California Budget Crisis Presents Opportunities for Sustainability
Amid tuition increases, student protest rallies and faculty taking job offers elsewhere, the staggering cuts to the state budget was a running narrative during this year’s California Higher Education Sustainability Conference. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a budget in June that cut higher education by $1.3 billion and it was announced recently that students in all 23 California State University campuses will be paying 12 percent more this fall than they did last year.
It would be easy to associate the words “defeat,” “surrender” and “paralyzed” to California’s higher education situation. But the words ringing through the conference, held July 10-13 at California State University, Long Beach, were “opportunity” “proactive” and “empowered.”
The budget cuts have created motivation during a time that many would consider no longer possible to move forward with sustainability efforts. “Budget cuts support sustainability because the resources that we are draining down the electricity wires or pouring down the drain or sending off to landfills suddenly matters,” said Matthew St. Clair, sustainability manager at the University of California Office of the President, during a Tuesday session. “Suddenly, the University of California cares about its $300-350 million-a-year energy bill in a way that it never has before.”
Now more than ever, it is also important for campuses to look at ways that sustainability is directly supporting budget cuts. Since 2004, new buildings in the UC system have been required to outperform the state energy code by at least 20 percent. To do so, campuses have registered in a priority savings program that provides assistance and credits. By the end of 2010, the system received or was slated to receive $8 million toward projects from utilities for energy-efficient design.
Another example is an energy savings goal passed by UC Regents in 2003. From its start in 2004 to 2010, system-wide energy efficiency projects avoided $21 million in utility costs.
St. Clair also pointed out that the budget crisis has motivated the UC system toward fundamental, systematic strides in sustainability. He detailed the UC system’s Working Smarter Initiative, which has created $157 million in system-wide administrative efficiencies over the past year and is on track to achieve $500 million in positive fiscal impact over five years.
On a campus level, state budget cuts have left campuses like the University of California, Davis in the lurch with—among other things—building operating costs. The university is building a new veterinary medicine building that will seek LEED Gold certification. It is scheduled to open its doors in 2012 with an annual operating cost of $1.4 million. State-funded buildings used to get $9 per square foot in operating costs. That budget has been cut.
“So we’re going to build a $60 million dollar building and open the doors and we have no way to pay for the energy, the water, the sewer, waste pick-up, building maintenance, custodial and grounds,” said Sid England during the “Turning Crisis into Opportunity” conference session. England, the assistant vice chancellor of environmental stewardship and sustainability at UC Davis, said that for the first time, the costs may fall to the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine.
With the budget crisis forcing creative thinking, the dean has come up with $2 million in one-time funds to reduce the $1.4 million annual cost to something lower for an already ambitious LEED Gold science building. The university is currently examining several areas for reductions including energy, behavior modification outreach, infrastructure improvements and even the consolidation of building space on campus.
Stepping back, California is not the only state that is or will be experiencing a higher education budget crisis. From 1980 to 2000, California experienced the same change in demographics that the U.S. is projected to go through from 2000 to 2050, said Dr. Manuel Pastor during the conference’s opening keynote speech. By 2042, the U.S. is expected to be a majority minority nation and by 2020, youth will make up the majority of the population.
“The bigger the demographic gap between old and young, the less the state is willing to spend on education,” said Pastor, a professor of American studies and ethnicity and director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California. In California, 63 percent of voters are whites over 65 years old and 70 percent of youth under 18 years old are people of color.
This changing demography is a challenge to the economic future, said Pastor, as it is a shift toward more inequality in the economy. We think of creating a more sustainable planet in terms of how we organize our campuses and utilize public transit, said Pastor, “but there is a connection between issues of social inequity and our environment. One of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions is the way in which we have sprawled across the landscape. Much of that sprawl has been the desire to separate between race and class.”
We need to be dealing with issues of race, inequality and justice as part of dealing with issues of climate and sustainability, said Pastor. He emphasized the green jobs movement as having the ability to marry the issues of economy, equity and environment in a way that can resurrect our economy.
Urging the higher education community to continue its advocacy work toward sustainability policy changes, Pastor encouraged conference attendees to build alliances with people who may not have been initially be on their side, but who might be ready to listen as a result of economic or changing demography concerns: "There is an immediate need to think long term."
For more conference coverage, see "Greening California's Colleges and Universities" on the California State University website.
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