Students in the University’s College of the Environment, along with members of the Office of Sustainability, the Resource Center, and additional members of faculty, are involved in a current push to incorporate environmental justice and sustainability more firmly and ubiquitously into academic culture on campus. Advocates for the cause hope to expand upon a recent victory, the addition of the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Course Cluster to WesMaps, by bringing a Professor of Environmental Justice to campus in the near future. They will also continue to be involved in the process of integrating sustainability into academic culture, which will take place on three levels.
First, those involved in this process aim to incorporate sustainability into courses across the academic spectrum, so that students have exposure to sustainable ideas and practices no matter their academic interest. Second is the push for professors to list their courses under the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Course Cluster, and more firmly incorporate sustainability into their curriculum. Lastly is the current effort toward hiring a professor of environmental justice, which is in its beginning stages.
Many of these goals are elements of the 2016 program Sustainability Across the Curriculum, led by Associate Professor of Science in Society and African American Studies Anthony Hatch for the 2019-2020 term. The program encourages professors to submit Requests for Proposals (RPFs) through the Sustainability & Environmental Justice Pedagogical Initiative in order to incorporate sustainability into their courses. Sustainability Coordinator Jen Kleindienst will then help to develop the ideas, and faculty members who are chosen will receive funds depending on how involved their ideas will be.
Kleindienst noted that the informality of the course cluster—which will change every year to accommodate courses that are offered—also allows it to expand, shrink, and shift focus depending on how the University develops in terms of sustainability in future years. Currently, eight courses for the next two semesters are listed in the course cluster.
Kleindienst and the Sustainability Office are also looking to make the level of direct engagement with sustainability more flexible than it has been in the past. Previously, the Sustainability Office has asked faculty to submit proposals and syllabi, and attend a variety of meetings, but found through all the steps, some faculty would become disinclined to continue with the process. Thus, a recent idea has been to offer more informal resources in addition to RFPs, such as an environmental justice workshop for faculty.
“[We’re considering] having some sort of workshop, having some sort of informal ways for faculty who are just newly engaging with this and faculty who have been involved for a little while in the past—having some ways for them to integrate in a more informal way,” Kleindienst noted.
A number of students are involved in this ongoing process and are working toward hiring a Professor of Environmental Justice. Megan Levan ’22, who is a prominent player in the effort to hire a new faculty member, explained that hiring a new professor is something that has been attempted in the past. It has never come to fruition, however, because the College of the Environment cannot hire faculty—it is a program rather than a department—and the faculty member would need to be housed in a different department.
“We’re thinking right now we need to partner with AFAM or some department that has the ability to hire a professor, because COE is just a program right now, and so it cannot do any of the same hiring processes that other departments can,” Levan said. “I’m in contact with [Chair of the African American Studies Department Elizabeth] McAlister and we’re hoping with them we’ll be able to hire someone who would be in that department, but with COE, and have specific environmental justice courses.”
Kleindienst emphasized that a single hire will not be left to shoulder the weight of sustainability studies among faculty.
“It’s helpful to have a faculty member who can give you a deep dive into this topic and is an expert in this area, but much like the Sustainability Across the Curriculum Program, the goal is that over time, most faculty will integrate concepts of sustainability—intersectional sustainability—into their courses, and there will still be the need for faculty members who teach more specific understandings of the core concepts, but that this is something that everyone does,” she said.
Students will soon meet with Dean of the Social Sciences Marc Eisner to discuss the feasibility of hiring a Professor of Environmental Justice. Though the overall timeline is not set, students stress that forces are currently in motion to effect tangible change. In general, the student drive to incorporate sustainability and environmental justice more fully into campus curriculum originates from personal interest in these topics.
“I want to change the perception that sustainability is not just a problem for the wealthy and sustainability can be about creating equitable communities for everyone,” Catherine Xi ’21, who is involved in this process, explained in an email to The Argus. “Incorporating sustainability and environmental justice more fully into the academic curriculum can help us envision a more sustainable world by bringing together different disciplines.”
Phoebe Landsman ’21, who is also involved in the project, noted similar motivations.
“Everyone has a responsibility to care for the planet, and therefore everyone needs to have access to opportunities to learn about environmental concerns and sustainable initiatives,” she wrote in an email to The Argus. “Environmental justice is an extremely important topic that is not talked about enough on this campus.”
Recognizing the significance of sustainability and environmental justice as a field of study, Levan believes that, beyond hiring a single professor, broader incorporation of these topics into the current curriculum is crucial.
“This person is the ultimate goal, but one professor isn’t going to do everything so while we’re working towards that which will probably take some time to get that rolling, we’re also trying to incorporate it into courses we already have,” Levan explained. “I think the cluster’s a good place to start.”