University to Launch $50,000 Green Fund for Sustainability Projects

The initiative is the latest in a push for investment in sustainability by a coalition of environmental groups on campus.


Oren Oppenheim

The main quadrangle during the fall.

By Laura Gersony

Starting in autumn 2020, the University will open a $50,000 pool of grant money known as the “Green Fund” for student-led research and projects to improve campus sustainability.

Creation of the Green Fund was spearheaded by the UChicago Environmental Alliance (UCEA), a coalition of environmental student organizations on campus that includes the Phoenix Sustainability Initiative, Environmental Research Group, Student Government’s Council on Campus Sustainability, student activist group Environmental Justice Task Force, and public policy think tank Paul Douglas Institute.

UCEA representatives first proposed the idea at an autumn 2019 meeting with the Board of Trustees, and secured funding through collaboration with Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen. The Green Fund will be included within the budget of the Department of Campus and Student Life, according to students working on the project.

Undergraduate and graduate students will be able to apply for funding by submitting their project proposals to a review board. The board will be composed of student, faculty, and University staff representatives, according to students involved.

Leaders of the UCEA told The Maroon that they modeled the fund after similar projects at peer institutions, such as Princeton’s High Meadows Foundation Sustainability Fund, which provides capital for projects that reduce the campus’s negative environmental impacts.

The announcement of the Green Fund comes just over a month after Student Government (SG) unanimously passed a resolution calling on the University to adopt more ambitious long-term sustainability goals, to make campus energy and consumption data transparent and easily accessible, and to expand the University’s current infrastructure, like the Office of Sustainability, to deal with climate and sustainability issues.

SG Class of 2022 Representative Dinesh Das Gupta, who was involved in the creation of the Green Fund, told The Maroon that the collaborative nature of sustainability projects on campus has made it difficult for students to obtain funding in the past.

“These [environmental projects] are collaborations between students, student groups, department faculty, and administrators, such that the funding mechanism is a little bit confusing,” Das Gupta said. “That question of who has responsibility is fragmented.”

Das Gupta said that the streamlined source of funding provided by the Green Fund will allow students to more easily pursue sustainability projects, as well as foster joint efforts among different parties on campus.

“It really helps encourage these student projects and collaboration between administration and faculty,” he said. “If you know that you’ve got this mechanism in place…you can get [a project] off the ground quicker.”

To second-year Terra Baer, the vice president of UCEA member organization Phoenix Sustainability Initiative, the establishment of a Green Fund is long overdue. While applying to colleges, Baer noticed that unlike other institutions, UChicago lacked a fund devoted to environmental projects—something she sought to change.

“The alumnus that I conversed with asked what I would contribute to the campus community, and I brought up the Green Fund as a primary goal of mine,” she said. “UChicago has a reputation of…having a lot of resources for students to put their ideas into action, and I saw that as missing in sustainability.”

Despite feeling optimistic about the Green Fund, however, Baer remains dissatisfied with the University’s investment in sustainability. She alluded to the University’s long-term carbon goals, which the recent SG resolution criticized as “not ambitious,” as compared with those of eight peer institutions who have committed to become carbon neutral by 2050 or earlier.

“I am very satisfied with the progress that’s been made with that project specifically…but overall, I’m still not satisfied with UChicago,” Baer said. “We’re, frankly, very behind our peer institutions environmentally, and there’s a lot that still needs to be done in terms of institutional commitment to carbon reduction.”

The University announced on Monday that it will be increasing its carbon emissions reduction goal from 20 percent of its baseline emissions by 2025 to 50 percent of its baseline emissions by 2030.

The Green Fund was one of many items proposed in UCEA’s fall 2019 report, which articulates a wide range of concerns with the University’s approach to sustainability, including a “lack of administrative support for actualizing environmentally-focused student research and projects” and an “unwillingness by University administration to release data to students, faculty, or the public.” The report also advocated for the Environmental Frontiers Initiative, a program offering students paid research positions to analyze campus sustainability data, which the University has since announced will begin during summer 2020.

Other proposals in UCEA’s report include increasing the personnel working in the University’s Office of Sustainability, which according to the SG resolution has only one full-time employee, and making University energy, water, and waste management data public and accessible for student research.

More information about the Green Fund is available on the University’s website.