Student Impacts on College Priorities

Protester with an Earth costume holding a sign that says, "There are no jobs on a dead planet."(Source: ABC News: Andie Noonan via Greeneration Foundation)

College strategic plans reflect colleges’ priorities (put “college strategic plans” into the search box to review prior blogs). Reflecting on my own school, when the budget becomes tight, and there is a need to prioritize, the justification for the distribution comes out through the college strategic plan. In a federated college, such as most state schools and my own NYC school (CUNY), the prioritization has to follow the strategic plans of both the central administration and the college. A Climate Action Plan (you can also put this term into the search box) is one of the central issues that every organization needs to address. There is a great deal of activity by both students and faculty in my school in addressing environmental issues. But, as was mentioned earlier, a climate action plan is nowhere to be found in the official strategic plans of either CUNY or Brooklyn College, my campus. Our Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration also chairs our committee charged with formulating our new college strategic plan. He told a group of us that this document does not (and will not) include infrastructure priorities.

Meanwhile, you cannot address a climate action plan without addressing the sources of energy that power our schools; in federated universities, these energy sources are determined by the central university. As we will see below, CUNY, in its recent strategic plan, does address infrastructure, but it doesn’t require that the infrastructure include a climate action plan[. More than that, given that all our buildings belong to the central university, we cannot establish alternative energy sources on the campus without the agreement and support of the central university. But our students belong to the individual colleges and they are supposed to be the main users of the energy.

As was mentioned in the previous blog, student attendance is a big issue for many schools, including my own. Most colleges are doing their best to attract students and we are all looking for the best way to accomplish that. If the decline in enrollment continues, many colleges will fold. The top photograph tells the whole story. “There are no jobs on a dead planet.” If there will be no jobs in the future, students are trying to get the best from the present. One common way for colleges to attract students is to make the experience of present students as productive and pleasant as possible. Safety and health are prime considerations. The world is now in an upheaval with deadly regional conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, Hamas and Israel, and others. Most colleges have many students sympathizing with specific sides in these conflicts and often the college administrators are called to take sides. Often, the map of these conflicts can change on a daily basis and large groups of students are finding themselves in a position of weakness and are upset with their administrations for what seemed like helping the other side. This is not a productive atmosphere for learning and many students prefer to stay home.

Two weeks ago (October 10, 2023) I described the situation in my college (Brooklyn College) and my university (CUNY) in drafting our strategic plans. We found that the policy of my college was to draft its strategic plan after the university posted its own. The university just did so and my college has now assembled the team charged with drafting our plan.  It was mentioned that many in the selected committee have their own pet projects to advance and on the same line, in writing on this issue, I have my own “pet project,” which is climate change. I fully admit my “guilt.”

The CUNY strategic plan is drafted for the 2023-2930 time period and specifies 5 goals and a general commitment to increase enrollment. The goals and the commitment are given below:

  1. Improve Career Outcomes

  2. Reshape Student Success

  3. Streamline Student Transfer within CUNY

  4. Advance Public-Impact Research

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

Increasing Enrollment and Retention

General comment on the goals and the commitment:

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.

To me, that paragraph is all-telling. It basically addresses present issues while avoiding trying to address the long-term issues that our students are certain to face. The missing climate action plan is a good example. Students who consider coming to us are planning on a 4-5 year stay that will help them navigate changing environments. Teaching how to navigate new environments is the main job of universities. What can our students do to have an impact on college priorities while also preparing themselves for emerging job opportunities in a changing environment?

As I have mentioned often in this blog, I am an old guy on the verge of retirement. The students that we teach, and those that we want to attract, have their lives in front of them and they expect the college and the faculty to help them navigate the rest of their lives in a productive way.

Last week’s blog had AI define what students can do to advance climate action plans. The result was not satisfying. All the given examples were focused on sustainability-related parts of courses that they are taking. These kinds of examples are now common in almost all classrooms. It’s difficult to teach almost anything without using sustainability-related topics. There was no example of students exercising their influence on their own administration to form and execute a productive action plan. I wrote about it extensively this year. Just put the “student role” into the search box and see what you get.

You can find a productive example in the blog from April 18th of this year, titled “Teaching Students to be Involved in Energy Transition.” It recommends following productive practices in their community and asking the persons who initiated the practice to write a short description that will be published either on a local blog or in the student newspaper that almost every campus has available.

On the same line, students can inquire about student activities at other campuses (local and international) and publish their findings in the same venues.

I wrote before about legislation both in New York State and in NYC on reducing carbon content in the energy used in large buildings (June 25, 2019). Progress has to be significant starting next year. To handle such activities most relevant buildings are in need of “energy experts” that can coordinate the effort. This is a future job opportunity that students can be encouraged to prepare for—either as their main job or as a side gig.

I will end this blog with two important opportunities for students to get involved that were not mentioned earlier:

  1. Changing culture of the university to redirect Students Technology Fund.

 Below is the background of this fund:

Student Technology Fee Spending Plans

In 2003, the CUNY Board of Trustees adopted legislation requiring students to pay an annual technology fee. The revenues generated by the fee are to be used by the colleges to enhance opportunities for students to use current technology in their academic studies and to acquire the knowledge and skills that the modern, information-centered world requires.

Each year, a committee composed of administrators, faculty and students, chaired by the Provost , solicits suggestions from the college community and prepares a plan for the use of the technology fee funds. The plan is submitted to the Chancellor for approval. Brooklyn College’s advanced use of technology enables the committee to both pursue more advanced goals and concentrate on projects that build on mature foundations.

Approved projects are expected to further the college’s goals of: expanding student access to computing resources, improving computer-based instruction, improving support for students using college computers, improving student services, and using technology to enrich student life on campus. These goals should now only make college life more enjoyable, but also provide Brooklyn College students with an edge as they enter the job market or move on to postgraduate studies.

Over the last 20 years, computer technology has developed to underpin every educational institution. It is high time to fund the maintenance and expansion of computer technology and redirect at least part of the fund to college sustainability research that will integrate into the college action plan.

  1. Help to Enhance Climate Change Literacy in College Communities:

Below is some information on externally-funded Brooklyn College efforts with high student involvement:

Thanks to a $500,000 Environmental Literacy Grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA), the National Wildlife Federation’s NYC Eco-Schools is partnering with Professor Brett Branco of Brooklyn College, the NYCDOE, the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay (SRIJB), and New York Sea Grant to create and launch the Resilient Schools Consortium (RiSC). The aim of the RiSC program is to prepare students to assess the vulnerabilities of their schools and communities to extreme weather events, create small-scale resiliency projects at their schools, and help draft climate resilience guidelines for the NYCDOE.

The RiSC program launches in October 2017 as both an after school and in-school pilot program and will engage up to 500 students and over a dozen teachers in seven public middle and high schools (members of the Brooklyn Marine STEAM Education Alliance) located in the vulnerable coastal community of South Brooklyn. Participating schools were either severely damaged during Sandy in 2012 or served as shelters for displaced students and their families.

“In the face of monster storms like Maria, Irma, Harvey in 2017, and Sandy in NYC, we need an entire generation of students to become climate literate as quickly as possible,” says Frank Niepold, NOAA’s Climate Education Coordinator and a RiSC Advisory Board member.

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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4 Responses to Student Impacts on College Priorities

  1. VingGa Kong says:

    Hi Professor,

    I really liked the image that you included in the beginning. It really goes to show how if we don’t make an action right now to create change about climate change, then there’s no point because our future would be nonexistent. As this blog covers a lot of how the school tries to advocate for students to join and be a part of the campus, values and resources are a very important aspect. Generally, students would want a school that share the same values and have resources that would be able to help them with their future. If we continue to turn a blind eye to climate change, it might decrease enrollment because students that are advocates of this case would want to choose a school that is actively trying to make change.

    Thank you,

  2. Denise Gonzalez says:

    It’s important that students have a say in administrative priorities, and your emphasis on this is particularly relevant in regard to issues like climate change. As demonstrated by your example of incorporating students in energy transition projects, getting students involved in proactive measures benefits not just their education but also the community at large and sustainability efforts. Universities can take concrete actions to improve climate change literacy through external grants and to refocus the Student Technology Fund towards sustainability research. Your viewpoint, which is based on your expertise and dedication to solving long-term issues, offers insightful advice for creating an educational climate that is more student-centered and sustainable. In the upcoming years, it will be interesting to watch how colleges adapt to the changing requirements of both students and the environment, particularly as they strike a careful balance between immediate concerns and long-term planning.

  3. Carina Alessandro says:

    I’m glad this blog has other blogs referenced in it to explore the topic, especially in my case the April one about student engagement. It’s interesting to see the parallels between a changing social environment for a student to understand somewhat the long term changes they’ll see in the future , as well.

  4. Niamh Zanghi says:

    I notice how you say that college students have their whole lives in front of them and they want a school that will help them figure out their future. As a second-year college student, I couldn’t agree more. Additionally, I think a college should be just as invested in the future world their students will be graduating into as they are in invested in their student’s future careers.

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