Southern Universities Go Green


As college students across the South return to classes this fall, many are gearing up for major campaigns aimed at making their campuses more sustainable. From energy conservation to paper purchasing, students are demanding that their universities, many of which are the size of small cities, take action to reduce their environmental footprint. At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, their efforts have resulted in a showdown with the university administration, and their story provides a striking example of the power of young people to lead the way to a cleaner, greener future.

Just over ten years ago, when I arrived at UT as a freshman, there were no environmental majors available to undergraduates, and there was no organized student environmental group on campus. I was a founder of the campus organization Students Promoting Environmental Action in Knoxville (SPEAK), and when I graduated, fellow student Jamie Pizzirusso and I wrote an environmental blueprint for the campus that made a host of recommendations for greening Big Orange, including the creation of a campus-wide environmental policy.

Jamie and I could not have imagined the progress that would be made in the years that followed, and SPEAK is now on its way to making UT, a university with over 25,000 students, a regional leader in sustainability. One of their biggest victories came in March 2004, when the UT student body voted in a ballot initiative to voluntarily increase student fees by $8 per semester. Those funds would be earmarked for a green power program that allows consumers to buy electricity from environmentally friendly sources.

“The reaction from students has been very positive,” said Rachel Gramig, last year’s SPEAK president, after the initiative was passed. She continued, “Students are very excited about the possibilities of this initiative. We feel we are providing real solutions for Knoxville, recognized by the American Lung Association as the having the ninth worst air quality in the nation.”

If implemented, the new fee would make UT the largest consumer of green power in the South. But first the fee has to be approved by the university’s board of trustees, who would then pass their recommendation on to the Tennessee state legislature.

In June, the university administration announced that it would not present the initiative to the university’s Board of Trustees at its next meeting, despite a demand from students that the administration do just that. Without the support of the Board of Trustees, the green power initiative cannot be implemented.

In a June article in the Knoxville News Sentinel, chancellor Loren Crabtree explained his position this way: “We certainly do not oppose student initiatives [to improve] the environment. In fact, we encourage them, but we do not impose fees by means of a student referendum.”

The students are not giving up. They mailed a packet about the initiative to every individual trustee, which included a cover letter from the Student Government Association president asking the board to consider the fee at its meeting.

On September 9, SPEAK organized a rally to support the green power fee. They held a press conference on the twelfth floor of a campus building, and when reporters walked to the windows, they saw over 150 students on the lawn below lined up to form words that spelled out their demand: CLEAN ENERGY.

The students staged the demonstration in advance of a meeting with the administration later this month, at which they will discuss two specific requests. First, they are asking the university to purchase three additional “mega” blocks of green power – UT currently buys one “mega” block, or 37,500 kilowatt hours, of green power, which costs about $15,000. The students are also requesting the construction of a solar array on campus.

“We held this rally to show that there’s still university-wide student support for clean energy on campus,” said Jon Paul Plumlee, SPEAK’s clean energy co-chair. He continued, “We feel we’ve opened the door for UT to become a national leader and a flagship institution in supporting renewable energy, but we’re concerned that the university isn’t committed to living up to the principles outlined in its new environmental policy”.

The students at UT are part of a movement for renewable energy that is sweeping colleges and universities across the South. Throughout the region, students are leading the charge to make their campuses more sustainable. In the spring of 2004, over 200 students from 44 colleges and universities across the South came together at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill for the Southeast Student Renewable Energy Conference, where they developed strategies for promoting renewable energy on their campuses.

The conference was such a success that students have decided to join together again in 2005. The next Southeast Student Renewable Energy Conference will be held February 18-20 at UT, as part of a campus-wide environmental semester. The students who come together in Knoxville will not only hear from nationally recognized speakers and environmental advocates, but they will also learn a lot from each other.

Students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill made their university the first in the Southeast to pass a student referendum that called for a student fee allocated to renewable energy. Their ballot initiative passed in 2003, and it now awaits approval from the North Carolina legislature. Students at Appalachian State University in Boone passed a similar initiative that is also pending before the state legislature.

Also in North Carolina, students at Duke University proposed energy conservation measures that were implemented in 2002 and are expected to save the university $800,000 over 10 years. The students then launched a campaign urging the university to use some of those savings to purchase blocks of wind power, a campaign that continues today.

At Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, students have formed a council that will work closely with the administration to improve sustainability on campus. The council consists of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff. Their priorities include making the university infrastructure more sustainable, encouraging environmental research, and increasing environmental awareness on campus.

This is just a sample of the numerous campus sustainability initiatives underway across the Southeast. These students have the potential to make enormous progress for human health and the environment in their communities and beyond. College campuses use tremendous amounts of energy, create massive volumes of waste, and have a great deal of purchasing power. The environmental decisions these campuses make have a significant and direct conservation impact.

These campuses are also the training ground for future leaders. As Nick Algee, Campus Coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, points out, “Our future decision makers walk in and out of the doors of colleges and universities. This is where students develop values that stay with them for the rest of their lives, and if these institutions introduce them to the principles of sustainability, they will carry that into their adult lives, and into our culture.”

As the birthplace of innovation and education, universities are living laboratories that have the potential to serve as models of sustainability. Thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of student leaders, these universities are on their way to setting a sustainable example for the Southeast, and the nation.

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