News from The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Wednesday, February 13, 2009

Young, Green, and in Charge


Louise Gava was not happy when she marched into President Daniel F. Sullivan's office at St. Lawrence University one day two years ago.

The student activist laid out a list of environmental demands: A planned campus development should be made more ecologically friendly. The budget for sustainability projects was too small. Staffing was inadequate.

Oh, and one more thing: The university should hire her to fix this mess.

"I was a little back in my chair," says President Sullivan. "At least she made an appointment."

Well known on the 2,200-student campus as the "Eco Lady," Ms. Gava was no shrill environmentalist. She was second in her class, with plans to earn a Ph.D. in conservation biology, and the powers-that-be listened to her.

St. Lawrence did not have a post for a sustainability coordinator, but shortly after that unusual meeting, Mr. Sullivan created one and appointed Ms. Gava, a senior, to fill it upon graduating. Now in her second year on the job, she is among a number of twentysomethings who have graduated into environmental-operations positions that they helped to create at their colleges. And while many of these fledgling administrators have enjoyed admirable successes — Mr. Sullivan says the once-pushy student has paid for herself "three times over" — all of them share a dilemma: They represent the very institutions whose environmental policies they once challenged.

"We considered ourselves radicals and sat around talking about 'the Man,'" says Jeremy Friedman, 22, who is in his second year as one of New York University's two sustainability coordinators. "Why isn't 'the Man' recycling? Why isn't 'the Man' buying renewable energy?"

Today the bar and ring in Mr. Friedman's left ear are the only stereotypical hints of a radical past. He wears a button-down shirt tucked into a pair of black slacks, and oversees two student employees from his sixth-floor cubicle across the street from NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he majored in environmental values and public policy. To put it bluntly, he is the Man.

"My values are radical by any mainstream judgment," says Mr. Friedman. "I could rabble-rouse if I wanted to. But I wanted to see things happen. My view was, Let's get to work."

He and his fellow activists-turned-administrators still view climate change as a life-or-death issue that the mainstream has been slow to confront. Yet they have tempered their convictions to work for change within the system.

"In my personal life, in my life as an activist, I would make very different decisions than I can make as a sustainability coordinator," says Ms. Gava. "I drew a line in the sand where the coordinator will sit. I didn't draw that line in the right place at first, and two years in, I realize I'm still too radical." Change, she discovered, does not occur overnight.

For most of the former activists, the fear of selling out was an intellectual hurdle they had to get over. Mr. Friedman worried that he might have to "oversell" NYU's environmental accomplishments, while coordinators at other colleges questioned how effective they would be as administrators rather than environmental activists.

But many have found that their youth, combined with their relative expertise on the subject, has helped them overcome some of the logistical hurdles that a large organization can present to a nascent field like sustainability.

"People respect credible expertise, so where I'm competent I get that respect," says Mr. Friedman.

No matter how strong their grasp of environmental theory and climate change, however, the recent graduates find it challenging to maneuver past a bureaucracy full of administrators who attended college before environmental studies was an option.

Mr. Friedman says colleagues at meetings and sustainability conferences ask what his major is. He often hires graduate students older than himself. The young administrators worry about what to wear to trustee meetings and how to exert authority when most of the campus power players are 40 or older.

Bowen Patterson, Pomona College's 25-year-old sustainability coordinator, says asking her former professors to change their light bulbs is the worst. "I'm self-conscious of the fact that I'm younger," she says, "and I try to prove myself."

The second biennial conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education took place in Raleigh, N.C., in November. It was there that many of the young administrators looked around the room and saw for the first time, mixed in among the crowd, people similar to themselves in both age and experience — or lack of it. While they all had a deep passion for the issues, they quickly learned in talking with one another that they shared a relative cluelessness about how to actually get anything done.

"The most basic tasks are the hard ones, not the ones that require any sort of enthusiasm and knowledge about environmentalism," says Mr. Friedman, who with two years on the job is one of the more experienced young administrators. "I'll wonder, What payment form do I need to pay that contractor? God knows, I'm going to have to spend the day figuring that out."

Now they're organizing. Mr. Friedman and a colleague at the University of California at Santa Cruz are putting together a guide for new sustainability coordinators that covers the basic administrative issues not covered in a biology or environmental-studies course. The sense of urgency many of them feel leaves little time for learning how to get things done within a university bureaucracy.

To make up for their inexperience, the Generation Y administrators routinely put in 60-hour weeks and lose no opportunity to tout their cause. Ms. Gava talks at a blistering pace when sustainability is the topic, throwing out environmental facts as if her next comment will keep a glacier from melting. She lives next door to President Sullivan and bikes to work every day. St. Lawrence's vice president for operations recently told her that she had inspired him to walk to work, at least once.

Despite earning salaries that average about $30,000 a year — a respectable jump from the level of starving student — few of the budding bureaucrats appear to be getting very comfortable. One of them plans to bike to Panama soon. Mr. Friedman fantasizes about backpacking through Europe. Ms. Gava talks excitedly about her second job, with a community-farming project. No one mentions a desire to climb the administrative ladder. Many say they had no plans to enter higher education, and few expect to stay there in the long term. A certain nostalgia seems to pull at them.

"I don't miss being the radical activist," says Ms. Gava, before a rare pause in her cadence. "Well, yes I do. It's fun. It's really fun to be burning things," figuratively. "Know what I mean? But when you look at the long-term goal, you have to be part of the system to change it. And it's a very fine line. If you're too integrated into the system, you can't see what needs to be changed."

Ms. Gava stays grounded by teaching a course on locally produced foods and energy at St. Lawrence. "I tell my students, 'You better be more radical than I am. We need both of us in this world.'"

The original article can be found here.

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