I gave public comment about student activists at a board of trustees meeting

A group of people protest for climate justice. Conner Caridad shared went to the board to share the activism his friends are involved in, including environmental justice and justice for survivors of sexual violence. Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen/Pexels

On Wednesday morning, I went to the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees meeting in the North Reading Room of Wilbur Cross to participate in public comment. For those who may not know, “public comment” is an opportunity for members of the UConn community to participate in the regularly scheduled board meetings — so long as they express their interest in participating to the board at least 24 hours prior to the meeting.

Though I’m a junior credit-wise, this past year at UConn has felt like my first year on campus. After taking a semester off from school during the pandemic, I came back to UConn in the fall with a new major — starting from square one. I went to the board on Wednesday to share what I’ve observed of those I’ve become friends with in my first year back, specifically the work that they do. I emphasized to the board that I was not coming to them as a member of any student organizations, or as an activist — but as an individual undergraduate who’s seen the passion of the student leaders at UConn. 

Being the first person to give public comment at a 9 a.m. board meeting where everyone looks casually important was a bit intimidating, but I kept thinking about the challenges my friends have faced in their activism work, and how they deserve the best. They are, truly, “inspiringly brilliant.” 

I’ve seen that there’s an entire class of student activists at UConn about to graduate who have big dreams for the world. As eager as they have been to go out and dedicate themselves to environmental sustainability, these activists have always put UConn first. They put our community first in their work, whether it be for environmental justice, economic justice or justice for survivors of sexual violence. Student activists are encouraged every day in their studies to go out and make the world a better place, but have set their sights on graduating and leaving behind a better UConn first. 

What concerns me is that it doesn’t look like our institution supports these students in their work. Frankly, it seems like UConn would rather that these student activists weren’t around to push the hard conversations that we need to have. Which is unfortunate, because all these students want to do is help us make the university a better place.

Free White Windmill Stock Photo
Windmills are part of a sustainable future. To the students, UConn’s steps toward environmental sustainability have seemed largely performative. Photo by Pixabay/Pexels

It’s not these students’ goal to fight the university administration; it’s to help the board in its mission to preserve this institution; to help all of UConn. To the students, UConn’s steps toward environmental sustainability have seemed largely performative. If articles in UConn Today get to boast that we are a top 10 Sierra Club Cool School recognized globally for our commitment to environmental sustainability, then where has the President’s Working Group on Sustainability been? If we value the hard work of those who put their energy into making UConn more environmentally friendly, then why are the students made to sit at the “kids’ table”? One would think that such a “cool school” would have a place for its students who care so much about the environment to participate in the administrative process, alongside the president and the board. 

In November, when Interim President Agwunobi passed a group of dozens of his students marching together toward his office, chanting and holding signs, he put his head down, and walked right past them. I was there, and I was disappointed when I saw that happen. It wasn’t until the students stopped walking as they saw him, that President Agwunobi came back to see what this mass of students was up to out and about on campus, on the single coldest Friday of the fall semester. He stayed for a bit, and then asked for a picture with the students. To which the students essentially said, “No, not until we see your commitment to sustainability at UConn.” Not only did I see this all unfold, but I’ve heard about the interaction from others. This is part of our reputation. This is how people view the university’s strained relationship with its students who spend all their energy, and every moment they’re not in class, trying to make sure that UConn is truly a “cool school” — as UConn Today gets to advertise. 

At UConn we “protect our pack” and what our students stand for. Then why are qualified students who want to help so badly not enthusiastically welcomed in serious conversations? Students are burning out trying to be heard for what they think is the way forward. Why is there still a lingering doubt in the public’s mind as to whether the university is investing in antiquated fossil fuels? Why was the President’s Working Group such a temporary fixture at UConn, and where has it been? Why is UConn’s starting lineup not stacked with the bright young leaders, dreamers or Truman Scholars whom they’ve trained to go out and save the world? Not only are these students inspiringly brilliant, but they are kind-hearted. It hurts to see my peers’ massive potential go unrecognized by the board. The environment needs UConn’s help and, in the words of Welles Crowther, it is time for

“Everyone who can stand, [to] stand now.”

American equities trader and volunteer firefighter, Welles Crowther

UConn can and should work harder for a greener tomorrow. These are the people who want to stand with the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees. 

To Interim President Maric; we need to address these questions of sustainability together; students and administrators. Please don’t let another semester start and fly by without regular meetings of the President’s Working Group on Sustainability and the Environment, so that all who care about what’s best for UConn may come together. Please don’t let any more members of our pack graduate from UConn feeling burned out, and like we could have done more to stand up for environmental sustainability. 

I hope the board noticed two things on Wednesday. The first is that, after I spoke, another student got up and gave public comment on the exact same thing. They made some great points, and spoke very confidently. This was entirely coincidental. Hopefully the board realizes how important this issue is to a significant group of people. The second thing I hope the board noticed is when I mentioned the Truman Scholars. Later, in the same meeting, the board celebrated all the recent scholars and award winners who have come out of UConn. If the board is going to let the achievements of young scholars and student leaders make UConn look good, then they should take seriously what those students have to say about sustainability and environmental justice. Otherwise, they are merely greenwashing the university, and using students’ accolades as a selling point for UConn. 

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