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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Getting students physically involved
August 11, 2011 - 4:15pm

Providing opportunities for students to get physically involved -- with meeting their needs, with the surrounding community, with modifying the campus -- is becoming an ever bigger part of our sustainability strategy at Greenback U. Breaking folks out of that passive consumer mindset is a necessary first step on the road to them becoming active and engaged citizens.

In many cases, the institution is supportive. Community service is, of course, a long-standing tradition. And student self-governance (however constrained) extends fairly easily into own-needs-fulfillment initiatives. We've even had pretty good luck getting approval for students to enhance the campus grounds -- replacing annuals with native perennials, building rain gardens, that sort of thing.

Where I've run into active resistance is when I propose any sort of modification or enhancement to the built environment. The administration gets agita any time I suggest having students do more than put paint on walls. The stated reasons vary -- workman's comp liability, union agreements, concern about the quality of the workmanship -- but the outcome is consistent. Students can't make permanent three-dimensional modifications to campus buildings (and "buildings" seems to be defined very broadly).

Of course, workman's comp considerations don't enter into the issue when what's being built is the (temporary) set for a student theater production (probably more dangerous than anything I'd propose). And the ever-increasing backlog of facilities projects means that our physical plant employees (unionized or otherwise) have no worries about running out of work. Meanwhile, any concerns about quality of workmanship can readily be addressed by appropriate inspection protocols. (And let's be honest about this -- half of the folks claiming to be worried about workmanship go home to grill their dinner on a deck they put up with help from two friends and three cases of beer.)

I suspect that the root of the problem lies at the bottom of Greenback's great chasm between academics and campus operations. The Eloi are in charge of learning, accomplished by reading books and listening to words of wisdom in classrooms. The Morlocks are in charge of keeping the lights on, the buildings warm in winter, the grass cut in summer. Never the twain shall meet peaceably.

But in the real world, learning is accomplished more by doing than by reading about doing things. And one of those things we hope our alumni will go out into the world and accomplish is a rethinking of the way buildings are lit and heated, and land is scaped. If we truly want our alums to be able to do those necessary things, we need to expand our definitions of learning space and learning opportunity. And we may need to expand our thinking about how long the results of that learning are evident on campus.


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