Students’ Input into Institutional Commitments: Climate Action Plans

College enrollment has become an important issue that preoccupies most schools, including mine. The reasons are complex and will not be addressed here. Most colleges also, whether directly or indirectly, live on public support. If the public, through its elected officials or through students’ demands, stopped supporting colleges, the colleges would have to fold. It is not surprising that higher education is focused on this issue and that the question of what higher education is doing to justify public support is a major issue for schools around the country.

As can be seen in Figure 1, the recent pandemic did not directly cause the drop in enrollment growth; there was already a downward trend after 2010. However, it did amplify the feeling that colleges and universities should be at the forefront of preparations for global threats. My focus has been on environmental issues, with an emphasis on climate change and the urgent global need to change our energy supply away from fossil fuels. I have talked repeatedly about the “Campus as a Lab” and college strategic plans, with a focus on my own school. Just put the two concepts into the search box and scan the previous blogs on these concepts. Today’s blog starts my effort to look specifically for climate action planning in relation to college strategic plans. I also want to look into student participation in setting the changes that schools have to go through. The specific situation of my college in this issue can serve as a productive learning tool and thus it can satisfy the requirements of a “Campus as a Lab” (see the definition of Campus as a Lab in the July 19, 2022 blog that starts the series of blogs on this issue).

Graph of historical college enrollment from 1970-2020: undergraduate, graduate, and total

Figure 1 – Historical college enrollment from 1970-2020 (Source: Education Data Initiative)

I started to analyze my college’s strategic plan in the May 2, 2023 blog. In doing so, I described the federated structure of the university. My students’ project this semester is to explore ways to participate in the Campus as a Lab efforts on the specific issue of decarbonization of our energy use. This includes the question of how to help integrate this job into the new strategic plans of the college and the university. This is a small class of 12 students that is divided into three groups. One group, some of whose students are connected to student leadership, is investigating present students’ attitudes and their background knowledge of this issue. The second group is investigating the situation on different campuses, in and out of the US, while the third group is investigating practical steps that students can take.

This, and the following few blogs, are written as my helping hand in these efforts. The incorporation of important sustainability issues in the strategic plan comes at an opportune time in my school. As was described in the May 2, 2023 blog, my college strategic plan is about to expire now. A new one is just being drafted with students’ participation. It’s an excellent opportunity for input. As was mentioned in previous blogs, Brooklyn College is an important part of a federated university. The students will be exposed to the complexities of decision-making within such a system. Again, I am using CUNY as an example.

A decision was made not to update the college’s strategic plan until the university’s strategic plan is completed. This was recently accomplished. Below, I am including the introduction of CUNY’s strategic plan, along with its main goals. Whenever appropriate, I have included specified future quantitative assessments for the accomplishment of the goals:

The City University of New York (CUNY) announced the release of “CUNY Lifting New York,” a strategic plan to transform CUNY into the nation’s foremost student-centered University system by 2030 and intensify its role as an indispensable New York City institution that improves the lives of New Yorkers through public-benefit research, workforce partnerships, economic development, and affordable, top-quality education. The plan lays the groundwork for increasing CUNY’s impact as an engine of upward social and civic mobility by establishing strategies and targets to expand access and enhance student success, academic offerings, post-college outcomes and the system’s infrastructure and technology resources.

  1. Improve Career Outcomes

By 2030, CUNY will increase by 20% the number of employers who actively recruit CUNY students and triple the number of students who complete a paid internship. A new central, career-focused office will help build relationships with employers and connect students to recruitment and professional development.

  1. Reshape Student Success
  2. Streamline Student Transfer within CUNY
  3. Advance Public-Impact Research

CUNY will increase by 20 percent the dollars awarded for research and the number of funded grants leveraging CUNY’s distinctive scale, diversity and location in New York City for the well-being of local communities, improving the everyday lives of New Yorkers in tangible and meaningful ways.

  1. Maintain State-of-the-Art Facilities & Technology

Over the next seven years, CUNY will move to a 90 percent on-time completion of facilities projects and will work toward a goal of having 55 percent of buildings in good repair.

Increasing Enrollment and Retention

To meet the ambitious targets outlined in the strategic plan, CUNY will publish detailed action plans each year that identify the concrete steps, metrics and progress being achieved annually for each goal. This multi-layered approach will provide the flexibility, creativity and discipline necessary to meet this exciting, vital period of change for the University.

The next relevant question is whether CUNY has a climate action plan. I asked Google. As is becoming “usual” these days, when you ask Google (or Microsoft Bing) any question, you get a short AI paragraph on the issue to start the conversation. Below is what I got as an answer to my question:

Generative AI is experimental. Info quality may vary.

The City University of New York (CUNY) has several climate action plans, including:

  • Campus Sustainability Plans

These plans identify over 800 actions to reduce energy use and increase energy efficiency.

  • Sustainable CUNY

This program reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions at CUNY’s senior and community college campuses.

  • Sustainability councils

These councils support sustainability goals and source external resources for CUNY’s 25 institutions.

  • Interdisciplinary Climate Crisis Research Grants

This program provides funding for research and the purchase of innovative equipment.

  • Baruch’s Climate Scholars Program

This program focuses on climate change resiliency and the transition to renewable energy.

  • Hunter Green

This program works to reduce Hunter’s carbon footprint, improve energy efficiency, and advocate for a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable environment.

CUNY also partners with NYC-EJA to develop and implement strategies to reduce community climate vulnerabilities and environmental burdens.

I fully realize that I didn’t answer many questions in this blog. First among them: the meaning of a climate action plan, including examples of universities that have incorporated climate issues into their strategic plans. That will be done in my next blog. This blog ends with the realization that CUNY, as an institution, is very active on sustainability issues but doesn’t yet have a well-defined climate action plan with quantitative goals and objectives. My students have plenty of opportunities to contribute. Stay tuned.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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