Trevor Brighton | Art Director

Trevor Brighton | Art Director

Greener on the other side

Published April 5, 2023

OU sustainability funding restricts student initiatives

By Liz Partsch | For The Post

From its efforts toward diversifying wildlife in the area, adopting electric scooters around town and creating a lucrative composting system as highlighted in The Washington Post, Ohio University displays a clear prioritization of sustainability on campus.

However, some students and faculty think OU could widen its sustainability approach with a Green Fee: a designated funding stream attached to tuition that provides a revolving fund to finance sustainability projects on campus.

Caden Hibbs, a sophomore studying economics and the environmental affairs commissioner on the Student Senate, is a major proponent for the initiative. Since arriving on campus, Hibbs has been trying to push a Green Fee at OU through his role in the Student Senate and involvement with the Office of Sustainability at OU.

"That money would go towards sustainability initiatives on campus," Hibbs said. "Overall, it would really be able to provide more interactive activities for students (to) really engage with sustainability on campus."

One of the biggest reasons a Green Fee is important is because of the lack of funding for sustainability projects at OU, Hibbs said. The Office of Sustainability has zero funding in its budget for sustainability projects on campus.

However, Hibbs is not the first person who has attempted to add a Green Fee.

Back in time

Kirsteena Blazer, OU alumni and current sustainability coordinator at Oklahoma State University, first proposed a Green Fee to the Ohio University Board of Regions back in 2016.

As a former graduate assistant at the Office of Sustainability, Blazer contributed to numerous sustainability initiatives at OU, implementing special projects such as waste management, food waste recycling and landscaping.

However, Blazer, like many other environmental study students, felt limited when it came to producing projects.

"At the time, the issue was that the Office of Sustainability had limited funding, and the funding that we did have was already spoken for," Blazer said. "A lot of the projects that we wanted to do, like creating a standardized recycling bin for all of campus, we would either have to apply for grant money or wait multiple years to when our budget allowed for it."

Blazer said grants were not helpful because of the long time it would take to acquire the money. She said if a student wanted to apply for a grant, they had to convince a permanent employee in the Office of Sustainability to apply, as the students would have limited time on campus.

"By the time I applied for it and the funds were released to me, I would have already been gone; I would have graduated," Blazer said. "It's usually about a two to three year period of time from application to (the) release of funds for something like a grant."

In an effort to acquire funding more easily, the idea of a Green Fee was born, acting as a revolving fund to finance sustainability efforts on campus.

Blazer envisioned the green fee working in one of two ways. In one scenario, a committee would hold a public meeting where students propose projects and the committee votes on which one to finance. In the second case, students would apply for a select amount of money for their project to be financed. This way, she predicted the green fee would fund three to five projects every year.

Despite both graduate and undergraduate Student Senates' supporting the fee, when it came to getting the Board of Regions to vote on it, it came to a standstill.

Blazer said the Board was extremely hesitant in adding an additional fee, as they had already faced a lot of pushback from already existing fees and were in the process of increasing tuition prices.

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Trevor Brighton | Art Director

To ease the Board's concerns, Blazer proposed the opt-in, opt-out Green Fee, which would give students a choice to buy into funding sustainability projects, similar to waivable fees such as OU's student legal service fee or the student health insurance fee. She envisioned an optional $5 fee every semester, which, based on the student population at the time, would produce $50,000 to $100,000 a year if faculty and staff also contributed.

However, the Board of regions was still hesitant about the fee.

"Even if it was optional, they didn't like the word 'fee' associated with it," Blazer said. "We did try and change it to 'Green Fund' which was a bit more I think palatable for them because it's not then having the negative connotation that fee would have with it, but it sort of just ended there."

At Oklahoma State University, there is something called a "Green Student Initiative," which is essentially a Green Fee funded by the vice president of the research office, Blazer said.

The Green Student Initiative sets aside $40,000 every year for student-funded projects. The way it works is that students apply for the funding with a project proposal and itemized budget and give a presentation in front of the Sustainability Board; the Board then votes on whether or not to fund the project.

In recent years, Blazer said the initiative funded projects such as the Greenhouse Learning Center, a soil sterilizer that develops a closed loop system to reuse soil, a biodiversity garden and a pocket prairie, a former piece of land damaged by pesticide and fertilizer use that now acts as a butterfly and bee habitat.

Blazer said the green student initiative at Oklahoma State supports both student sustainability projects and education.

"We want to give students the professional development experience of having to apply for something like a grant, put together a project proposal with an itemized budget and then give a presentation to a formalized committee," Blazer said. "It sort of serves dual purposes."

Other universities

In recent years, colleges across the country have implemented Green Fees or Green adjacent funds to finance sustainability projects and make their campuses more environmentally friendly.

One of those campuses is Miami University, one of OU's next-door neighbors.

Jules Jefferson, a junior studying biochemistry, nutrition and environmental science at Miami University and the president of the Student Sustainability Council said a majority of financing for green initiatives on campus comes from Associated Student Government funding.

Jefferson mentioned several different sustainability initiatives at Miami including solar panels achieved through Engineers Without Border and "trash audits," for residential halls, in which students go through trash to see what could've been recycled.

Most importantly, Miami is one of the only universities in the country to transition completely to geothermal energy.

Miami estimates by 2026, 43 buildings on campus will be powered by geothermal energy, accounting for 39% of Miami's on-campus facilities. After transitioning to less carbon-intensive power in 2008, their total energy use decreased by 39% when measured again in 2019, and they project in the future geothermal energy will reduce water usage by 43%.

Alongside Miami, another OU neighbor, Dayton University, has also successfully implemented a "Green Revolving Fund" to support student sustainability projects on campus through an open application process, according to the university website.

Outside of Ohio, other universities throughout the country have taken initiatives to fund sustainability efforts on campus through means such as green fees or sustainability funds.

In the Princeton Review's Top 50 Green Colleges 2023 report, 7 out of the top 10 most green colleges in the United States advertise either a Green Fee implemented or a sustainability revolving fund established to finance sustainability efforts.

OU at a glance

Currently, OU's Office of Sustainability has no sustainability fund established.

Its current budget in the 2023 fiscal year is $270,511.18, 95-96% of which goes toward salaries for its 12-14 positions: including the director, associate director, three faculty affiliates, three graduate students and four to six undergraduate students, Samantha Pelham, OU media relations specialist, said.

The remaining 4-5% of the budget goes toward membership renewals for sustainability commitments, recognitions, databases and professional organizations (2%) as well as various supplies, sponsorships, awards and training (2.5%).

The 2.5% of various supplies funds annual events and awards such as the Sustainability Film Series at the Athena Cinema, student sustainability awards at the OHIO Student EXPO and Earth Day events, Pelham said.

Since 2021, the Office of Sustainability's budget has increased from $261,397.89 in 2021 to the current budget of $270,511.18.

Despite the increase of roughly $9,113 in the budget, the Office of Sustainability still has yet to establish a revolving fund.

However, the 2021 OHIO Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Goals List states the department's hope to "Create funding mechanisms for sustainability initiatives outside of General Funds." It also lists creating a sustainability revolving loan fund as a potential strategy to accomplish its funding goals.

Sam Crowl, associate director of the Office of Sustainability, said Elaine Goetz, the director of energy management and sustainability, has been looking at rebate programs through some of OU's gas and electric utilities, which could provide funding to establish a revolving fund.

Crowl said savings created from the ECO Impact Challenge, an annual student-run challenge to implement cost-efficient sustainability projects on campus, could eventually be used to support a revolving fund.

The Bingham House is home to the Office of Sustainability.

Liz Partsch | For The Post

The Bingham House is home to the Office of Sustainability.

However, without a Green Fee or sustainability revolving fund, the current method for students to propose sustainability projects at OU is through a project initiation form, or PIF.

After a student or faculty member fills out a PIF, OU's Work Coordination Committee either approves or denies the project. However, once a proposal gets approved, funding has to be found for the project.

For example, one winning ECO Impact Challenge project focused on upgrading the Convocation Center's outdoor lighting to LEDs which could, over time, be more sustainable and cost-effective. The project was granted funding through a PIF, Crowl said.

However, the project was only allocated funding years later when a PIF was put in to renovate the Convocation Center.

"They decided at that time it makes sense to go ahead and change those fixtures to LEDs based on the students' model," Crowl said. "There isn't a pool of money unless somebody within a department has that money and wants to do the project."

Lily Schaefer, a junior studying environmental studies, is currently enrolled in Crowl's sustainability implementation course and working on a project of her own. Her project entails establishing a pollinator garden on campus by Bingham House, a historic log cabin at OU home to the Office of Sustainability.

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Trevor Brighton | Art Director

After OU became a Bee Campus USA in 2021, a recognition given to colleges who support pollination conservation, Crowl feels this is the perfect project to encourage biodiversity on campus.

However, like individual projects outside of classes, there is still no pool of money for students to utilize for funding, so Schaefer is struggling to weigh her options.

Already, she has looked into applying for grant funding at the Honors Tutorial College through the dean's funding. The funding distributes $50,000 annually to a plethora of students who apply, and alumni provide the money.

Despite the dean's funding being a potential source of financial support, it has no sustainability affiliation and can be granted to any genre of project. Nevertheless, Schaefer said she felt as if the fund was her only available option on campus, and she worries about what would happen if she is not lucky enough to acquire the funding.

Schaefer looked into other grant funding, but all of the deadlines were in March. Even if she had applied by the deadline, she explained they don't refund you for the money you already spent on the project, and the money wouldn't come through until the end of the semester in May — when her project would already need to be done.

With all her efforts nearly exhausted, Schaefer concluded she may have to fund the project on her own. She equates her problems to a lack of accessible resources for students who want to implement projects independently and not through organizations on campus.

"I loved the idea of this project," Schaefer said. "I'm just starting to fall back a little because it's hard to do it on my own. I think the university has great sustainability options, and we're working toward a better future, but there's just that student aspect that's lacking."

Next steps

Hibbs' next steps toward implementing a Green Fee are focused on student involvement. At the moment, he is working on creating a survey for students to fill out in an effort to gauge how students on campus would feel about the fee.

"The overall goal is going to be to take that data, and if it's favorable, use that in an argument to support a recommendation to bring a Green Fee to OU as a revolving sustainability fund," Hibbs said.

Despite all the positives a Green Fee would bring, Hibbs said he is cognizant that some students may have concerns about raising tuition costs. However, his idea of a Green Fee accommodates those concerns.

"A big thing you have to look at is the opt-in or opt-out plan," Hibbs said. "It allows students to decide whether or not they want to pay for this. It's not just a cost that's going to be pushed on to students without their consent. They have a decision, they have a say in this."

As Hibbs continues his fight for a Green Fee at OU, for now, it seems Schaefer and other students will need to rely on restrictive grant money, PIFs or their own bank account to fund sustainability projects on campus.

Moving forward, Crowl said the Office of Sustainability is comfortable utilizing the budget they currently have and funding projects in the small way they can, but they will always accept more to do more.

"What department wouldn't say that they would like to see more money being used for sustainability," Crowl said. "I'm not going to say that we wouldn't be able to utilize additional money, but we are very happy with the way we can support our students and support sustainability on campus."

AUTHOR: Liz Partsch
EDITOR: Alex Imwalle
ILLUSTRATION: Trevor Brighton
WEB DEVELOPMENT: Anastasia Carter