Failing to pave the way for sustainability

Renovations suggest admin priorities are misplaced.

By Eliana Pfeffer

As the quarter speeds up—as midterms approach and first papers begin to come back with comments and grades—my favorite late-night activity is to walk around the quads with friends. Even when it starts to get cold and the night air is biting instead of refreshing, it’s always worth the time to bundle up to see the University campus all dark, quiet, and serene. It almost makes you forget about that Civ paper due the next day.

During a few of these evening walks last year, I noticed, quite disconcertingly, that the lights in the Regenstein Library were always on. This struck me as absurd, considering that no one but cleaning staff are allowed in the upper levels of the building at night, and it couldn’t possibly take the staff members too much time or effort to simply flick all the light switches to a lovely, energy-conserving “off” position when their work is over. Later, in winter quarter, I had a hard time mustering any enthusiasm about the “Battle of the Bulbs” (the annual campaign to reduce energy waste in the dorms) when I thought of the Reg, beautifully lit up and, past 1:00 a.m., just as beautifully empty as the main quadrangles.

The scene reminded me of how Benito Mussolini used to leave a candle burning in his empty office at night so that people would think—erroneously, of course—that he was working 24/7. University of Chicago students already spend enough time in the library—there is no need to falsify appearances.

Ilsa Flanagan, director of sustainability at the University, listed an incredible number of energy issues I’d never considered when I asked her about the issue recently: the number of science labs on campus using old, energy-gulping fume hood technology; the amount of heat that escapes from buildings in the winter when the doors are opened; or the computers littered around campus that don’t efficiently move into standby mode when not in use. During our e-mail correspondence, I wondered suspiciously whether the money used to install cobblestones in the quads could have been used to fund energy-efficient renovations instead, and thus invest in a money-saving future for the University in lieu of a face-lift. I remembered all those e-mails that were sent last year about impending budget cuts, the most recent of which arrived in my inbox this October: “Last year…we responded to the economic crisis by making significant budget reductions,” wrote University President Robert Zimmer. “However, for many academic areas, it is only with the beginning of this academic year that some of these cutbacks will have a visible effect.”

Academic cutbacks? But the area in front of the Regenstein was just renovated, wasn’t it? I couldn’t help but shrug my shoulders in astonishment, wondering how the money around this university moved and who would prefer to direct money toward beautifying a campus when it’s the academics that make the U of C as unique and important as it is. At least the Office of Sustainability is working toward a more efficiently run campus.

But the University’s major sustainability efforts are largely funded from the outside. It was a $2.5 million gift last spring from Jim and Paula Crown—not a careful budget allocation by the University—that kicked off a five-year program to make sweeping improvements to energy efficiency across campus. The building weatherization, lighting upgrades, and solar photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal technology funded by this program are expected to yield large dividends for the University as it cuts back on wasteful and antiquated practices.

To be sure, the Crowns’ gift is impressive, especially during this economic recession, and it is an insightful investment in energy-saving resources. But it’s not something that necessarily comforted me while reading e-mails from President Zimmer and wondering what kind of impact these “cutbacks” were going to have on my education. Still, knowing that the sustainability upgrades would eventually have a positive impact on the University’s financial situation, which may eventually increase the budgets for academic departments, was much more reassuring than peering at the new cobblestone path from my room in Snell House and wondering where else that money could have gone.

Besides, attempting to beautify a campus that is covered in ice and snow for so much of the year, and where the “life of the mind” is prized above all, seems equally as shallow as burning a candle all night in an empty room. I’m sure numerous departments—or even the Office of Sustainability—would have preferred the renovations funds instead.

­­Eliana Pfeffer is a second-year in the College.