Incoming College Dean Melina Hale Joins Student Groups in Sustainability Symposium

The symposium was Hale’s first student-facing event since her appointment as Dean of the College.


By Katherine Weaver

Several UChicago student sustainability groups hosted a Sustainability Symposium on May 17, which featured a conversation with incoming Dean of the College Melina Hale and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization (CEGU) Sabina Shaikh. Provost Katherine Baicker, Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen, and Vice President for Civic Engagement Christian Mitchell were in attendance and spoke with student organizers before the conversation.

The symposium, which was Hale’s first student-facing event since her appointment as the next Dean of the College in April, was organized by the Phoenix Sustainability Initiative (PSI) and the Environmental Research Group and funded by the Undergraduate Student Government’s (USG) Committee on Campus Sustainability. Students from all of these groups, along with Green Fund grant recipients and members of the reSTORE thrift shop and the UChicago Food Recovery Network, presented their projects. The event also featured the newly-established Energy and Climate Club, an RSO sponsored by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).

Georgia Wluka, a second-year project leader for the Public Engagement Group of PSI and one of the event’s organizers, spoke on the importance of the event for bringing together sustainability initiatives on campus. “In the past, different environmental groups and initiatives have been a bit siloed on campus. I think that there’s a lot more of an intentional effort happening at the moment to bring the environmental community together,” Wluka said.

The symposium follows a similar event held in December 2021, where the Committee on Campus Sustainability (CCS) and USG hosted a sustainability town hall in conjunction with several other student organizations. Much like the symposium, the town hall featured a poster presentation, but instead of a conversation, students participated in a Q&A panel session with President Paul Alivisatos, Senior Director of Energy Services Adam D’Ambrosio, and then–Vice Provost Melina Hale.

“President Alivisatos at the time said that he really enjoyed the event and wanted to see it happen again,” said host and Committee on Campus Sustainability Chair Chloe Brettmann A.B. ’23. “[We wanted] to hold another event like that where we could give students a chance to connect with administrators to share their work on campus sustainability and to ask questions and have their voices and concerns heard.”

Following the poster session, attendees gathered for the conversation with Hale and Shaikh. During her introduction, Hale recapped her administrative experience at the Office of the Provost, where she works as the “point person on environmental research and sustainability.” Hale and Shaikh also work together as advisors for UChicago ECo, a website created to consolidate the myriad sustainability and environmental efforts across campus.

“At that point, we were looking around campus and seeing that there are all these wonderful student groups, student government was very interested in sustainability, a lot of faculty and staff care deeply,” Hale said. “[We] thought that maybe the most impactful thing we could do, rather than start something new, was to just provide a foundation and be a support and a champion for all of those things going on.”

The panelists discussed how the University of Chicago compares to other major research universities on sustainability. “I would say that over the past couple of years, what we’ve been most successful at was becoming part of either regional, national, or international impact networks related to sustainability,” Hale said.

“Some of us have been pushing to be a part of the Higher Education Network’s sustainability and Higher Education Network for, I think it’s been eight years now, and we finally got the go ahead from administration and are putting together our data now. So, pretty soon, UChicago data widely across the different things you do related to sustainability, including curriculum, is going to be available,” Hale continued. “I think one of the places we’re actually a bit ahead of the curve…is pushing to use our own data and really dig into it and not do projects where, when you actually look at it, you’re creating more waste than you’re saving.

As Hale prepares to step into the role of Dean of the College on July 1, she is putting emphasis on listening to student concerns and learning as much as she can about the issues facing the undergraduate community today. For the symposium, she particularly wanted to focus on how environmental issues and sustainability factor into the curriculum, and what changes students want to see.

After the event, The Maroon spoke with Hale and Shaikh on their impressions of the symposium. “I loved the questions in the comments of students. It was just fantastic to hear the diverse perspectives coming from so many different quarters of our undergraduate community,” Hale said. “There were so many different organizations, each with a slightly different focus. And it’s just amazing.”

Shaikh particularly enjoyed the conversation format of the symposium. “We’re usually in a position where students are asking us questions.” Shaikh said, “Just hearing comments and experiences and ideas from students, I think, was a very productive way to do it.”

“I think it’s really good that people got a chance to be introduced to her and to see her passion for students and her willingness to chat with students and her willingness to advocate for students,” said Brettmann. “Sustainability at UChicago has a new advocate.”

Hale was enthusiastic about this being her informal debut to the student body. “My favorite thing is to get out and talk to students, so I’ve been to a dorm, and I talked to student leaders of student government coming in next year, and I’ve gone to classes and talked to students. Being out here in conversation is really just a fantastic opportunity for me, so I was just so thrilled to be invited.”

Posters from the event can be viewed below.