Sustainability—Splurging with Your Tax Dollars

Within days of the GOP sweep that marked the Nov. 2 election, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Buildings and Grounds” blog featured an entry whose headline wondered: “What Future for College Sustainability Programs?” Such worrying might seem strange because in fact “sustainability”—the green mania that has inspired institutions of higher learning across the country to add environmental coordinators to their administrative staffs, hold dorm contests for who can take the shortest shower, and switch to compostable knives and forks in the dining halls—is a bigger phenomenon than ever. In November alone, the very month of the election, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education added 21 new members to its roster of hundreds of institutions ranging from Harvard to the remotest of community colleges.
What all the worrying is about, of course, isn’t the future of sustainability as a campus fad. It’s the future of sustainability as a fountainhead of government dollars to pay for the solar panels and “green living” residential experiments that many college administrators would like to see adorning their ivy halls. Also dollars to pay for the “green jobs” training programs at community colleges that prepare workers for the wind-farm industry, itself the object of massive government subsidies. A Chronicle blogger, Xarissa Holdaway, managing editor of the National Wildlife Foundation’s ClimateEdu newsletter, lamented that “[a]lmost all the Republican candidates [voted into Congress on Nov. 2] were indifferent or hostile to climate-change science.” She added, “For colleges, the shift may mean a halt to, or a least a slowing of, sustainability projects, particularly those paid for by state and federal funds.”
What Holdaway and others seem to fear most is a Republican-led cutoff of appropriations under the Higher Education Sustainability Act (HESA), a 2008 law that authorizes $50 million in federal grants to help out colleges with such endeavors as “green building,” “green purchasing, transportation, and related initiatives,” establishing “sustainability literacy as a requirement for degree programs,” and integrating “sustainability in all programs of instruction.” Higher-education associations are also eligible for federal in order to do such things as conducting “faculty and administrator trainings” and creating “analytical tools to assess institutional progress.” More than 220 colleges, universities, higher-education associations, NGOs, and corporations pushed hard for the law to pass.

In case you are wondering why your tax dollars should be paying for, say, locavore cuisine at Yale or “training sessions” in Honolulu for already nicely compensated campus sustainability coordinators, so, apparently, have many of even the most dyed-in-the-wool Democrats who got the law passed two years ago. Actual funding for HESA projects via congressional appropriations has not been anywhere near the authorized $50 million. For fiscal 2010, for example, the Education Department’s University Sustainability Program was able to dole out a mere $3.12 million in grants to four institutions. The grants, the first to be made under HESA, were as follows (in rounded numbers):
— $870,000 to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (a major supporter of HESA) for a project titled “Mobilizing Disciplinary Societies on Behalf of Our Students…and Our Planet.”
— $628,000 to Michigan State University for a project titled “Competency Assessment of Liberal Learning Goals through Institutional Experiential Education for Global Sustainability.”
— $750,000 to Purdue’s Calumet campus for a project titled “Mixed Reality Simulators for Wind Energy Education.”
— $873,000 to the University of Iowa for a project titled “Campus Sustainability Living-Learning Community.”
The Iowa project involves encouraging students to sit next to windows so as to study by natural daylight and to bring their own reusable coffee mugs to the dining hall. The students, who share a residence hall, also take a required “Introduction to Sustainability” course “intended for students who plan to be agents of change for sustainability in whatever profession they choose.” There is also a mix of mandatory and optional offerings that include working in the student garden, obtaining a “Sustainability Certificate,” and planning sustainability events on campus.
It’s not surprising, then, that an even harder-headed incoming Congress might wonder why Iowa should get nearly $1 million in taxpayer dollars to remind students to unplug their computers at night, or what on earth “institutional experiential education for global sustainability” might be, much less why Michigan State needs more than $600,000 to “assess” it. The green-jobs-training program, administered through the Labor Department, seems even more questionable. It involves some $500 million allotted in President Obama’s fiscal stimulus bill of 2009, part of some $75 billion directed toward higher education in general. The Labor Department is now trying to get an additional $85 million in green-jobs money for fiscal 2011.
It is obvious that green-jobs training has done little, if anything, to reduce national unemployment, which continues to hover at nearly 10 percent nearly two years into the life of Obama’s stimulus program. Government education grants (including $1.7 million from the Labor Department to Columbia Gorge Community College in 2009) have created a burgeoning wind-energy job market in Oregon and southern Washington—but not so much for wind-farm technicians as for college teachers and administrators to create programs to train them. Columbia Gorge is one of several colleges in the area to set up certificate and associate-degree programs in wind-turbine management, and it claims that it can’t train technicians fast enough to meet employer demand.
Nonetheless, a March 8 story in the Seattle Times reported that only 7 or so out of the 18 students slated to receive associate degrees in Columbia Gorge’s June graduating class had thus far been offered jobs in the wind industry (Columbia Gorge enrolls another 80 students annually in its one-year certificate program, and those may fare better on the job market). Furthermore, despite the vaunted success of their programs, administrators at Columbia Gorge and elsewhere are still after government handouts, not only directly to colleges but to the wind industry itself in order to keep the jobs coming, as Holdaway reported in her Chronicle post. Wind energy costs nearly twice as much to generate as coal-fired energy, according to 2004 numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Service, and only tax breaks, subsidies, and state renewable-energy quotas have kept the noisy, bird-destroying wind farms viable. The industry and the colleges that train its workers are now looking to the federal government for a “long-term policy on energy and climate,” according to Holdaway’s report of her interview with Columbia Gorge’s Dan Spatz.
It’s not surprising then, that the new Congress, with its solid GOP presence, may indeed have second thoughts about increasing federal subsidies for feel-good campus green projects or for training workers for an industry that does the reverse of contributing to the economy. The “future” of “college sustainability” programs may be grim, and rightly so.


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