This article is part of the Review’s Student Senate column. In an effort to increase communication and transparency, student senators will provide personal perspectives on recent events on campus and in the community.
During the week preceding spring break, the Academic and Administrative Program Review released findings from its yearlong effort to document and propose solutions to Oberlin’s current financial predicament. Integral to that assessment was evaluating the College’s institutional sustainability and recognizing that Oberlin must improve both environmentally and financially in order to make its continued success possible. In their report from March 29, AAPR members wrote that their goal “is to help Oberlin fulfill its mission in a new way, translating its core values and distinctive strengths in a way that is most relevant and sustainable for future generations.”
We live in an era when record-breaking temperatures are the norm, seasonal forest fires run rampant, and the Midwestern plains are covered by unprecedented flooding. The recognition of environmental health is a crucial element of Oberlin’s commitment to our shared future. AAPR presents a unique opportunity for students and the greater Oberlin community to reshape and actualize that institutional commitment while acknowledging and improving upon existing efforts. The Office of Environmental Sustainability, the Committee on Environmental Sustainability, campus green groups, and the Board of Trustees’ Sustainable Infrastructure Planning Committee are already pursuing diverse initiatives, supported by the work of Student Senate’s own sustainability liaisons.
Many of these groups have dedicated themselves first and foremost to realizing our institutional commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2025. Past successes mean this goal is already over halfway realized. The next major step forward will require addressing our outdated heating system, Oberlin’s largest source of carbon emissions. Student Senate, OES, and the Board of Trustees are tackling this problem and in the next few years hope to convert to a renewably-powered hot water heating system.
CES and OES have also led in the educational realm, working to further integrate sustainability into Oberlin’s curriculum. From courses in the Conservatory to those in the Neuroscience department, professors and staff have successfully made our environmental values present in the classroom. As AAPR considers improvements to campus facilities, it should choose to boost OES’ past successes by relocating their physical space in a more central spot. This would help diminish the costs of a sprawling campus, allow OES and students to collaborate more effectively, and elevate the status of campus sustainability.
From the student side, green groups across campus continue to organize bold actions, as exemplified by the Sunrise Movement’s demand for political support of the Green New Deal. Students for Energy Justice and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby continue to advocate for community and legislative change on environmental issues, while the Resource Conservation Team and Green Edge Fund help fund and facilitate local green initiatives. As sustainability liaisons on Student Senate, we continue to coordinate with campus and community constituencies while supporting and publicizing a diverse agenda of projects and advocating for long-term energy conservation measures.
Oberlin will likely undergo major changes in the coming years as it seeks to adapt to the changing climate of the national collegiate landscape. We must also adapt to the realities of global climate change. As bold environmental policies like Middlebury College’s “Energy2028” become standard in many universities across the U.S., Oberlin must set the standard for green institutions. Data from Oberlin’s Office of Institutional Research shows that 70 percent of students who arrived in the fall of 2018 felt that “Oberlin’s commitment to the environment” was important in their decision to attend, and 90 percent felt climate change was an immediate challenge.
In order to improve retention and access, Oberlin should capitalize on its existing reputation as a leader in climate action, an often undersold but important point of attraction for prospective students. OES surveys reveal that 83 percent of 2018 first-years had a high interest in sustainability, but 40 percent said their perception of how much the College actually cares about these issues had decreased since they arrived. The evidence is clear: A reinvigorated campus-wide commitment to sustainability is sorely needed.
As AAPR prompts a dialogue about Oberlin’s future, it is critical that we acknowledge the need to broaden our definition of sustainability and apply it as a foremost principle in every decision. Planning for the future of Oberlin means contemplating our ability to contribute to the world for generations to come. To thrive, we must exist in a manner that is environmentally sound, socially just, and economically viable — in other words, sustainable.