Why does the Board of Trustees even exist? Sidestepping the fact that well over 50 percent of Cornell students are ignorant of the Board’s existence, I will attempt an answer. I suggested, jokingly, last month that trustees get a high off the “supreme control” they are vested with for governing Cornell. Don’t get me wrong, supreme control is ostentatiously great, but it is just a side effect that comes with the territory. The trustees actually exist to identify a vision for what Cornell should look like in 5, 10, 50 and 100 years. We work with students, staff, faculty, alumni, parents and all people interested in the future of Cornell to create a cohesive idea of how Cornell should define itself and where the University should be headed. We then work with the administration to create policy that ensures the realization of our vision.
As I mark the end of my second year of representing student interests at the highest level of University governance, I have spent much time considering what issues the Board of Trustees needs to tackle going forward. Reflecting on the trustees’ task of articulating a vision for our long-term future, and in light of my work as a Ph.D. student in natural resources, I identified “sustainability” as a predominant issue for the trustees to examine. Sustainability broadly means living in a society (or campus community) that we find environmentally, socially and economically attractive, and making sure that future generations have the same opportunity to do so.
Cornell has recently distinguished itself through its commitment to environmental sustainability. We received a “gold” ranking from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, the most widely recognized system for rating colleges and universities on their level of sustainability. Our score placed us 19th out of 175 rated schools; the top 30 schools all achieved a “gold” ranking. Beyond STARS, which only applies to the Ithaca campus, we have made an outstanding commitment to environmental sustainability through our new NYCTech campus, where we have pledged to have every building be at least LEED Silver Certified and have made it our goal to have our first building be a net zero carbon source.
What we have done so far is laudable and yet, the STARS rankings highlight for us our strengths and our weaknesses. By reviewing the areas in which Cornell excels in sustainability and the areas in which we underperform, I have become convinced that Cornell can achieve a STARS Platinum ranking, a recognition that no school has yet achieved. We can be a Captain Planet-esque superhero, leading the charge on sustainability when the right combination of elements (and heart!) unites.
If Cornell is to take the lead nationally on issues of sustainability, there are four areas in which we must achieve noticeable improvement: operations and maintenance, energy conservation, sustainability curriculum and sustainable investing. Operations and maintenance is a complex area, but it mainly relates to ensuring that buildings only use the least amount of resources necessary to achieve their purpose. For example, flushing the toilet is necessary, but you do not need so much water to flush down your business that you feel like you just hydro-fracked a well by pressing the handle. Likewise, for energy conservation, heat and lights are necessary, but that guy who leaves the dorm room at 80ºF over winter break can get his act together.
We need a focus on sustainability in education that extends across campus, with all degree granting programs articulating learning outcomes for how questions of sustainability affect their students. “Sustainability” is not something only relevant to natural resources and ecology majors. In terms of investing, we need to ensure that we grow Cornell’s financial position through placing our endowment dollars in companies that respect the integrity of the earth around us.
Cornell has already accomplished a great deal in the realm of sustainability. To achieve the STARS Platinum goal will take strong collaboration between faculty, staff, college administrators, University administrators and the students who push all the rest of us to change. The Board of Trustees can contribute to this goal by including it in our long-term vision for Cornell.
Darrick Nighthawk Evensen is a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and the graduate student-elected trustee. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.