the Executive Sustainability Plan (heavily informed by the Sustainability Report), promoting student success by mentoring and leading undergraduate students through Lerner Capstone projects, actively collecting data for AASHE STARS and inviting students to participate, updating the Sustainability Council website, and collaborating with Ameresco to piece together a proposal for the DNREC EV grant (level 3 DC fast-charging stations).

Lessons Learned

Both undergraduate and graduate students are assets to sustainability coordination and planning on campus. They can contribute to research, communications, engagement, data collection and analysis, and outreach, among other things. Higher education institutions ought to seize this capacity that often, from the student perspective, feels underutilized and sometimes ignored. Students should be actively invited to participate in sustainability coordination and planning to amplify the voices of students and contribute meaningfully to institutional practices and changes, as well as to strengthen bonds across the institution and foster trust.

Strong leadership requires a recognition that teamwork is essential and not everything can be completed independently. By recognizing the skills and talents of others, coordination and planning can become more efficient and produce higher quality reports, plans, visions, strategies, and initiatives. The talents of alumni, students, and local residents should not be overlooked. With the effects of climate change disproportionately impacting marginalized communities, it is more important than ever for higher education institutions to recognize the urgency for just climate action and the need for a diverse, equitable, and inclusive table. As part of this, clear communication, and transparency and accountability in transparency is critical to maintaining trust between stakeholders.


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