Op-ed: students, faculty, staff and administration represent SOU at Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference

By Winston Friedman, Ecology Center of the Siskiyous co-director

On the last day of January and the first of February students, faculty, staff, administrators, industry and community members from every corner of Oregon including seven representatives from SOU met at Portland State University for the Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference 2013. Over 350 leaders in sustainability gathered to share ideas and network in the name of sustainability for our institutions. The energy and enthusiasm of those in attendance was palpable and undoubtedly fueled by a commitment to create positive change in higher education. Everyone’s commitment was made apparent by the amazing display of innovation, progress and results in sustainability presented at OHESC.

One of the most talked about themes at the conference was socially responsible investing (SRI) for our institutions. SOU lead the SRI conversation, with outspoken students pushing the topic to the forefront of the conference at every chance.  SOU students Winston Friedman and Caitlin Mezger-Sieg presented on the subject in a session titled “Let’s Put Our Money Where Our Mouth Is.”  In the session they outlined the history, strategies and the performance of SRI in the market, but more importantly they issued a call to action for institutions of higher education to align their stated values with where they actually put their money. Excitingly, the call was heard. After the presentation representatives of PSU, Oregon State University, University of Oregon, Lewis and Clark College, and SOU signed up to start an Oregon Higher education SRI working group, dedicated to working together to create SRI for our institutions. Research from SOU student Shaun Franks suggests that Oregon University System schools’ investments make up about $1.53 billion, punctuating the potential impact of this group.

“Our students have made a memorable contribution to the State of Oregon this weekend,” said SOU Assistant Professor Vincent Smith. “We owe them our gratitude.”

SOU representatives attending OHESC 2013 left energized and hopeful for the future. Smith spent his time in Portland exploring innovative strategies to develop interdependent learning opportunities for students that stress hands-on learning and adventure.  Lessons learned from other universities will be used in the planning of SOU’s upcoming “GreenHouse” program, a new innovative general education curriculum focused on sustainability being launched this coming fall and in the planning of a potential Center for Sustainability to include an educational farm.

One of the most powerful tangibles from the conference was a vision and action plan for sustainability in Oregon higher education created by the students. This vision and action plan will hopefully keep us energized and on track towards a better future. Below is the vision created at OHESC. We hope this inspires you as much as it inspires us.

Vision for Oregon Higher Education

The vision of the students in Oregon is to empower and develop leaders through a culture of sustainability that fosters relationships between all campus constituents and the broader communities of which they are a part. A culture of sustainability includes:

  • Expectations of inclusive and collaborative decision making processes, which include students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and the surrounding communities;
  • Embedded sustainability throughout curriculum in all departments;
  • An emphasis on active transportation, and a minimization of privately owned vehicles; and
  • Physical spaces that reflect innovative understanding of systems and place-based, culturally responsible, identity;
  • The establishment of structures to ensure the longevity of such practices.

Action Plan

From this date until OHESC 2019, we will partner with and expect our institution’s leadership to take action on the following tangible steps towards a true culture of sustainability.

Together, we will:

  • Finalize a plan for Zero Waste campuses that will be accomplished by 2025, which equates to a 90 percent diversion from the waste stream;
  • Formalize a commitment to transparent endowments, socially responsible investments, and a complete divestment from fossil fuels;
  • Establish a Green Revolving Fund on each campus;
  • Develop a requirement in each major that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the field of study;
  • Halve the percentage of single-occupancy vehicles used to commute (students, staff, faculty);
  • Create a system for access to affordable, healthy, and just food, which could include establishing a food pantry and/or garden plots for the campus community’s use; and
  • Mandate programs that provide a holistic introduction to sustainability for first year students, new staff, faculty and administrators, which address oppression of both people and the planet.

Through this vision and the previous steps, the Oregon higher education students, will work with our campuses to build off of the work done at the 2013 Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference and bring innovative changes to our communities. We hope you will join us!

For more information please contact Winston Friedman at friedmanw@sou.edu

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