I’ve spent the last three years studying Environmental Studies at the University of Connecticut and participating on campus as a student activist. As I and many other student activists graduate, I’m fed up, but I’m also worried for the student activists still on campus.
Over the last three years I dedicated a significant amount of time to climate activism. While much of my activism took place outside of UConn, I also spent a lot of time working with other activists at UConn, demanding action and accountability from our university.
While I originally believed UConn to be an environmentally friendly school, as its high ranking on Sierra Magazine cool school, Sustainable University Green Metric, and other rankings would suggest, what I found was that in reality UConn is not a green school. It is a greenwashing school.
While UConn has taken some steps to make its campuses greener, such as ensuring high energy efficiency standards for new buildings and installing water bottle filling stations, when it comes to more systemic and meaningful action they have fallen woefully short.
For example, most of UConn’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy generation by the Central Utility Plant (CUP), which burns natural gas, a fossil fuel. At a climate strike in 2019, students demanded change, including that: UConn stop the expansion of all new fossil fuel infrastructure; increase transparency, communication, and student decision-making power; prioritize diversity in environmental spaces; and more. Then-president Thomas Katsouleas responded to student concerns by creating a working group, which included university staff, administration, professors, and students. Over the next two years the working group created a detailed report regarding how to reach a zero-carbon campus.
Since then, the report has been buried, taken off the President’s website multiple times, and certainly not acted upon. This is especially upsetting considering that it will take over a decade to upgrade the CUP and other infrastructure in order to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Beyond not acting on their environmental promises, however, UConn also has a track record of disregarding environmental justice and ignoring student concerns. This is especially true of the UConn Board of Trustees, a body which has more control over UConn than any other person or body, but which also ignores student concerns most staunchly.
Since the administration of President Thomas Katsouleas, the Board of Trustees has ignored the report that was generated and failed to begin the needed infrastructure transition. At their meeting in March, which I attended with other students to protest for climate action, they praised existing fossil fuel infrastructure as “green” (because it cogenerates electricity and heat), rather than discussing how to transition to renewable sources. Another example of the Board of Trustees lack of concern for students came in the wake of a university-wide reckoning with sexual assault. When students went to a Board of Trustees meeting to raise these concerns, they were cut off in what appeared to be an attempt to stop students from sharing their stories.
It is also important to note that the Board of Trustees is not actually accountable to UConn students. Out of 21 members, only two are students (one undergraduate and one graduate). Most others are appointed by Connecticut’s governor, meaning that UConn is more accountable to the state than to its own students. While one could argue that this is not inherently a bad thing, it does become a problem when students are facing issues on our campus that the people with the most power are unwilling to address.
It is time for change. UConn, and the UConn Board of Trustees, must be accountable and responsive to student concerns. This is true on climate change, sexual assault, and other issues. It matters not only for students who are forced to spend their college careers fighting their university, but also for the state as a whole.
UConn is our flagship university and rather than leading our state as a green university, we are leading as a greenwashing university. UConn touts its green certifications to attract incoming students and generate more money for the school. It sets a bad example for UConn students, other universities, and the state. It says that we’re okay with a lack of accountability. Universities are supposed to be places that create future leaders — to do so, they need to step up and take meaningful action that shows what good leadership, and by extension accountability, look like.
Sena Wazer is an 18-year-old climate activist, UConn 2022 graduate, and Truman Scholar.