According to a report comissioned by the University, many departments could be doing a better job integrating environmental concerns into their programs. Last June, the University’s Commission on Environmental Science and Policy, a 32-member panel of faculty and deans, presented then Executive Vice President and Provost Robert Bruininks with their final report. As stated in the final report, the commission had been set up to consider the “University’s many strengths and opportunities in the broadly-defined environmental arena.” According to the commission, continuing environmental degradation across the globe threatens “(our) future well-being,” and as a land-grant university it is the University’s responsibility to work with the public in addressing this threat to our future. Because solutions to environmental problems are multidisciplinary in nature, to create effective solutions to environmental problems means the University must establish a new protocol that would coordinate the diverse, environmentally-related research occurring throughout campus, as argued by the commission.
The protocol the commission envisions is a center for environmental research that coordinates environmentally-related research in the natural sciences, economics, law and public policy, communicates to the public the environmental challenges society faces, and has the capacity to recommend and implement sustainable development solutions. One way the University could promote the goal of sustainable development, the commission argues, is by providing “society with an example of how to integrate land and building management techniques that minimize our consumption of precious natural resources.”
Recent major projects on campus indicate the University’s current development paradigm is not aligned with the spirit of the commission’s recommendations. Much of the landscaping on campus remains environmentally unsound: Large swaths of lawns interrupted by concrete sidewalks discourages the collection of biodiversity and can cause localized flooding if drainage systems are blocked. The University could have changed this pattern of traditional land management by constructing a native prairie ecosystem or landscape in the plaza fronting the Gateway alumni center. Instead, a sparse, flat landscape strangely devoid of life and imagination welcomes students, staff and visitors to the University.
Other environmentally unsound practices continue to dominate the University’s development agenda. Why is the University continually building new parking facilities that attract even more cars to an already overcongested area? The University needs to work on creating a holistic transportation plan that encourages even more use of alternative transportation. The U-Pass program is a great foundation for an integrated transportation plan, the number of students and staff busing to campus has increased greatly; however, the University needs to remain aggressive in giving staff and students incentives to use alternative transportation.
Over the last few years, the University has done much to increase the heating and cooling efficiencies of campus buildings. The new Molecular and Cellular Biology Building includes some of the latest energy-saving technology. However, it would be difficult to conclude that the building is a model of minimized environmental impact. The University has also ignored several environmental issues while making recent construction decisions. Several years ago, the administration decided to build the new Andersen Library and its subterranean caverns within 500 feet of 20,000 square cubic yards of coal tar waste. The waste seeps into the library where it is caught in a panning system. Several library employees are convinced that air contaminated by the coal tar seepage has been the cause of several illnesses. The continuation of traditional approaches to land and building management and lack of sensitivity to local pollution problems suggests that the University administration is not ready to take the recommendations of the commission seriously.
While many intelligent people argue about the impact of continuing environmental degradation on our future well-being, even skeptics of environmental “chicken-littles” have begun to take the ramifications of environmental ruin seriously. For example, in late May, the George W. Bush administration acknowledged that global warming is a real phenomenon and that future warming will adversely impact the health and pocketbooks of Americans. Given that there is now broad consensus that continuing environmental apathy will greatly affect our future, the implementation of the commission’s recommendations should become one of the University’s top priorities. The University administration should filter all of its future major projects through a sustainable development sieve. New building and landscape projects should be models “for environmentally sensitive maintenance, construction and resource-conserving techniques.” Further, the University should provide the funds for a center for environmental research immediately. Real progress through environmental problem-solving at the University can only take place once diverse and disparate environmentally-related research is coordinated through one institution. Unfortunately, if the recent regent’s meeting in Crookston is any indication, the next major initiative on campus will be a new football stadium and its myriad parking facilities. Unfortunately, students and alumni would then be able to blissfully cheer on a mediocre football team in our own backyard as the University does relatively little to help fix the world’s vital life-sustaining systems.