Pictures by Macy Loy
Since the start of the Fall 2022 semester, President Thorsett’s weekly “Words from Waller” emails have been focused on Willamette’s new "Strategic Plan". The Strategic Plan outlines a new direction for the university that will allow it to stand apart from other liberal arts institutions and better prepare students for the complex challenges facing our generation. The plan was modeled to uphold the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets three areas on campus to invest and expand on: Big Data and Human Centered Computing, Democratic Institutions and Climate Change.
The President’s Office’s dedication to sharing the Strategic Plan through the “Words from Waller” emails could be an exciting opportunity for the student body to get involved—if these emails contained any concrete actions or plans about the ways in which the university intends to implement these changes. Unfortunately, they do not. Instead, the “Words from Waller” surrounding the Strategic Plan dole out vague information alluding to structural and curricular changes that occur beyond the realm of student participation. This is particularly questionable when it comes to the plan’s climate focus and taking action towards becoming a sustainable institution, because that necessitates student participation.
So far the “Words from Waller” updates on the Strategic Plan have only mentioned the climate change focus once, in an email sent out on September 21st, which was a brief overview of the three targeted areas void of any planned actions. All the president’s office had to share in regards to targeting climate change was that it is founded on the UN’s SDG 13 (“Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”) and that “Climate is deeply interdisciplinary: entwined with topics such as ecosystem integrity, food and water security, public health, geopolitical stability, manufacturing and industry, transportation, and technology. Over the years ahead, Willamette must integrate resources from across the university to prepare students for this complex, cross-disciplinary work.”
The lack of concrete actions or opportunities for involvement in campus sustainability provided by the Strategic Plan shared through the “Words from Waller” complicates opportunities for student involvement in sustainability. Our university has an incredibly active and engaged student body that has proved commitment to ethical change and sustainability through student-led demonstrations and movements such as the climate rally against the Keystone XL Pipeline in the fall of 2021. Yet the general student body’s willingness and ability to engage in sustainable change on campus is dependent on outreach, transparency, and guidance; three things the Strategic Plan and its climate focus are failing to provide.
I reached out to The President’s Office’s Provost Carol Long, Climate Action Alliance President Ian Curtis (‘23), and Environmental Science Department Chair Professor Katja Meyer for clarification and elaboration on the Climate Change focus of Willamette’s new Strategic Plan. Provost Carol Long did not respond and Professor Meyer informed me that the Environmental Science Department has had no involvement in the creation or implementation of the Strategic Plan; they have no more information than what’s been made available to the student body through “Words from Waller” and the Strategic Planning page on the WU website. Ian Curtis was the only person who agreed to an interview.
Ian Curtis (a senior Politics, Policy, Law, and Ethics (PPLE) and Economics double major, Environmental Science minor) is the standing president of WU’s Climate Action Alliance (CAA) and was a member of the University Sustainability Steering Committee during the ‘20 - ’21 and ‘21 - ’22 school years, making him an excellent resource for issues of environmental sustainability and climate action on campus. Curtis “was a little bit disappointed in… the total quantity of how much content around environmentalism and climate change there was in [The ‘Words from Waller’] emails…” noting that “a lot of what the administration has been working on [in terms of campus sustainability] has been pretty behind the scenes, which has been pretty frustrating as an activist.” Yet, the Strategic Plan’s Climate Change Focus is “not the whole picture” of sustainability efforts on campus. Willamette’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) has been a long time effort of the University Sustainability Steering Committee. Like the Strategic Plan, the creation and conversation around the CAP has been largely behind the scenes, but unlike the Strategic Plan the CAP was spearheaded by The University Sustainability Steering Committee, a diverse group of Willamette student representatives, administrators, and professors, rather than the distant Board of Trustees.
The Climate Action Plan is completely separate from WU’s Strategic Plan. Where the Strategic Plan alludes to structural and curricular changes to address climate change challenges without stating any concrete goals, the CAP has an obvious overarching goal of making Willamette carbon neutral through five identified strategies, all with concrete action plans. These five strategies are: 1) Pursue on campus energy efficiency; 2) Switch to natural gas and electricity for space and water heating; 3) Lower transportation emissions; 4) Enhance flexibility to do online work and study; 5) Commit to fossil fuel divestment.
You can find out how The University Sustainability Committee intends to implement these strategies yourself by following the provided link in this article, and I implore you to do so. This is one of the first times outside of CAA/student activist outreach that the Climate Action Plan has been made widely available to the student body, thanks to Ian Curtis. Curtis informed me that the administration has been hesitant to publish the CAP partly due to not wanting to be held accountable to “follow [the plan] to a T” and partly because “they’re in the process of trying to link [the CAP] up with Salem’s Climate Action Plan, which… has been dealing with a whole bunch of problems itself”. Regardless of their reasoning, this admin hesitancy has ensured that “very few people on campus even know we have a Climate Action Plan”.
My purpose here is not to explain to you the contents of either WU’s Strategic Plan or The University Sustainability Steering Committee’s Climate Action Plan, but rather to question why we haven’t been made aware of these sustainability efforts in the first place. Committing to sustainability is a communal act that will not succeed if there aren’t varying levels of involvement, from personal responsibility to major institutional change. Furthermore, I question why there is no overlap between these two projects as our only two institution-wide sustainability plans. Collaboration is essential if the university wants to actually achieve any of their sustainability goals, rather than dividing their resources between two separately functioning plans. The best way to implement both the CAP and the Strategic Plan’s climate focus is for the two to work together employing greater public transparency (eg. collaborative emails sent to the whole student body, adding the CAP plan to the WU website, etc.) and blatant opportunities for student involvement.