Environmental activists meet administration on Fairfield Way

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This story was edited and updated, after initial publication, on Tuesday to more accurately reflect the perspective of the university administration.

Dozens of student activists, en route to demanding sustainable action and environmental justice at the University of Connecticut, unexpectedly crossed paths Interim President Andrew Agwunobi on Friday afternoon. 

Before marching down Fairfield Way toward the office of the president, students rallied on the lawn of Student Union Mall to shout chants, make speeches and parade signs. Erik Mihok, a seventh-semester engineering student and Vice President of the UConn Outing Club, who gathered with other students to hear speeches about sustainability at UConn, said there was a crowd of at least 50 people. 

Musa Hussain, fifth-semester political science and sociology student and Vice President of UConn Fridays for Future, said multiple student-led organizations helped put on the event. He said EcoHusky, UConn Collaborative Organizing, UConn Unchain and Fridays for Future each contributed in their own unique way. 

Hussain remarked that EcoHusky, for example, has a handful of members who are artists, so they made signs for the rally the night before. 

Organizers addressed numerous issues, including environmental racism and discrimination at UConn, capitalism and global colonialism, divestment from fossil fuel industries and administrative transparency. 

In a speech, B Diaz, a seventh-semester political science student and president of UCCO, said, “It’s a shame that UConn relies solely on the efforts of student activists,” and that the university cannot “protect its pack” from environmental injustices without taking sustainable action steps. 

“I am tired. I am burned out, and I am not the only one,” Diaz said. “I can’t continue this fight without UConn’s help. Students need UConn’s help to do better and to build a sustainable future.” 

“Where were you, uconn? Why didn’t you protect me, as I am part of your so-called pack?”

Khadija Shaikh, Third-semester environmental studies student

Khadija Shaikh, a third-semester environmental studies student and secretary of EcoHusky, echoed Diaz’s calls for the university to support its student activists. 

“Where were you, UConn? Why didn’t you protect me, as I am part of your so-called pack?” Shaikh said, after exposing the discrimination she faced in recent months as an intern at the UConn Office of Sustainability. 

Shaikh said she doesn’t believe UConn’s claims to be “a community that values the contributions of all their members” and their distinct backgrounds. 

“Even if we are knocked down, we must stand back up, or crawl! And demand this university, which prides itself in protecting its pack, to center our voices that are coded with radical love and intersectional environmentalism — so that by uplifting our voices do they stand a chance to save themselves from Mother Earth’s wrath.” 

According to a Tuesday email from university spokesperson Stephanie Reitz, the previous head of the Office of Sustainability recently retired, and the university is searching for a new director who will be a “key leader” in handling environmental issues at UConn.

Nell Srinath, a third-semester political science student and president of UConn Unchained, came to the podium to point the fingers that “ought to be pointed” at UConn for its role in the climate crisis. 

“There is a special kind of energy in this crowd. It is an energy that feels small now, but if harnessed correctly can be used to shake the institutions that are responsible for climate change to their core,” Srinath said. That energy will “grasp our current political and economic system by the roots, and plant something better rooted in equity, reparations and mutual love for one another,” Srinath said. 

“A better world is possible. Are you going to help make that world uconn?”

Nell Srinath, Third-semester political science student

According to Srinath, this energy is called “global solidarity,” and it is the most important tool students have to eliminate the fundamental causes of climate change, both at UConn and globally. 

“A better world is possible. Are you going to help make that world UConn?” Srinath asked students. 

Srinath charged the university with supporting “war industry companies,” pointing at UConn Foundation Board of Directors member Steven M. Greenspan, who also serves as the vice president and chief litigation officer at Raytheon Technologies. 

According to Srinath, the United States military is the heaviest carbon-emitting institution in the world, exempt from national commitments made at international conferences like COP26. 

“If we are to become a sustainable school, we have to cut ties with industries of death and destabilization. There is nothing sustainable about imperialism,” Srinath said. 

Caitlin Dadona, a seventh-semester environmental science student and president of EcoHusky, and Michio Agresta, seventh-semester natural resources student and president of Fridays for Future, called out the university for falsely claiming to be a transparent and sustainable institution. 

Dadona explained how, despite recommendations made by the President’s Working Group on Sustainability and the Environment in 2021 being referred to not as optional improvements to be made at UConn but instead as emergency response guidelines, the report was removed from the president’s webpage and buried by the Office of Sustainability. 

Additionally, Dadona accused the university of having no clear plans to get off fossil fuels by its goal of 2040. Though UConn’s reliance on energy from natural gas helped the university to win a spot on the Sierra Club’s list of the top 10 “cool schools,” this effort is not good enough, Dadona said. 

Agresta cited Interim President Agwunobi’s support of a resolution passed by the Undergraduate Student Government earlier this Fall declaring racism to be a public health crisis and said if the university is going to put power to those words, then it needs to take sustainability more seriously. 

“If [administrators] truly believe that racism is a public health crisis then they should take action on that, and divest from fossil fuels,” Agresta said. 

When students unexpectedly met the interim president on Fairfield Way with these issues in mind, they pressed him for answers and better action. 

Agwunobi announced that he met with the consultant who helped the PWGSE craft its report, and asked members of the university administration to help reconstitute the group.

There are many actions from the report that can be expected almost immediately, Agwunobi said, like converting the university transportation fleet to all electric vehicles. But, there are some things that require a lot more work “from all of this together.” 

“Definitely I think it’s important that we start working on [the report], and I commend all of you for talking about it and rallying about it. It’s important,” Agwunobi said. 

Agwunobi struggled to provide the student activists with all the answers they were looking for because he said it’s going to take “a little bit of time” for him to “get up to speed on everything.” 

“It’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality.”

Interim President Dr. Andrew Agwunobi

“It’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality,” Agwunobi said. 

Before leaving, Agwunobi asked the group if he could take a picture with them, to which multiple people in the crowd responded with “No, not until you take action.” 

B Diaz said that Agwunobi “didn’t seem like he was committed to doing better,” and found his request for a photo with students to be “performative, at its best.” Diaz spoke with Agwunobi and said they never saw him try to get any of the students’ names or contact information. 

“I want it to be known that this wasn’t a photo-op, and for him to do that was disrespectful to our organizing efforts,” Diaz said. 

According to an email from Reitz, Agwunobi was willing and happy to speak with the students.

Diaz said Agwunobi now has no choice but to address the issues brought to him by the students, such as the Office of Sustainability’s hiring of only eight students of color over the last 20 years. 

Ultimately, Agwunobi didn’t offer any substantial information, Agresta said. He said Agwunobi mainly talked “in circles about the same thing in different ways.” 

“I think he definitely felt that pressure of he didn’t really know how to answer to a lot of this stuff, so ideally, hopefully, now he’s going to go back and say ‘okay if these kids are going to be continuously coming out then I better know my shit, and I better know how to respond to them,’” Agresta said. 

Benjamin Albee, a fifth-semester environmental studies and political science student, said the rally was “productive in making [Agwunobi] scared of us.” 

In a statement shared by Reitz on Tuesday, Agwunobi called the climate crisis “one of the greatest challenges facing the world,” and said that there is “a clear consensus that efforts to address it by many nations continue to fall far short of what is necessary to avert catastrophe.”

“I’m proud of the activism of our students on this issue and sustainability generally, and wish that the entire nation and world were as passionate as they are regarding these issues,” Agwunobi said. “I’m equally proud of the research and scholarship of our faculty across our campuses with respect to understanding and addressing climate change and fostering sustainability.”

Retiz provided a link to where students can find the PWGSE’s report on the president’s webpage.

According to Agwunobi, it’s an “excellent” and “comprehensive” report that includes specific goals and benchmarks for moving UConn toward becoming a zero-carbon campus, and has been shared with the Board of Trustees.

“The challenge before us now as a university is mapping out our approach to implementing many of its recommendations. That is a methodical process that will take place over a period of years. It is an effort I will lead and champion as interim president, and I will be forming an advisory group of faculty, students, and staff to help guide the process,” Agwunobi said.

Reitz also provided a statement made by the UConn foundation on its “long standing” dedication to “issues regarding environmental sustainability and its impact on economic growth.”

According to the UConn Foundation, it has only one direct investment in fossil fuels that account for less than a percent of its investments.

The UConn Foundation said it hasn’t made any new investments in fossil fuels since 2013, and expects to have zero investment in the next four years. The UConn Foundation works with StepStone group and investment management corporation BlackRock, “a leader in the field of sustainable investing,” to allocate investments in fields such as renewable energy generation and environmental cleanup solutions.

After the rally, Agresta shared that the UConn Foundation had previously sent him an “ominous” email, addressing him by the wrong name, “claiming that they had divested from fossil fuels back in 2008, and that they want to speak with me about it.”

Agresta said he doesn’t plan to respond to the UConn Foundation until he discusses the email with other students.

After the activists’ encounter with Agwunobi on Friday, university administration did not respond to questions with any specific plans for working with students on sustainable action in time for publication. 

“People have been trying for a lot longer than us— but we’re not going to stop until it gets done.”

Michio Agresta, Seventh-semester natural resources student

The rally was attended by UConn students, new and old, as well as members of the Connecticut Sierra Club Chapter, whom Agresta invited. 

Philip Dooley said there was a singular group of environmental activists when he was an engineering student in 1972, whose rallies he would come to on the Student Union Lawn because he wondered whether or not global warming was real. 

Dylan Steer, a first-semester political science and environmental studies student and a member of EcoHusky, came to the rally to learn more about divestment from fossil fuels.

Steer was drawn to the rally because he heard that universities like Harvard have completely divested from fossil fuels and was surprised to learn UConn has not yet followed suit.  

According to Steer, full divestment from fossil fuels is an “obvious” step in the right direction that the university could take. 

According to Agresta, there are more people at UConn who care about the issues that did not attend the rally, “but that’s just an issue with activism at the university level, and in general.” 

Agresta said he feels a mix of optimism and pessimism because he’s been rallying to make the university more sustainable for four years, “and people have been trying for a lot longer than us — but we’re not going to stop until it gets done.” 

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