On Oct. 25, 40 or so University of Connecticut students walked out of classes to address the board of trustees. Several students gave impassioned speeches on why climate change was so important to our generation and made three demands to the board: To phase out the Central Utility Plant co-generation facility, to collaborate with students and other stakeholders to create a comprehensive sustainability plan with actionable changes and goals and to commit to divesting UConn and the Foundation from fossil fuels both directly and indirectly. The effort was led by Fossil Fuel Free UConn, a student organization which has been pressuring the administration regularly.
Do UConn students really want a cleaner environment? Is it worth skipping class or making a statement in public? Is it worth demanding more from those who govern our school? The gutters on campus are littered with empty beer cans and food takeout containers. Campaigns to ban single-use plastics have been faltering for years. No more than 40 students show up to demand accountability from their own institution. UConn students can do better as a whole.
The Central Utility Plant is modern, efficient and will likely be here until this year’s graduating class’s children graduate. Directly next to the brand-new $220 million Science 1 building, absent of any solar panels, is the equally new Supplemental Utility Plant. If anything, UConn appears to be leaning into natural gas, not out. Eversource and UConn collaborate on power supply, research, public outreach and more. This relationship and the research we perform here on sustainable energy has benefited the public in many ways. Providing adequate and sustainable power is important for us to keep healthcare facilities and winter shelters open to protect vulnerable people from the dangerous New England winters. Solving these issues with renewable energy in the face of climate change is no small task, and the board is not likely to take up this charge without serious pressure.
After the climate speeches wrapped up, the chair of the board issued a short response in which a town hall meeting would be scheduled for Nov. 2. Following the meeting they also released an official statement in support of sustainability. This is the second time in the last two board meetings where students gathered to make public statements, and the board has been accused of greenwashing and lack of transparency for years regarding sustainability and environmental impacts. Even in the institutionally controlled news organization, UConn Today, they say, “Board Chairman Daniel Toscano said Wednesday that while the action of adopting the statement does not accomplish specific objectives on its own, it serves the broader purpose of underscoring that climate neutrality, sustainability, and clean energy are a significant board priority.” The only broader purpose it serves is to continue to kick the can down the road, hoping the current student leaders will graduate, like those before them.
Is UConn complicit in climate change? Less than 50 students out of more than 30,000 showed up: that’s less than 1%. Certainly, lower than the 30% of the undergraduate student body that responded to the university president’s strategic planning poll, presented immediately after the climate statements. The first question was what tuition from students should be spent on in order of importance to each student. Weighted averages were collected, and climate change came in at number six, just behind student activities and well behind number one — academic support. There may have only been 40 or so students out there who had climate change at number one, and they were in this room.
Some students demand change and accountability on a system-wide level. Some demand plans and timelines. Some demand hot water in their dorms and electricity to charge their iPhones. Some demand UConn use wind power, the fledgling industry off the coast of Connecticut. Some demand to dispose of beer cans and Coca-Cola bottles in the gutters. Some demand solar generation, which the administration seems to have no interest in. Some demand more tutoring and better activities. Oh, and don’t forget, some demand we do something about climate change. It may be that UConn is complicit in climate change, but is UConn just the board of trustees?