Earth Week brings green to gray campus

By Rhema Hokama

Mini-golf, worm composting, and vegan cuisine intersected in this year’s week-long celebration of the environment and sustainability on campus. Earth Week 2007, sponsored by the Green Campus Initiative (GCI), ran from April 16–22 and offered the University community a host of workshops, demonstrations, and lectures designed to increase environmental awareness on campus.

“I think everyone’s enthusiastic. There’s definitely an atmosphere of sustainability at this school ,where everyone is thinking about this,” said fourth-year Katherine Michonski, co-chair of GCI.

The campus-wide sustainability efforts included educating the University community about available recycling options. Cardboard recycling bins cropped up in dining halls and the Reynolds Club, encouraging students to recycle batteries and old cell phones.

The goal of Earth Week was to educate students and faculty about environmental issues, Michonski said, acknowledging that changing the University administration’s stance on sustainability was only a secondary objective.

“The point isn’t to influence the administration about sustainability. But it does show that people are interested,” she said.

Although the celebratory atmosphere of Earth Week was designed to foster awareness, Michonski and the Sustainability Council at the U of C devote the rest of the year to promoting infrastructural change at the administrative level. The council was formed in spring 2004 as an offshoot of GCI, and was incorporated into the Office of the Vice President two years later.

“The idea was to get staff, faculty, administrators, and of course, students, all in the same room and focus on contacting administration and systematically reducing environmental impact,” Michonski said.

“It was a novel idea at the University of Chicago. This kind of dialogue on sustainability didn’t exist before,” she said.

But three years after the council’s founding, Michonski said that the University administration has been hesitant to accept the council’s suggestions.

The council introduced its first set of proposals last winter, while the University was in the midst of transition between presidents. The administrative shuffling and bureaucracy contributed to the University’s unenthusiastic response, Michonski said.

Michonski said that Donald Reaves, the former chief financial officer who left the University this year for Winston-Salem State University, was unwilling to adopt the council’s proposals.

“I don’t think he really understood what we were asking for,” Michonski said.

Despite last year’s setbacks, Michonski has expressed optimism for a positive reception from the administration when the council releases its sustainability report at the end of next month.

“I think a year later, the climate’s become receptive,” she said.

The report will detail the University’s environmental friendliness in eight key areas.

“This information was never synthesized before,” Michonski said of the report’s findings.

The council spearheaded the sustainability report in part as a response to a February 2007 announcement by the Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI). The University of Chicago received a grade of D+ in sustainability, ranking significantly lower than peer institutions.

The SEI report did not disclose the rationale behind the University’s lackluster grade and therefore “wasn’t helpful in telling us what to do,” Michonski said.

Despite questions surrounding the SEI ranking, she said it served as a wake-up call for the University community. Michonski acknowledged the need to close the gap in sustainability between the University and similar institutions.

“We showed that other schools have surpassed us in sustainability. Harvard is a great example. It’s saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Initially, sustainability is an investment, but it saves a lot in the end,” she said.

Michonski said she hopes the council’s forthcoming sustainability report will illuminate the need for incorporating a sustainability coordinator into the University’s administration.

The council’s report will examine the University’s current standing on sustainability and seek out environmentally friendly alternatives, said Thomas Black, University registrar and council co-chair, in an e-mail interview.

Black added that this year, the council has not yet presented the University administration with new proposals. He called the council’s current efforts “comparatively modest” and cited the need to thoroughly examine the University’s options before spearheading new initiatives.

“At this point, we are focusing on creating greater awareness about sustainability,” Black said.

Although Michonski said that it remains unclear whether the University administration will accept the council’s future proposals concerning larger infrastructural changes, she emphasized the role individual student initiatives play in increasing campus sustainability.

“I think there’s room for a little of both,” she said, adding that “there’s definitely a role for everyone.”