Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

How Green Is UVic?

There's no cause to brag. 'Knowledge has succumbed to power,' say authors of Planet U.

By Andrew MacLeod 18 Jul 2006 |


Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief.

He is the author of All Together Healthy: A Canadian Wellness Revolution (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018) about improving public health. His first book A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2015) is based on a series he wrote for The Tyee about economic inequality and won the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature.

Before joining The Tyee, Andrew worked for Victoria's alternative weekly Monday Magazine, where he wrote hundreds of stories on many topics, including poverty, land use and the environment. His work has been referred to in the B.C. legislature, Canadian House of Commons and senate. He won a 2006 Association of Alternative Newsweeklies award for news writing and was a finalist for a 2007 Western Magazine Award for best article in B.C. and the Yukon.

Andrew lives with his family in Victoria and is learning to play the Scottish small pipes. You can reach him here or at (250) 885-7662.

image atom
Change begins on campus.
  • Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University
  • Justine Starke and Michael M'Gonigle
  • New Society (2005)

By Michael M'Gonigle's own assessment, he and co-author Justine Starke have written a utopian analysis of what the university might be -- as a learning institution, as a working environment and as a reflection of its surroundings. And like any utopian work, starting with Thomas More's original Utopia back in 1516, M'Gonigle and Starke's Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University (New Society) is rooted in a deep frustration with how things actually are.

"I realized I couldn't keep hitting my head on the wall inside the building," says M'Gonigle, talking about the many on-campus battles that inspired the book. "We're talking about a social revolution the university should be leading, not dragging its heels on." In recent years the University of Victoria, where M'Gonigle is a professor and eco-research chair of environmental law and policy, had students sitting in trees in Cunningham woods to keep the institution from chopping down the last remnants of forest in the campus core. Those protests rolled into debates over the general campus plan, with M'Gonigle and others pushing the school to embrace making environmental considerations much more central to the overall planning process.

And while UVic made some changes to its plan, he says, it was only after a concerted push from students, faculty and others. "It's a bizarre world where people, even presidents at universities, have a wall around their brains," M'Gonigle says. Nor have his attempts to take down some of those walls been entirely welcomed. "I'm not popular with the senior administration."

'How we got shafted by UVic'

Should those senior administrators give Planet U a careful read, the book likely won't make M'Gonigle any more popular. While he and Starke have kept the book largely positive, offering a vision for how things could be improved at all universities, they also point out how much inertia there is in the structure of most schools and how UVic specifically has failed to take a lead in moving toward sustainability.

"We cannot have a sustainable world where universities promote unsustainability," they write. "But neither can we change the university without also changing the world; the two are entwined." In many ways the schools are a reflection of our society.

UVic sees itself as leading on sustainability issues, at least according to its soon-to-be-released Sustainability Report 2006, but according to Planet U the school often fails to live up to its own hype. The chapter on "social movement" in particular, says M'Gonigle, is about "how we got shafted by UVic." In it the authors describe how the university reacted to the Hanen Report, Planning Possibilities, that laid out suggestions from a high-level commission chaired by philosopher and former president of the University of Winnipeg, Marsha Hanen, for how the school could make its planning more participatory, with open elections of its members, open meetings and a new spirit of consultation. The administration paid lip service to the plan, they write, but in the end changed little.

"And so, after years of conflict, just as the university had come to the edge of taking a momentous step forward, the administration had pulled back, retrenched and politely engineered its own failure. Knowledge had succumbed to power," they write. "Excited at the potential of a reformed campus and, taking the university at its word, the protesters had let down their guard, and implementation had been turned over to the very operational department that was to be reformed. Quickly it was back to business as usual…. This conflict in a back room of the University Club was not just a small matter to them. It was a micro example of a macro problem where an institution cannot act, and therefore turns an opportunity for change into an exercise in public relations."

UVic: 'We strive to model sustainability'

Unfortunately, UVic president David Turpin is unavailable for comment. His assistant says he is away for all of July and unreachable. "Call UVic's public relations office," she adds.

But apparently, summer is not the best time for interviews. It turns out all the best people to talk with are away, says spokesperson Patty Pitts. On sustainability, she says there have been recent shifts in the facilities management, the department that develops, operates and maintains campus facilities, to embrace greener ways of doing things.

Changes were made to the campus plan while it was being developed, she says, that made many of the critics happy. There's now a moratorium on clearing woods in the campus core, for example, and there are efforts to protect and restore Garry oak meadows.

What's more, she says there's now transparency around the decisions to make any major changes to the campus, such as adding new buildings.

Pitts sends over a computer file of Sustainability Report 2006, the slick 10-page report to be printed on 30 per cent post-consumer recycled fibre, which details what the school is doing. "The concept of sustainability is not new to the University of Victoria," says the introduction. "While terms may evolve, our commitment to responsible resource use, protection of natural areas and a pedestrian oriented campus has been in place since the 1960s."

It continues: "At the University of Victoria we strive to model sustainability, applying ingenuity to find new and creative solutions and practices that can serve as examples for others…. Through our operations, UVic is demonstrating that incorporating sustainability into decision making makes good business sense."

The report even points to Planet U as one of nine highlights of sustainability research happening at the university.

Green ideas promoter

For her part, co-author Justine Starke says UVic bragging about a book that is critical of the school is ironic.

Describing the origins of Planet U, she says, "It very much came out of our engagement with UVic's planning process and our engagement with the community members who were vocal about what was happening at UVic."

Through that process some change happened, but there's still a ways to go. "UVic is not perfect, but it was definitely improved by the broad consultation that went into developing its 2003 campus plan," she says. "UVic's definitely challenged by the paradigm a lot of the upper administration is working in. It's a pretty conservative institution."

Starke recently left Victoria for Vancouver, where she'll work on a master's in community planning at the University of British Columbia.

One positive addition at UVic is the role Sarah Webb plays as the sustainability co-ordinator in the facilities management department. She's in a position to bring green ideas to the table and make sure alternatives are considered. She advances a lot of ideas like getting waterless urinals added to new buildings, but, says Starke, "She's a lone soldier up there."

Webb says she gets to work closely with people throughout the campus community and that positions like hers are relatively new. "Sustainability is such an opportunity for universities and colleges throughout North America and it will continue to grow and to build."

Toiling in 'silos'

Ultimately though, the school only has one person dedicated to sustainability. For comparison, Pitts confirms there are 11 people working in the public relations office, with a new position being added soon. Over in the development office, which works on fundraising from corporations, governments and individuals, there are at least 25 people.

But it's not necessarily fair to compare those numbers with Webb's small office, says Pitts. There are experts in sustainability working in economics, geography, engineering, business, environmental studies and biology, she says. There's the environmental law centre and M'Gonigle's own eco-research position. "It's difficult to say specifically how much resources UVic is putting towards sustainability," she says. "It really is throughout the whole infrastructure."

Yet even though all these things are happening at the university, it doesn't mean the in-house knowledge is applied to decisions. "That's a big problem with the university in general," says Starke. For the most part, she adds, you have people in all the different disciplines plugging away at their work in individual silos -- yet it doesn't have to be that way. "Sustainability is all about integrating ideas and working's all about applying a holistic approach to everything you do."

M'Gonigle puts the problem with university administration this way: "They don't learn from their own teaching."

The authors also address this same question in the book. "At the university, the researcher delivers a lecture on the impacts of CO2 emissions on the global climate, then drives to the airport for the flight to the conference on atmospheric science," they write. "The school of health launches a study of teenager nutrition, while the cafeteria downstairs fast-fries chicken wings [from a thousand miles away] en route to a student's paper plate."

Instead of paying attention to the "ecology of everyday life," universities process students to have credentials for a job, yet they are not educated about the world. They quote Oberlin College environmental studies professor David Orr, who wrote, "The product of a university degree is a population trained in hypocrisy."

Universities: a history

Still, as the authors make clear in a section on the history of the institution, the university hasn't always been this way.

The first universities started with religious purposes, then evolved into modernist places where disciplines contributed to expanding knowledge and nation building. Later they morphed again into places supporting "economism" where the prime purpose was to create workers with credentials for an increasingly corporate world. Now, their main patrons -- corporations and governments -- push schools to become more commercial and to produce more research that will have a market.

As Starke and M'Gonigle put it in Planet U, "Every bit as much as Paris turned out good clerics, and Berlin good bridge builders, so Harvard and UVic turn out the 21st-century equivalent for the age of economism -- well-trained producers and well-socialized consumers." No doubt as fees climb higher -- and students take on more debt to cover them -- more and more of those consumers will be going through their studies with a clear idea of how they're going to make a buck and pay it all back when they're done.

Nor is there much room in such institutions for people who'd like the university to be something more, write the authors. "In this new university, dissent is a threat to fundraising and to good corporate relations."

Rabble rouser

One person who would agree with that sentiment is Ingmar Lee, who served for a year on UVic's board of governors as a student representative. Lee appears in Planet U as one of the core activists pushing UVic in recent years to set a greener example. (One of Briony Penn's tarot-inspired illustrations that appear throughout the book -- the rebel -- even looks strikingly like Lee.) In an e-mail from India, where he has lived for almost a year, Lee says he has yet to see a copy of Planet U. However, he says, "I can say that the UVic administration under president Turpin was a fat, impenetrable, pig-headed Ivory Tower of process and bureaucracy which was completely uninterested in taking even the most basic baby steps to green up the university."

He criticizes the school for "spewing pesticides," clearing forest for development -- despite having some 40 hectares of parking lot that could have been used for building -- and failing to reduce paper use. "These were all concerns not even worth considering to them," writes Lee. He recalls setting up a meeting with Turpin where he asked the president to set an example by insisting that his office use only 100 per cent post-consumer recycled paper.

Then he laid out a five-point plan that would have moved the campus towards reducing its paper use. "This was all too much for Turpin," continues Lee. "Nothing happened. Students continue to get stonewalled up there on the paper issue."

The only mention of paper in UVic's Sustainability Report 2006, by the way, is on the final page of the report which notes that almost one tree was saved by printing the document on 30 per cent post-consumer recycled fibre.

Lee says as far as he's aware, things aren't getting much better on the environmental front, and there seem to be few things the school responds to. "I tried everything possible, beginning with working politely through the due-process options, writing articles, getting involved in groups, getting elected to the [board of governors], non-violent civil disobedience, direct action and finally, the only thing that even began to get their attention, public humiliation." He concludes, "For us plebes, embarrassing them publicly, that's the only thing that worked as far as getting the attention of Turpin and the UVic administration went."

On the bright side

The book is not, however, all doom and gloom. The authors are optimistic that universities can change -- if there's the will to make that change. "When people wake up to what a university is, they'll say, 'Oh my god, this is such potential that we're wasting,'" says M'Gonigle. "It's an uphill battle, but if we can't do it in the universities, we can't do it on the planet," he adds.

But M'Gonigle insists the goal of Planet U is more than just getting a few green buildings built. "Its goal is to change the discussion, to raise the bar to make people think much more comprehensively."

Or, as Starke says, "I hope the book serves its purpose in inspiring a new social movement to recognize the university as a catalyst for change."

Instead of reflecting a consumer, growth-driven culture, a more utopian vision of universities is that they will point the way toward a sustainable future, where local places are valued and treated with care. Clearly, that's a vision that would be good for all of us.

Andrew MacLeod is a staff reporter for Victoria's Monday Magazine, where this piece originally appeared.  [Tyee]