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The Council of Ontario Universities (COU) recently published a glossy brochure purportedly describing greening of provincial universities (here). However, at least for Carleton University, this seemed entirely like ‘greenwashing’, much like John Baird wearing a green neck-tie during his tenure as environment minister. Yes, Carleton does a few tiny things to make itself look green, but forgoes so many substantive sustainability initiatives that it makes us seem ‘astroturf’ green. For example, the COU document mentions that Carleton has allocated parking for car-sharing. What that document fails to mention is that this was a single parking space! Got to love such tokenism. In this posting I shall first enumerate ways in which Carleton has been the antithesis of green (aka ‘astroturf’) and after that discuss ways we could do far better.

Astroturfing of Carleton

Those of you who follow this blog will know I occasionally sound like a broken record, but in the face of an 8% projected enrolment decline in the next few years, Carleton threw away $35 million on a new parking garage. It’s hard to get less green than that. Even if an 8% enrolment increase were projected, the last thing we should do is encourage more drivers by giving them covered parking spaces.

Speaking of spending yet another $35 million, Carleton just proposed to the province that we are going to build upon one of our institutional weaknesses, namely health science, by largely spending our own capital funds for a new program that seems to be grossly under-subscribed in terms of openly reported enrolment numbers. With projected declines in high school graduates over the next several years, that situation is bound to get worse, resulting in brand new under-utilized facilities. Why not take those $35 million and instead refurbish existing buildings, making them far more energy efficient. Upgrade HVAC systems. Replace poorly functioning doors. Install new roofs. And, while we are at it, remove any remaining asbestos.

One of the most interesting green spaces Carleton has is the riparian corridor along the Rideau River. Commuting on that river, I get to see all its beauty, as well as how trashed it can be. It is a real shame that Carleton has virtually destroyed that riparian corridor by building retaining walls so that we can construct buildings with nice river views. The brand new River Building should be called the “Encroaching on the River” building.

For a few years, Carleton hired a seemingly superb sustainability officer, Murdo Murchison. However, he was let go because of insufficient cost recovery, i.e. he saved the university less money in his sustainability work than we paid him in salary and benefits.

While Carleton has instituted some sustainability initiatives, those were typically ones in which the university did not have to pay the tab, such as helping to administer a student transit pass that student unions had to fight for.

Greening of Carleton

Please let me be more constructive by listing some ideas for greening Carleton, starting with some inexpensive ideas that will only have a small impact to ever grander and more expensive suggestions.

How can you have a green campus with cigarette butts strewn around every external doorway? This is non-biodegradable refuse that usually is not even deposited in proper receptacles, but just tossed on the ground for others to pick up. I despise walking outdoors to and from teaching because huddled just outside of virtually every external doorway on campus for those ten minutes each hour are several smokers. Even the external doorway to the health clinic often has a smoker or two fumigating the entrance. There is an easy answer: ban all smoking from the entire campus and enforce this rule. A few years ago, I suggested this policy change to one of Duncan Watt’s healthy workplace initiatives, but my suggestion was dismissed in perfunctory fashion.

Carleton should provide free reverse osmosis water to anybody on campus who has their own drinking vessel. Several nearby universities already do this.

Carleton could be like the rest of Ottawa and compost food remnants throughout campus. During the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2009, Carleton did just that: set-up compost receptacles for that huge meeting. But then Carleton removed composting receptacles once the meeting (congress) was over, which seems like classic greenwashing.

Carleton could facilitate (subsidize?) recycling of electronic waste. Currently, faculty and students must fend for themselves when disposing old computers, phones, USB drives, etc.

Next I want to propose three intermediate-cost green solutions. First, Carleton could install solar panels and/or green roofs, especially on new buildings. Second, Carleton could install geothermal heating and cooling, especially in new buildings.

Third, the city of Ottawa has made major efforts to improve bicycle trails across town. Carleton is fortunate enough to be surrounded by two such trails, along the canal and the Rideau River, as well as the trails through Ag Canada leading to Hartwell’s Locks. Unfortunately, there is either no easy or safe way to access these trails from Carleton. Therefore I suggest that we build a bicycle/pedestrian bridge over Colonel By Drive from Hartwell’s Locks to the circle on Library Road. I also suggest that we build a bicycle/pedestrian bridge across the Rideau River next to the O-Train bridge. This could be piggy-backed on the O-Train bridge itself if the city ever makes that double track. Making Carleton more safely accessible by bicycle would cut back the number of car drivers to campus.

Now for the more expensive, but bigger payoff items. We could hire fewer sessional/contract instructors and replace them with more tenure-track faculty. Some of you might be thinking: why is this green? Most adjunct or sessional faculty at Carleton get paid relatively little per course taught, so cobble together a living from teaching simultaneously at multiple places, such as also Algonquin College and University of Ottawa (see Beth Baker’s recent article in BioScience for a great overview). That is a lot of instructors with needlessly large carbon footprints.

One of the environmentally most destructive activities is the military. Carleton could be greener by forbidding acceptance of any grant funding by the Department of National Defence or by defence contractors. Yes, we would lose some research dollars and also monies to residence facilities by not allowing the military people with big fuzzy hats from marching around campus in summer. But the world would be a better and greener place from us not supporting the military.

Even more contentiously, Carleton could become significantly greener by eliminating large-scale spectator sports. Sporting entertainment provides no intellectual gains to society, yet have huge carbon footprints. How many cars are parked at Carleton men’s basketball games, especially at playoff time? How many cars are parked at Carleton’s men’s-only football games? While not popular, if you want to make Carleton greener, eliminate these teams that contribute virtually nothing to the mission of the university. Some have suggested (here) that Carleton’s expensive new parking garage was largely built for the professional football team at Lansdowne (also click here regarding links between university and professional football in Ottawa). If true, that amplifies my contention that Carleton should divest itself of spectator sports if it wants to be truly green.

Probably the biggest green initiative would be to allow Carleton employees to invest their retirement monies in green pension funds. Such green investment instruments typically yield lower monetary returns. So let each employee have the option of deciding what percentage of their pension contributions and the university’s matching component go to green funds and what percentage go to conventional pension funds. As we have seen from the extraordinary solvency payments imposed on universities by the province in recent years, there is a huge amount of money tied up in pension plans. So let’s give people the option to invest ethically, a tack that at least one other Canadian university is considering.

Concluding Remarks

If Carleton truly wants to be green, its administration and/or the Board of Governors should seriously consider available options. Be visionary. Solicit suggestions, even radical suggestions, from members of the Carleton community. I have listed a few suggestions above, but I am just one person who has thought about this in fleeting ways for just a few minutes. Together, with some motivation and leadership, we can do great things.

Here is a link to the Ontario Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (TCU) website that provides Carleton University’s “Notice of Intent for a Major Capital Expansion Project”. This is an important publicly available document that all members of Carleton University’s Board of Governors and Senate should read. Note that of the $70 million in proposed new buildings, Carleton intends to supply half of the funding, even though it has been Carleton’s past practice to not use capital funds to construct academic buildings. The following link provides similar statements regarding expansion proposals for other provincial universities.

Nine days ago, at the University of Virginia – literally a Jeffersonian pillar of rights and freedoms insofar as Thomas Jefferson founded the place – their Board of Governors unsuccessfully tried to stifle any modicum of dissent within their ranks. Here, I report on some of these machinations.

But first a few words on nomenclature. The University of Virginia board is officially known as the ‘Board of Visitors’, where ‘visitors’ is their term for what Carleton University calls ‘governors’. The chair of their board is known as a ‘rector’, the first two of whom were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who basically wrote the original U.S. Constitution and its first ten amendments, aka the Bill of Rights. There is a non-voting student member on the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, but no faculty nor staff members. The term ‘visitor’ has a nice ring, unlike at Carleton University where external board members are known as ‘community at-large’ members. The irony here is that our ‘community at-large’ members are not directly members of the Carleton University community per se (that would be students, faculty, staff, and management).

On 30 July 2014, the governance committee of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors approved a new “Statement of Expectations” (click here for the 30 July 2014 document), from which I quote in its entirety the section titled ‘Discussion and Dissent’, with my emphasis added to the final sentence:

We value and encourage deliberations marked by pertinent questions, constructive dissent, and candid concerns – always in partnership with the President. When a Visitor substantially disagrees with management’s proposal or plans to recommend a notably different course of action, the Visitor should provide as much advance notice as possible to the Rector, the relevant committee chair, the President, or senior officer as appropriate.

After robust discussion of an issue, we strive to reach a consensus on the issue. In the end, each Visitor should vote one’s conscience, confident that minority views will be respected. Visitors shall publicly support, or at the very least not openly oppose, the Board’s action as a strong, visible consensus facilitates successful execution of policy and strategy.

Note the false image of consensus mandated by the final sentence, which would be enough to make Thomas Jefferson and James Madison cringe almost two centuries after their deaths. By trying to stifle dissent, the governance committee of the Board of Visitors pilloried the reputation of the University of Virginia, a reputation that is their primary job to uphold.

This was too much for legislators in the Commonwealth of Virginia to handle. They raised their voices and, five days later, the governance committee replaced the final sentence of the above quoted paragraphs with the following (click here for the original of 4 August 2014 document):

Once decisions are reached, however, Visitors bear a collective responsibility to ensure, as much as possible, that the Board’s actions and decisions are successfully implemented.

This is not perfect, but nonetheless a drastic improvement.

I am not saying that University of Virginia Board of Visitors did everything wrong. In fact, they did one thing in a stellar fashion: they made the report of their governance committee a public document. This made it a self-correcting document. There was vociferous public outcry, and it appears that therefore the Board of Visitors was willing to back-down from their 30 July 2014 governance committee recommendation, and do so quickly. This is in stark contrast to the situation at Carleton. If the governance committee of Carleton University’s Board of Governors had or ever will approve a policy forbidding public dissent by board members, that policy recommendation would be considered confidential and thus not publicly available until the full Board of Governors formally approved that policy. Any consequent damage to Carleton University’s reputation would be very difficult to reverse because it would require a bylaw change. Carleton University Board of Governors’ bylaw changes require a two-thirds majority vote, which makes it very difficult to rescind any egregious policies. This is very different from University of Virginia, where even a whiff of controversy was enough to rescind the poorly thought-out policy.

As the Washington Post’s editorial board stated on 7 August 2014 (here) regarding this University of Virginia debacle:

A major goal of education is to encourage public expression and the free flow of information, and the university’s leadership should emulate that ideal. Practically speaking, muzzling board members’ ability to express themselves is among the quickest ways to exacerbate the divisions that the board is trying to avoid.

The Washington Post’s remark is equally applicable to Carleton University, a public institution founded to serve the community at-large, not just the interests of its “community at-large” board members.